Festive photography: 7 great Christmas photo ideas to try with your new camera

With its heady mix of festive lights, spectacular food and (mostly) jolly people, Christmas is a great time for taking photos – particularly if Santa has been kind enough to leave a new camera in your stocking. 

But these conditions can also make it a challenging time to take high-quality snaps, particularly for those of us in the northern hemisphere. Sure, there's the potential for some stunning landscapes with the sun low in the sky, but with limited daylight and lots of family commitments, that's not always practical or possible.

So how do you take some Christmas photos that are bit more memorable than your slightly overcooked Christmas cake? We've come up with seven great ideas for you to try out over the holidays, either at home or nearby.

These include the best ways to take candid photos of your family enjoying the festivities, but also some more ambitious projects including light painting, Christmas flat lays and, to kick us off, some lovely tree-shaped bokeh. These projects are ideal for making your own Christmas cards or invitations for next year, or simply improving your skills for the new year.

You don't have to do them all and you don't have to do them in any particular order, but they're all pretty straightforward and they might give you some inspiration to go off at a tangent with your own photo projects.

1. Christmas bokeh

Bokeh, as you may already know, is a Japanese word that refers to the quality of the defocused areas of an image – and we’re getting in the mood for Christmas by showing you how to capture bokeh with a festive flavor.

The appearance of the bokeh in an image is dictated by the roundness of the lens’s aperture; the more blades the aperture has, the rounder the aperture and the smoother the blur. 

For this project, we’re photographing fairy lights with a wide aperture to create a shallow depth of field, and placing a cut-out shape over the lens. The wonders of physics will cause the out-of-focus areas in the frame to take on the shape of the cut-out; in the same way that rounded apertures soften defocused areas, by creating an aperture with distinct and straight edges, we can produce bokeh that takes on recognizable shapes.

Lomography's Petzval lenses can also create these effects using different-shaped aperture slides, but a simple piece of black card can mimic the style superbly. For the best effect, you’ll need to shoot fairy lights in a dark room – if you shoot outside, even at night, it’s likely that there will be too many bright areas cluttering the background, which will prevent the shapes from standing out.

Set-up: Make your aperture template

How to shoot your bokeh image

2. Festive flat lays

Christmas is the perfect time to shoot still life images, not least because of all the interesting and colorful objects that come with the festive season. And while the idea of creating a still life might not sound that exciting, the 'flat lay' approach is much more visually interesting and easier to shoot than traditional still life.

A flat lay is an image of a collection of objects that all relate to a theme and are positioned on a background on the floor or a table. The objects are then carefully composed in a way that looks interesting and aesthetically pleasing, which will then fill the camera frame to tell a story or simply to illustrate a theme. The flat lay is then shot from directly above.

Set-up: design your flat lay

How to shoot flat lays 

3. Christmas candids

When people come together for special occasions or simply when you’re enjoying a family day out, it’s the perfect time to capture candid moments of your family and friends. Candid photography follows the general rules and techniques of reportage and street photography so you’re free from the complexities and, in some cases, the apprehension of posing people and setting up a mini photo studio during social events.

What’s more, taking the candid approach means that you can still enjoy and participate in the festivities rather than feeling like you’re excluded from them by photography. So, whether it’s a Christmas get together, a wedding or a birthday celebration, capture candid moments that you, your family and your friends can treasure.

Candid photography is all about capturing unposed images that tell a story, and at times such as Christmas get-togethers, you often have lots of people interacting and having fun which makes shooting candids so much easier. But while the situation provides the opportunities you need to make interesting images, you still need to be almost invisible with your camera and use the settings that allow you to work successfully in often low light situations.

When shooting, don’t worry about perfectly ‘clean’ shots where the foreground and background are uncluttered. The environment is just as important as what’s happening within it – it’s part of the story; shooting through people or with part of the frame obscured by an object helps to create a sense of depth and interest. Take part in the festivities, but keep your camera in your hand and turned on ready to quickly grab shots as you see them.

A fast prime lens with an equivalent focal length of either 35mm or 50mm will provide the perfect field of view for shooting indoors. 35mm is often better because it’s slightly wider, but 50mm is still a great option. Ideally, the maximum aperture will be f/2.8 or wider because shooting wide open allows more light to reach the sensor and ultimately helps to keep ISO levels lower. Plus, shooting wide open will create beautiful bokeh balls when Christmas lights and lamps are in the background of your shots.

How to take Christmas candid photos

4. Paint with light

Light painting, or light graffiti as some call it, is created by moving light sources through an image while the shutter is open. This means exposures of several seconds or even minutes while we fling around torches, glow sticks or anything else that emits light. With a little practice, you can start to create words, shapes and pictures just like our festive-themed night shots.

There’s something addictive about light painting. It’s almost certain that your first attempt will be a complete mess, but you’ll quickly learn, shot by shot, how best to position the lights, which movements work best, when to shield the light source from the camera, and the length of time you need to paint for.

Smooth, fluid movements work best, and serious light painters use all kinds of tricks to create patterns – for example, a torch tied to a length of string and swung around can create an orb-like shape, or even a snowman (see over the page).

All the usual tips for long exposures apply to light painting, so you’ll need a tripod to keep the camera in a fixed position, and a remote cable release if you’re out shooting solo. Your DSLR’s shutter speed maxes out at 30 seconds, which probably won’t be long enough for intricate painting, so you’ll need to use Bulb mode. Learn how to get set up, pick dark nights and good locations, and how shoot in Bulb mode, then over the page we’ll show you a few different ways to paint a scene. 

Set-up: essential gear to paint with light

Step-by-step: How to paint with light

5. Epic food photos

One of the best things about Christmas is the amount of colorful festive food that’s on offer. If you’re a photographer who’s also a food lover, food photography can be great fun, and even more so at this time of year. And you don’t need any expensive specialist kit – you can easily put together a simple setup at home. 

For the best results, you’ll want to use natural light and a reflector. Reflectors enable you to bounce natural light onto subjects to bring out detail in shadow areas, and they come in a variety of colors – we’re using a gold reflector to produce lovely warm tones for our shoot. You can pick up a reflector for around £15/$15, but if you don’t have one you can wrap tinfoil or gold wrapping paper around some cardboard.

Looking to take some festive food snaps with your smartphone instead? Check out our in-depth to taking professional food photos with your iPhone or Android phone instead.

We’ve selected some mince pies as our main seasonal subject, but the same principles apply to whatever food you’re shooting. The most important thing is to spend time on the small details, and keep checking the frame for distracting elements. 

Take plenty of shots, and fine-tune your setup until you’re happy with the end result. And the best part of this project is that you get to eat your subjects when you’re done.

Step-by-step: Arranging your food

6. Bauble art

While unpacking the Christmas decorations, why not grab a bauble and head out to capture some creative still lifes. That curved, shiny surface gives you a whole new way to capture a seasonal scene. Whether you’re faced with a winter wonderland or a brightly lit cityscape, this fun technique provides a unique and very festive perspective. 

Capturing a scene in this way involves some incredibly wide angles due to the spherical surface of the bauble. It can also be quite tricky to get the scale correct; we were able to capture the entire west end of Bath Abbey quite comfortably in the frame, despite shooting only a few metres from the walls. But persevere, and you’ll have a unique Christmas reflection in no time at all. 

Step-by-step: Deck the tree

7. Make a snow globe

There’s much fun to be had in Photoshop by merging two images into an offbeat montage. The technique also calls upon many of Photoshop’s most fundamental tools, such as layers and blending modes, so it’s a great way to learn core skills. 

Here we’ll combine a light bulb and a tree into a seamless scene. Cutting out the tree would take a while, but we can get almost instant results with the Multiply blending mode. Because the tree is a dark object against a very light backdrop, the lighter areas are effectively eliminated with a single click. 

The light patches of snow along the branches are also lost, but it’s easy enough to bring them back simply by painting a mask on a duplicate layer.

The trick to a montage like this is to make it as convincing as possible. So to help make the tree appear as if it’s inside the light bulb we’ll copy the bulb reflections on top of the tree. We’ve provided the bulb and tree images, but you can use the same skills to put anything you like inside the bulb (it helps if it’s shot against a light backdrop). So why not give it a go and make your own fantastical montages using any object that takes your fancy?  

Step-by-step: Have a lightbulb moment

James Abbott

James Abbott is a professional photographer and freelance photography journalist. He contributes articles about photography, cameras and drones to a wide range of magazines and websites where he applies a wealth of experience to testing the latest photographic tech. James is also the author of ‘The Digital Darkroom: The Definitive Guide to Photo Editing’.