13 ways to photograph memorable holiday moments with your phone

Les Shu
Digital Trends
how to take great holiday photos with your phone unrecognizable person taking photography of the family
how to take great holiday photos with your phone unrecognizable person taking photography of the family

Anna Bizoń/123RF

Take a look at your Instagram shots of holiday feasting and regaling from last year. Did they come out as well as you had hoped, or are they as forgettable as that weird side dish someone brought or the sloppy, slurred toast from a tipsy uncle? Although our phones help us capture and share the wonderful moments of the holidays, they have limitations, especially under challenging conditions like a dimly lit room or large group shots. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve, here are some basic tips to keep in mind when shooting with a phone. Plus, check out some fun examples from photographers of all levels. (Of course, these tips can apply to any type of smartphone photography.)

More: Less is more, plus 11 other simple and effective photography tips from pros

Find a new perspective

angle-new
angle-new

MetroiD (Otter)/Flickr

When it comes to photographing children, nothing will make your shots look better then getting on their level. It’s common to shoot from the perspective of an adult, but if you can bring yourself lower to photograph kids at eye level, you’ll get much more interesting results. This will not only reveal the detail in their expressions, but will also capture their perspective of the world.

Kids aren’t the only photographic subject that benefit from changing up your perspective. Even ordinary objects can be made more interesting by shooting them from a new angle, or by zeroing on a single element of a larger display.

Move closer

rolls-close
rolls-close

LuxTonnerre/Flickr

This is good advice for any type of photography, but it’s particularly important with phone cameras as they don’t (usually) have zoom lenses. Food photography is one area that will greatly benefit from moving the camera closer to the subject. While it’s nice to capture an entire spread, getting separate detail shots of each dish will reveal the textures of the food. The roast turkey will look even more succulent, the mac and cheese will be gooier, and you’ll be able to all but taste the apple pie.

And don’t forget to include a salivating kid (or dog) in the background for extra effect that will light up your Instagram followers.

Getting closer can also help with portraits. Full-body portraits are great for showing off your uncle’s ridiculous outfit, but getting closer will remove any distracting elements from the frame and make someone’s face the center of attention. One thing to note here is that you shouldn’t get too close for portraits, as the wide angle lens of your phone can distort faces.

Speaking of lenses, we recommend avoiding your phone’s zoom feature at all costs. Unlike optical zoom, digital zoom uses software to magnify the picture. It’s far better to physically move close to your subject. Now, if you have an iPhone 7 Plus, you can switch to the 2x telephoto lens without using digital zoom. This is great for portraits and close-ups, but the 2x lens does require more light than the wide-angle lens, so keep this in mind or your images will have a lot of digital noise (or grain).

Get creative with lighting

mac-head
mac-head

Alan/Flickr

Most in-home lighting is pretty bad for photography, but from Christmas trees to candles, the holidays present more interesting lighting. The problem is, these sources generally don’t provide enough light for your phone to get a clean image.

Cameras depend on light, phone cameras especially so. Their small sensors aren’t very good in low-light conditions, leading to photos that will come out dark, blurry, and noisy. Your phone likely has a flash, but using it in dark settings will wash out your subject and cause the “deer in the headlights” look. It may sound counterintuitive, but the flash is better suited to well-lit areas, where it can help lighten up the shadows in someone’s face, especially with harsh backlighting.

But when you’re indoors in the dark, there is one trick you can do to improve lighting that likely doesn’t require anything that won’t already be in your home: turn another person’s phone or tablet into light source. Open a blank webpage or other white screen, turn the brightness up, and you’ve got yourself a miniature soft box. For more advanced control, check out SoftBox Pro for iPad or Softlight for Android.

This trick works best for close-ups, where you can place the light source as close to the subject as possible without getting in the frame. It’s a good way to supplement the light from other sources, like tree lights. Have fun experimenting with this, as it can really add a new dimension to your images that will make them really stand out on your Instagram feed.

Hold steady

london-woman-tourist-taking-photo-on-tower-bridge-640x640
london-woman-tourist-taking-photo-on-tower-bridge-640x640

If you can, stabilize your phone with a stand (like the GekkopodKenu Stance, or one of these tripods) or at least prop your elbows on a steady surface. This allows the camera to capture as much light as possible, while avoiding any blurring caused by your shaky hands. When shooting handheld, try to hold your phone in both hands for best results.

Lose the selfie stick

obama-selfie-stick-640x640
obama-selfie-stick-640x640

Buzzfeed

Look, we’re done telling people that selfie sticks are ridiculous. You’re either the type of person who’s going to use one, or you’re not. But we do caution you to at least consider keeping it stowed away when you’re in a public gathering, like a New Year’s Eve fireworks show. Busting out a selfie stick in the middle of this is going to be annoying and distracting for everyone else.

When it comes to a large family gathering, reaching for the selfie stick can again be tempting. However, you’ll get better results if you use an actual tripod and do it the old-fashion way by framing the shot, setting the countdown timer, and finding your place in the group. Heck, you can even use that newfangled smartwatch you got for Christmas as a remote control.

Shooting fireworks

Flickr user Karla captured these fireworks with an iPhone 6, "processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset."
Flickr user Karla captured these fireworks with an iPhone 6, "processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset."

As we said, shooting in the dark is challenging, but it is possible to capture fireworks with a phone. It won’t come out as well as a DSLR, but for sharing purposes, like posting to Instagram or Facebook, it will look more than fine.

Because fireworks happen in a short duration, take as many shots as you can and worry about quality later; don’t stop shooting. Use your camera’s burst mode (which usually involves holding down the shutter button); out of the multiple, sequential shots, you can pick the one you like, or combine them all to create a GIF (Google Photos can actually do this for you). Or, if you phone shoots in 4K, record a video and extract a photo from it afterward — the resolution is more than enough for sharing online. Try shooting in slow motion for a neat effect, and be sure to hold your phone as still as possible (or use a tripod).

Getting exposure right can also be challenging during a fireworks show, as the sky quickly shifts between dark and very bright. If your phone’s camera has focus and exposure locks, this may help. Take several test photos to dial in the proper amount of exposure compensation, then keep it locked there and shoot away.

Tip: If you plan on shooting a lot of photos and videos, back up the existing content and clear them from the phone, which would give you as much space as possible. Check out some solutions for iOS and Android.

Take action

Flicker user Shannon McGee captured this holiday action scene with her iPhone 6s. It's not a perfect photo, but it's a great moment, and that's what counts.
Flicker user Shannon McGee captured this holiday action scene with her iPhone 6s. It's not a perfect photo, but it's a great moment, and that's what counts.

We tend to stick with the boring posed shots when it comes to holiday photos (yes, everybody wants to stand in front of the Christmas tree, snooze). Even if your phone can’t shoot high-quality shots, a blurry one with action is far more interesting to look at. Instead of gathering people to stand for a photo, move around the room and capture the laughs, tears, and even the occasional fights (no family is perfect) as they happen. Or take a moment from shooting fireworks and capture some of the happy faces in the crowd. We think action shots help you better relive the moment, and provide a much more visually interesting account of events compared to staged photos.

Don’t shoot vertical video

Emmanuelle Bourgue shows how a horizontal image works better for scenery.
Emmanuelle Bourgue shows how a horizontal image works better for scenery.

Vertical video isn’t quite the dreaded abomination it once was, as services like Snapchat and Instagram Stories have made good use of it. However, if you want to shoot a video of your family at the holidays, we’re guessing you want to be able to view it on something other than Snapchat. Rotate your phone into horizontal orientation and now you can shoot all the video you want and know that it will look just fine regardless of whether it’s played back on a phone, computer, or TV.

Also, don’t forget to try horizontal orientation for shooting things like group photos and scenic shots, as well. In addition to giving you a wider angle of view, this will also force you to hold your phone with both hands, which will make your shots steadier.

Filters and postprocessing

Flickr user Jim H. shot this photo with an iPhone 4S. Although the phone is a few generations old, it's hard to tell from the photo. He wasn't happy with the original photo, and sent it through Photoshop and made it spectacular.
Flickr user Jim H. shot this photo with an iPhone 4S. Although the phone is a few generations old, it's hard to tell from the photo. He wasn't happy with the original photo, and sent it through Photoshop and made it spectacular.

Remember when filters used to be all the rage? One reason for the popularity is to help mask the inferior cameras of early-gen phones. They’re still useful for improving your less-than-ideal shots, but even good photos can benefit from some basic enhancements.

There are plenty of Android and iOS apps that let you edit a photo, including the built-in apps. You don’t need to go crazy, as a subtle approach will lead to more natural results. A slight bump to brightness or a small boost to saturation can help make photos pop.

For more advanced users, consider using an app like Adobe Lightroom for mobile, which allows you to shoot RAW images right on your phone. RAW files serve up much more latitude than the standard JPEG, so you can fix exposure problems, white balance, and more in post. For photographers familiar with “real” cameras, this will let you work with your phone photos in a similar way to how you handle images from your other cameras.

Bring out the big guns

dxo-one-phone-camera_-720x720
dxo-one-phone-camera_-720x720

OK, perhaps you aren’t satisfied with your previous holiday attempts, and you want something more powerful. You can use add-on lenses, but they won’t actually improve the quality of the camera. What you need is a camera with extra horsepower. We have plenty of them to recommend, but if you’re attached to your phone, there are a few accessories you can opt for that will turn it into a real camera. Perhaps the most elegant solution is the small but impressive DxO One. It’s a camera that plugs into your phone, but offers superior image quality thanks to its much larger sensor. To step up to the next level, both the Olympus Air A01 and Sony QX1 feature even larger sensors and will let you attach lenses from their respective mirrorless systems right to your phone. These rely on a wireless connection, however, and definitely add some bulk.

Shoot mouth-watering food porn

Let’s face it: for many of us, the best part of any holiday is the food and drink. For all you #foodporn obsessed photographers, Alexa Mehraban, who heads up the popular @EatingNYC Instagram page (she also runs a food blog), offers some tips to how her food pics have garnered more than 130,000 followers.

  • If you’re celebrating at a restaurant or with a large gathering, it’s not easy to set the scene. Mehraban says you’ll have to move things around to get that shot.
  • Great food photo requires natural lighting, but good luck trying to get that when you aren’t in control of the lights. Reiterating what we said before, Mehraban recommends using a secondary light, like another person’s phone, but beware of shadows. Adjust the brightness or cover the phone with a napkin if you must.
  • Three angles to consider include: bird’s-eye view (overhead), up close (to create depth), or holding up food or beverage in the air.
  • If you aren’t sharing right away, and have time for some image manipulation, use a photo-editing software’s removal tool to clean up any crumbs or unwanted objects; the lighting tools to adjust tone, brightness, and saturation; and increase structure and sharpness for a clean look. Mehraban recommends the desktop and mobile apps from CyberLink.

Know your limits

Flickr user Lynda Bullock captured this image from her TV. Sometimes, the best photos come from unexpected places.
Flickr user Lynda Bullock captured this image from her TV. Sometimes, the best photos come from unexpected places.

Perhaps one mistake people make is expecting too much out of their phones. As amazing as they are, phones are not powered by magic. There are physical limits to what a phone camera can capture, and it’s important to understand these limits. Cameras in phones have come a long way, and can even simulate depth of field effects, but they still can’t match DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.

The biggest limiting factor for phone cameras is available light. If you can, take family photos outdoors. Light is best in the morning and evening. For indoor photos during daylight, position yourself between a window and your subject, so that the natural light illuminates it. Avoid shooting subjects when a bright window is directly behind them, as this will cause the window to be distractingly bright or your subject to be too dark.

But phones also make taking pictures incredibly easy. Look for the unexpected; you never know where a great photo may present itself.

Don’t be afraid to experiment

This abstract photo from Flickr user Clarice Barbato-Dunn shows a moodier side of the season.
This abstract photo from Flickr user Clarice Barbato-Dunn shows a moodier side of the season.

The beauty of digital photography is it allows anyone to experiment with the medium. There are certain rules to photography, but digital cameras let you break some of those rules. Sure, this leads to a lot of online noise in the form of duck-face selfies, pictures of lattes, and photos of sleeping cats, but it’s only through trial and error that you’ll grow as a photographer — even if your goal is just to capture better holiday images. Move closer, try new angles, use different light sources — just keep shooting. (With that said, just make sure you clean out your phone’s camera roll once in a while.)