Top Ten Tips for photographically documenting your family holiday festivities

As the holidays approach, I look forward to lots of picture-taking fodder. For anyone interested in documenting things that are taking place around them, holidays can be wonderful opportunities. Most people lose their self-consciousness to the flow of activities, people, and preparatory work, and it’s easy to quietly slip in and capture images that are natural and organic. The hardest part of photographing people, for me, is enticing them out of their self-consciousness long enough for a good shot, so this is no small thing. Here are my top ten tips this holiday season for shooting documentary-style pictures of your festivities; let me know if you have other good methods to share!

  1. Keep your camera out and in use throughout the day(s). Most things that are happening are completely photographical, whether it is washing dishes or a rousing game of Catch the Greased Watermelon. Sometimes I get striking, beautiful shots from the most easily-forgotten moments. Another benefit of taking photos throughout the day, is that the people around you become acclimated to being photographed, and will start to forget the camera’s presence. This is a great place to be if you are interested in a documentary approach.
  2. Keep talking while you photograph. It’s not so easy to keep a semi-natural conversation going when you are wrestling apertures and shutter speeds and ISO’s in your head, but I find that my subjects relax much more quickly if I can keep them distracted, talking or listening. This approach has the added benefit of urging you as a photographer to place more trust in your compositional and technical instincts.
  3. Be tactful and respectful, but assertive. I became a photographer in part, because I preferred being behind the viewfinder, to being in front of it. I don’t like to make an ordeal when I’m shooting photos, and try to remain as unobtrusive when possible. The line between being respectful and being overly self-conscious, though, can be very grey; in fear of coming across as paparazzi, I have missed many a lovely shot. On the flipside, I feel quite strongly that there are moments that simply shouldn’t be subject to my lens. Sometimes, it’s shooting in the dark (no pun intended) determining what is most appropriate, but as a general rule, I recommend erring on the side of caution. In the spirit of a pursuance of beauty, balance, and art, it is not worth injecting discomfort into a sacred moment for the sake of a photograph; photographs always reflect the tone in which they are taken.
  4. Re-train your family and friends NOT to “Smile!”. In this age of rampant imagery and cameras, we are all trained from a very young age to say-“Cheese”-and-smile when a camera is pointed at us. The newest cameras now have smile reactors in them, so that the picture will be automatically shot when the subject displays a smile. I have worked long and hard to re-train my friends and family NOT to do this! As fun as cheese-and-smile pictures are, when I shoot, I always hope to get beyond these traditional posed images. My family now knows that they are to completely ignore me when I am photographing them, continuing on with whatever they are involved in.
  5. Educate your family and friends to appreciate the beauty in documentary photography. As we are all conditioned to see cheese-and-smile pictures of ourselves, let’s be honest, we have all perfected our picture smiles/faces, through long, tedious hours in front of a mirror. This leads many to feel a little discomfited and shocked by seeing natural pictures of themselves. Be prepared for a lukewarm reception to your work at first; but if you feel it’s strong work, stand behind it! This might mean doing a little image-counseling for some, assuring them of their beauty, though it be non-traditional beauty; it might mean deleting certain offensive images (hard though this may be, going through with this is critical to building trust with your subjects [see below]); and it might mean needing to do some explaining about your editing rationalizations. Do it, if you appreciate this style of photography; it’s worth it. They will come around.
  6. Build trust with your subjects. Just like in any relationship, if you don’t maintain and build up trust with your subjects, you won’t get very far. Cameras inherently possess dominating and colonizing tendencies; the more aware you are of these unspoken dynamics that are present in any photographic relationship, the better you can diffuse them and be sensitive to the subject’s needs. Ultimately, you will get the image that you create; do you want an image that speaks of discomfort and distance (maybe you do, in which case, excellent!) or one that speaks of trust and openness?
  7. Photograph the food. Every family has food traditions, and holidays tend to be a smorgasbord of heavenly foodscapes. Don’t miss this opportunity to document these feasts! Food is interesting, ever-changing, and is constantly being interacted with (cooked, eaten, presented, prepared), all of which make it an ideal subject. Posting these pictures later to share is also a nice nod to the chef(s) for the hard work they put forth for these ephemeral works of art. A dear friend of mine recently defined an artist as someone who has found their life’s work, and does it with intent and passion. I consider photography an exciting medium through which I can acknowledge the unacknowledged artists in my life.
  8. Focus on interactions. I find the most compelling documentary images to be those that capture an interaction of some sort. This isn’t always the most obvious interaction happening; keep surveying your surroundings to see the big picture, so you know which details you want to capture.
  9. Know when to put your camera down. I sometimes fall prey to a feeling of responsibility to capture everything that happens while I am holding a camera; this is detrimental to my own enjoyment and natural engagement with the event in which I am partaking. It is as important to know when to put your camera down as it is to feel assertive and confident in taking pictures. I don’t want to look back at my life and only remember things through the photographs I have captured. I interact differently in a space when I am with camera than I do without; it is good to acknowledge this and make proper accommodations for this.
  10. Be aware of zoom and angles. Depending on the space, many people in an un-posed situation can be hard to compose nicely in your viewfinder. Move around the space; try new angles; and work different levels of zoom. Keeping yourself active and mobile will also help you to catch smaller moments you otherwise might have missed.

Happy photographing!

Greased Watermelon attack


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