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Capturing Memories and Magic: 6 Tips for Better Holiday Photos

Follow these tips from a professional photographer for beautiful holiday memories

Melissa Miller headshot

Published on: November 15, 2023

Two girls decorating gingerbread cookies
Credit: Melissa Miller

When I picture a magical childhood holiday season, I imagine plaid flannel pajamas, little feet tiptoeing to peek at presents under a Christmas tree, an outstretched tongue reaching to catch a snowflake. I see messily decorated sugar cookies with too much icing, blurry multicolored Christmas lights against the black night and cousins dodging adults as they squeal through the house.

These images are magical, simple and joyful. As a professional photographer, I want the pictures I take to look how the holiday season feels.

Whether you use a professional camera or an iPhone, here are six tips to capture magical holiday photos this season.

1. Try a new perspective

"Two girls decorating gingerbread cookies"
A bird's-eye perspective can focus on the details of an activity, like decorating Christmas cookies.

One trick I love is changing my perspective by taking the pictures from a bird’s-eye view. To give this a try, prepare a holiday activity for your children, then stand on a stool or chair to capture the activity from above. This works well for a variety of activities, such as baking or decorating cookies, wrapping presents, or working on a gingerbread house. You can also try a different perspective by photographing a reflection in the window, shooting from outside through a window, or shooting through an object like a wreath or a string of Christmas lights. 

2. Incorporate traditions

"Baby in white and red striped pajamas next to a Christmas stocking and ornament"
I photographed my daughter with her stocking and my childhood ornament for her first Christmas photos. Credit: Melissa Miller

Incorporating family items and memories is another way to help your photos feel extra special. For example, over the years all of my nieces have been photographed wearing a red dress that belonged to my mother as a child. When my daughter was old enough, I photographed her wearing the dress while examining ornaments on our Christmas tree.

You can also try photographing the same concept over several years, such as making the same cookie recipe, wearing matching pajamas together while snuggled on a couch, reenacting the nativity scene, or any other holiday tradition. When my daughters were babies I photographed each of them inside their stocking for their first Christmas season and incorporated my own First Christmas ornament from childhood.

3. Find the light

"Young boy sitting near a window smiling with Chirstmas tree pajamas"
Note the position of the window to the left in this image and the catchlights in her eyes.

One of the most important tips for taking better holiday photos (or any photo!) is to pay attention to the light. Photograph your children in areas that are well-lit with natural light. When taking pictures indoors I turn off all overhead lights and have my children positioned in natural light near in a window, open door, or glass sliding doors. I watch for soft light across their faces.

I also like to have them look toward the light source to get those sparkly reflections (called catchlights) in their eyes. Sometimes I have a friend stand near the window to get their attention, or I might tap the window to get little ones to look that direction. All of my photographs included with this article were photographed near windows with overhead lights off.

4. Capture them Sleeping

"Sleeping baby in Christmas pajamas"
Nothing says sweetness quite like a sleeping baby 

One of my favorite ways to photograph very young children is when they are asleep. There is something so sweet about a sleeping child. Put your child in their Christmas pajamas (or other special holiday outfit) and get them to sleep for their nap as normal. But here’s the secret — move their bed or crib next to a window before setting them down so you will have ideal lighting while they rest. Try standing (safely) on a step ladder or chair next to the crib and take some photographs from above, as well as from a variety of angels around their crib or bed.

If you would like to see more beautiful examples of children sleeping and many other gorgeous holiday-inspired images, I recommend checking out the work of photographer Meg Loeks (@meg_nlo), on Instagram for inspiration.

5. Keep it brief

"Young girl standing next to Christmas trees outside"
This shot happened in a fleeting moment when she popped out from behind the tree while we were playing Peek-a-Boo. Credit: Melissa Miller

To me, the child’s experience is just as important as the resulting pictures. To keep the experience positive, I try to keep photo requests brief. Have everything you need ready to go before you have your children come for the photo. Keeping things quick and playful keeps everyone happy and more willing to participate next time. I always remind myself that when my children look at these pictures they will remember how they felt when we took them. I want them to remember feeling loved and happy, not to remember a stressed out mom who made them sit through an hour of photos. 

6. Play!

"Two young children lying on a bed in green pajamas laughing"
Capture genuine smiles and joy with a little bit of play. Credit: Melissa Miller

And finally, my favorite suggestion for holiday photos involving children is to let them play! If you want to capture images that look and feel joyful, let your children do things that bring them joy. Have a a snowball fight, decorate cookies, have a dance party around the Christmas tree, or simply be playful and silly while taking their pictures. You’ll have happier kids, and better photographs. 

Not everything I try results in a beautiful picture, and not everything you try will either. That’s okay. As they play, not only will you capture beautifully genuine expressions, but you’ll also create memories that will last at least as long as the photographs. And that’s the best magic of all.

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