9 tips: How to photograph holidays and special occasions

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The problem with most photos taken during the holidays or other special celebrations is that they don’t capture the special feeling of the season or event. That’s why most holiday, anniversary, birthday, and graduation pictures an seem so average.

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Why settle for ho-hum photos? With preparation and just a few simple tips on photography techniques and photo effects, you can turn your digital photographs into unique works of art that you and your family and friends will enjoy looking at for years.
1. Plan ahead for special occasion mailings

The classic problem with holiday photos that you want to use for cards, your annual family letter, or other special mailings is that they have to be taken weeks in advance. Some decorations, like Christmas trees, might not be available, or you might not want to take your menorah or other once-a-year holiday decorations out of storage so far in advance. Or maybe there’s no snow on the ground.

It’s never too early to think about the perfect image to accompany your special mailings.

One solution is to find a clip-art image or photo that says “New Year” or “Graduation” or one that evokes your special occasion. For ideas, check out the photos and other clip art images available from Microsoft Office. The quality and variety of choices will surprise you. Browse the Seasons, Special Occasions, or Religion categories. Or do a search for snow, palm tree, or graduation, for example, or for Christmas, Chanukah, Eid al-Adha, or poinsettia. Choose a photo or other clip-art image that you can use in your mailing. And don’t forget to check the site for backgrounds and borders that you can add to these images or to the photos you take.

Another great way to plan ahead for special mailings is to find an old photograph in one of your albums or memory boxes—a photo that evokes the celebration—and to scan that photo into your computer. After the photo is scanned, you can edit and use the image as you would any other digital photograph.
Scan a photograph

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If you’re taking your own photos for a holiday card or other special mailing, following a few photographers’ tips can help you get the photos you want. Here are a few photography techniques for how to take great special occasion photos with your digital camera and how to edit your images for even greater effect.
2. Keep it simple

Family photos are great, but you may want to save them for your family. If you want to mail a special occasion card to business clients, neighbors, or community members, consider using a simple and straightforward yet evocative image. For example, freshly fallen snow on ornate stone buildings and oak trees suggests the beauty of a northern winter. Orange trees lush with fruit suggest the beauty of warmer climates and seasons. If you don’t have fresh snow or blooming flowers on hand, gargoyles on buildings, iron gates, and other architectural elements can be compelling, too.
Picture of a cardinal sitting on a bare branch in a tree surrounded by snow.

This cardinal offers a pretty way to evoke the holiday season for non-family cards or mailings, and by using your camera’s Magnify feature, you get something beyond the typical nature landscape.

3. Get up close

Don’t be afraid to get up close. Most people see a beautiful nature scene, say “Wow!” and snap a shot of the whole landscape. Or they stand far back from the family gathering or the graduate to “get it all in.” Don’t settle for canned landscape shots; zoom in on the details that matter. Almost every digital camera has a Magnify or Macro button that lets you get close and create a much more interesting photo.
4. Get candid

There’s nothing wrong with pictures that are posed, but you can create variety by taking candid shots at family and social gatherings. Capture people while they’re engaged in conversation or as they’re opening a gift. Keep your camera batteries charged up and your camera nearby so you can catch spontaneous moments. Most digital cameras have a Motion or Sports setting that allows you to capture people in motion without blur in the photo. If your camera has shutter priority mode, you can use a higher shutter speed (1/100 to 1/400 seconds) to reduce motion blur.
5. Light the way

In ideal situations, use available light to eliminate problems like flares and the dreaded “red eye.” To prevent red eye, ask your subjects not to look directly at the camera. If you do get red eye in your photos, you can use Windows Live Photo Gallery to remove it.

To avoid distracting light flares, keep mirrors, glass, or other reflective surfaces that can cause flares away from your subject. Also, don’t take photos in front of windows or other back lights; the foreground will come out too dark unless you use fill flash.

If the scene is too dark, light it from several different directions. Don’t point bright lights right at people’s eyes. Light the space around them and diffuse the light if possible

6. Find a new angle

This is something I learned from my days as a reporter: Looking at rows of people staring at the camera and smiling at you head-on is a bit boring. If you want to take a photo of your family or friends, simply changing the angle and looking at a familiar scene from a new perspective can liven it up considerably. For example, get up on a ladder and look down; or get down on the floor and look up.

Another option is to fill the frame for dramatic effect. By tilting the camera down about one-third of a frame, you can create a much different effect. Look carefully at the picture you’re framing before you click the button. Experiment by moving the camera up and down or side to side. Tilt the camera to various angles and see what it shows you. Fill the frame with the object that interests you most. If your digital camera has an LCD screen, you can use it to improve your sensitivity to the scene and to help you find an interesting viewpoint.

7. Edit your images

Even the pros don’t get it right the first time. Professional photographers know that the best way to get the perfect image is to take several hundred that are imperfect. Some of the best photos emerge only after careful editing.

Windows Live Photo Gallery, a part of Windows Live Essentials, is a convenient and powerful tool for editing images. You can download Windows Live Photo Gallery and Windows Live Essentials for free. Our article Simple fixes for your digital photos gives some good tips.

You can use photo-editing programs, like Windows Live Photo Gallery, not only to remove red eye but also to crop photos, combine black-and-white and color in one image, adjust the color and light exposure of images, and apply other cool photo effects. With many of today’s digital imaging software packages, like Adobe Photoshop Elements and others, you can apply amazing effects to your photos that used to be available only to professional photographers.

Hint: Before you start editing, make a working copy of your original image by saving it with a new file name. You can do this by opening the image and typing, for example, bw (for “black and white”) at the end of the file name when you save it to differentiate the working image from the original. For example, if the image file name is “Leaf,” save the image as “Leafbw.” When you do all of your editing on your working copy of the image, you can always start over with a fresh copy of the original if you don’t like the results. Windows Live Photo Gallery has a convenient Revert to original button that you can use if you don’t want to save any of your editing changes after previewing them, but it’s still a good idea to save a copy of the original.

One dramatic effect, for example, that you can create using your favorite image-editing program is to convert color photos to black and white. With some camera models you can even do this in the camera—even before downloading the image to your computer. After the image is on your computer, you can use your image-editing program to adjust contrast and brightness to create a photograph that’s reminiscent of an Ansel Adams print.

Hint: Silhouettes look terrific in black and white, as do old buildings. The effect adds drama. But be sure to reserve this technique for landscapes or buildings. Photos of family members in black and white may not be as warm as you want them to be.

You can improve group portraits by editing them, too. How many times have you said, “If I could only combine this shot where my daughter is smiling and that one where the rest of the family is smiling, I’d have the perfect group portrait”? Photo Fuse in Windows Live Photo Gallery makes this possible. It combines the best parts of two or more photos to give you the image you want.
Edit photos with Windows Live Photo Gallery

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Transfer photos from your digital camera to your computer

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8. Don’t forget presentation

Anyone who’s ever wrapped (or unwrapped) a present knows how important presentation is. Imagine this: Your holiday greeting or special invitation arrives in your friends’ and family’s Inboxes and features a multimedia summary of your activities and special occasions from the year.

With Windows Live Photo Gallery, you can quickly turn your photos into a slide show with captions, transitions, and music. If you use Windows XP, you can download Microsoft Photo Story 3 to create a multimedia slide show. If you download Windows Live Movie Maker, either alone or as part of Windows Live Essentials, you can even turn your photos into a movie.

Another cool way to present your holiday photos is to use Microsoft Photosynth, which transforms regular digital photos into three-dimensional, 360-degree experiences. This service changes the way you experience and share photos. Please note that you have to download Photosynth and sign in with a Windows Live ID account to use or view photos within the Photosynth experience.

You can also use Microsoft PowerPoint to present a holiday greeting or party invitation that includes festive images and sound clips of your family or friends singing their favorite songs. If you have Windows 7 and PowerPoint 2010, you can even embed video of your family or friends on that great trip to the beach or clips of birthday parties. For the ultimate holiday or celebration mailing, save your file as a video. That’s a presentation your friends and family won’t soon forget.
9. Share your special moments

You’ve collected your best picks of candle-lighting, singing, and present opening. Now what do you do with them all? You could set up an online blog. Our article, “Share your vacation in real time,” can help you learn the basics.

Or create a collage. Photo collages celebrate important events and themes in our lives. Pick a folder, press a button, and, in a few minutes, Microsoft Research AutoCollage presents you with a unique memento to print or to email to your family and friends.

If you really want to wow them, you can make a wearable souvenir to send everyone by transferring a digital photo to a T-shirt. Here’s how to do it using Windows Vista.
Learn more about how to take professional photos, edit your images, and organize, print, and share them

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