December 21st, 2013

Lighting for Christmas photos

By Angela Ford

It’s the Christmas paradox: the family is together and happy, but the Canadian December does not provide a lot of natural light for nice portraits. Does this mean you are consigned to pop-up-flash snapshots, with flat lighting and harsh shadows? Absolutely not.

Here are some creative ‘work arounds’ for the Christmas light problem—easy ways you can light your holiday images beautifully.

Go outside

But it’s cold, you say! Yes, but a quick trip outdoors will give you a much needed breath of fresh air, and you can take some lovely pictures at the same time. Get everyone into coats, hats, and mittens, and trundle outside during the daylight hours. The winter sun comes at such an angle, even mid-day light will be interesting. For playful families, this can be a fun outing, perfect for candid shots. For the less adventurous, set up your tripod and get everything ready first, then get everyone outside for a brief photo shoot.


To avoid harsh shadows on a very sunny day, use your flash. This extra puff of light brightens up the areas that are not directly lit (notice how the child’s face in the red hat is well exposed, even though he is in the shadow of the other kids).

Find a window

For better Christmas morning photos, try opening gifts near a window in a room with plenty natural light. A window creates a soft, diffuse light from the side, which is very flattering.

If you just can’t move the action to a window, take your family members there, one by one, for a mini portrait with a new gift. Sometimes a few well thought out images capture the spirit more than dozens of random snapshots (I am always swallowing a mouthful of hot coffee in those candid shots. I crop myself out a lot).


The gentle light from the window is angled from the side, which makes faces look lovely.

Get an external flash

Quick, there’s still time! An external flash is the single most important camera accessory, in my opinion, transforming your indoor and low light photos. A good quality external flash will be able to tilt and swivel, so you can bounce the light. Tilt the flash up and your subjects will be lit softly from above. Tilt it toward a white wall, and you will get similar lighting to a window.


The flash is angled up to the ceiling in this shot. Notice that the light comes from above, and it is diffuse so it doesn’t cast harsh shadows.

Get another one!

I’m serious, if you already have an external flash, consider getting a second. Today’s external flashes work wirelessly together so they will fire simultaneously. With two flashes, you can place one at a more flattering 45 degree angle, or behind the subjects to backlight, or anywhere. Adding compatible flashes multiplies your creative options exponentially.


The Nikon Speedlight SB-700 works nicely with other Nikon flash units, tripping them wirelessly for easy and versatile lighting.

Print them up!

Creating a Christmas photobook is a wonderful way to memorialize your special holiday. Take advantage of the post-Christmas quiet to organize your holiday pictures and put them into a photobook. Softcover photobooks start at $9.99, and they are a wonderful way for everyone to have a keepsake of a happy holiday.

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