Holiday Parties: Grab the Good Times

Picture-taking tips for capturing celebrations

The end of the year is filled with celebrations – Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, New Year’s, office parties, and more—and that means a busy time for shutterbugs. We all want to capture those fun-filled moments with our cameras. Just like the parties themselves, planning is the key to success.

Plan ahead

No matter how spontaneous you want your shots to look, you’re always better off if you think ahead, have a plan of action, and have the right gear ready to go.

Here are some suggestions so you’ll have a good time while creating memorable images of everyone else’s good time.

Create a shot list. Brainstorm a list of the kinds of pictures you want to take. It only takes a few minutes. Here are some questions to get you started:

Which people will attend? Do you want to show everyone or just some key people? Are there certain interactions you want to capture to show the fun people are having? The hosts with guests? Parents or grandparents with children? Groups of kids playing? People in costumes dancing?

Will there be ceremonies, rituals, and activities you want to record? Lighting candles? Singing songs? Dancing? Games? Presents? 

Will there be distinctive foods, drinks or decorations to show? If so, how can you combine them with the people? It’s usually better to show food and drinks on display than going into someone’s mouth.


Photo ©coloroftime/iStockphoto

The list doesn’t have to be exhaustive, just enough to keep you focused on what’s essential.

Create a timeline. Organize your shot list into a timeline that will guide your photography throughout the evening. The timeline should fit on a small index card that you can put into your pocket and refer to as needed. You may not be able to predict when each event will occur but you can anticipate enough of the party so you have a plan of action.

Plan to arrive early and get some shots right away.
The table set with food will never look better than at the start of the party. Or get the hosts putting the finishing touches on the decorations. Shots of guests arriving and greeting their hosts are another early photo op.

Use the timeline to pace yourself so you’ll be in the right place at the right time for all the special events of the party without wearing yourself out by trying to record everything that’s going on. Remember to enjoy yourself, even as you stay alert for unexpected grab shots.

Plan the gear you want to use. Keep it simple with one camera, a good zoom lens with wide-angle capacity so you can work in tight spaces, a couple of fully charged batteries, a fresh memory card and any other items you think you’ll need for the specific situation. Also, set your camera for the right mode, ISO and white balance (more on this below).


Photo ©craftvision/iStockphoto

Prepare for challenges

Holiday parties present some specific photographic challenges but you can prepare for these too.

Speed. People at parties are on the move so you will want to work quickly. And because you’re mostly working at close range, it’s best not to use a flash. That means, first of all, using a camera with no lag or a very short lag between shots, such as the Canon T3i, Nikon D5100,  or Olympus E-P3. Also, choose a fast lens, at least f/2.8, so you can use a fast shutter speed. Finally, gain speed by setting your ISO as high as 1600. (A word of caution: Small sensor compact cameras may not be capable of delivering good-looking images at high ISOs; that's why we recommend using a DSLR or larger-sensor MILC.) These steps will let you to take quick shots without a flash and not lose resolution significantly. (Working quickly means you may not get the ideal composition or exposure on the spot. See below for after-capture solutions.)

Lighting. Pay attention to the ambient light, especially its color and intensity.

If you are working indoors, adjust your white balance setting to the light source in the room so colors will be true to life. Incandescent and fluorescent lights tinge the surroundings with orange or green, not very flattering to skin tones. It’s best to correct for your light source while you are shooting rather than afterwards on your computer.

An on- or off-camera flash can add light, counteract the color of artificial lights and allow you to stop motion. But flash is hard to use effectively in confined indoor spaces since the burst of light can be too intense at close range. Off-camera flash units often have variable control, such as the Nikon SB-700, Canon 420EX II, or (if you're on a tight budget) an off-brand flash like the Nissin Di866 II, or use a flash diffuser to soften the light. Also, remember to set your flash to eliminate red-eye.

People. The mainstay of your party pictures will be the people – but they can also be your greatest challenge. While you want people to look natural and spontaneous, a mix of candids and set-up or posed images usually give you the best results overall.

Candids can help you capture the fun of a party but you will have a lot of failed shots in the process. To increase your odds, try shooting a quick sequence of shots so at least one will satisfy you. Cameras like the Canon 7D or Nikon D7000 let you take 5 or more shots in quick succession. Also, the “face detection” feature in your menu is great for candids since it makes focusing more precise when people are moving or shifting positions. If you’re ambitious and have an off-camera flash, try the “rear curtain sync” feature. It sets off the flash a split second before the shutter closes so you capture a sense of movement before the burst of light.

Posed pictures allow you to position people where you want them and, therefore, give you a better shot at everyone’s face with a good expression. The challenge here is to keep things looking natural. This will depend on your inter-personal talents more than your photographic skills. Keep the group entertained with a little banter so everyone stays relaxed. Move quickly so people don’t lose patience. If you want a formal group shot and need flash, consider using your flash exposure lock. This entails taking a few shots at different flash intensities, then locking in the one that gives you the best exposure so you can concentrate on how the people in your shot look.

After-capture fine tuning

When the party is over, focus on editing and perfecting your images.

Start by selecting only your best shots as keepers. Showing only the shots that really work makes you look like the top-notch photographer you really are. Here as elsewhere, less is more.

Then work with a good program, such as Adobe Photoshop Elements 10, with some simple after-capture techniques to improve and perfect your images. If your composition wasn’t all you’d hoped for, crop to get the framing you like. Not thrilled with your exposure? It’s easy to add or remove one or two f/stops on your computer. And remember to finish your fine-tuning by sharpening all your images.

When you’re all done, it’s time to share your images with the hosts and people you saw at the party. Consider posting them on AdoramaPix and sharing the portfolios with your friends. (You can even set it up so anyone who views your pictures can order prints for themselves.) Your photos are sure to remind them of the good time they all had.

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