4 Essentials For A Better Pic In Front Of The Christmas Tree


Sometime in the next few weeks, you’ll probably take a pic in front of the Christmas Tree.

This year, let’s step it up a notch. Here’s 4 essential tips to get you started.

1. Light It Well

You might be saying to yourself that this is my first tip for every tutorial.  And to that, I won’t argue.

If I can get you to start every picture with the thought: “light it well,” then I get a pat on the back.

Every great photo starts with great light.  Light is way more important than the camera you choose, the lens you choose, and by golly the shirt you choose.  Lighting is an art all to itself, and the most popular phase of the SPS Photo Fix (OPENING DEC 19th!).

So here’s the lighting bullets for the annual-stand-in-front-of-the-Christmas-tree-photo:

  • Turn your flash off.  There’s nothing worse people.  Unless you’re going to bounce.
  • Use natural window light if possible.  Yes, choose daytime.
  • If you’re using window light, kill any overhead lights / lamps.
  • If all else fails (it’s dark or no windows will work), crank the ISO and move along.

Stage the pic for better light.

We usually default to staging this pic with the flow of the room.  But the flow of the room usually looks OUT the windows.

Reposition yourself.  Stage the pic as if you just walked into the room through the window.

Example: In my house, we have the tree in a little hearth room off our kitchen.  The flow of the room suggest we place the subject in the middle of the room, and that I stand close by (in the middle) and shoot towards the walls. Like this:

IMG_5026 2

Here’s a couple pics from this “normal” stage (the first without the dreaded flash and the second with the dreaded flash)



Instead, ‘enter the room’ through a window.

Stop.  Stage the pic from there.  You’ll now be using the window light as front light or side light.

In the case of my house, I could perhaps enter the room from my patio sliding door.  So the stage would look like this:

IMG_5026 4

What we’re left with is beautiful, natural, light:


2. Leave some space between the subject and the tree.

If at all possible, try and leave a few feet between the subject and the tree. Even 5+ is ideal.

This will give tip #3 and #4 some room to work.

3. Resist the wide angle.

Perhaps try keeping the pic waist up??  I know, sometimes we just want to get the whole outfit.  But after the full outfit is captured, trying filling the frame (the 1st tip in our free 7-Part [Snackable] Photo Course) with your subject.

Sure, you might be cutting off the tree. But if you want the pic to be all about the tree, then remove your kid.  Make the tree the subject…or the background.  Not both.

Also, choose a longer focal length (zoom in as far as you can). This will compress the background towards the subject all while still letting it be…the background. I shot my pic with my 24-70mm zoom and zoomed all the way to 70mm.

4. Shoot wide open.

This means to use your largest aperture. We’re trying to minimize depth of field in combo with #3 above. The goal is to have a bit of magical Christmas tree bokeh…here’s what it looks like at f2.8:


Of course, any time you’re shooting below 3.5 you need to take a bit of special care to nail the focus.  But I believe in you.  And if you don’t understand aperture, time to sign up for this free course.

Cheers! And Merry Christmas.

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20 thoughts on “4 Essentials For A Better Pic In Front Of The Christmas Tree”

  1. Great tips. Wish I would have had this a couple weeks ago when I attempted family pix in front of the tree. I didn’t use a flash, just had some lamps on in the room and my white balance set for tungsten (I think) but upon printing, all of us look pink. I had cards printed at 2 different locations. I may try and re-do pix of the kids and still have them “in front” of the tree but with the main window to the side, if I can get enought space between them, the tree and me. Of course, the fact that the walls are a sort of golden mustart color doesn’t really help, in my opinion.

    1. Mustard walls never help 🙂 The tungsten WB was a great call. If you’re consistently getting shifty colors upon print, there’s a few main reasons this could be happening. I’ve made a note to make it into a blog post in the future 🙂

      1. Thanks. My outdoor shots with this camera are always good, just the indoor (at least here at the house) that don’t turn out so well. I am thinking of trying a gray card to set a custome white balance to see if that helps.

        1. Hey Robin! Thanks for being here. Custom white balances can work well, though you’ll also get better results by using one of your camera presets. If you’re using window light and it’s sunny outside, try using the shady setting. If you’re using window light and it’s cloudy outside, try the cloudy setting. Of course, if you have a lot of overhead lights on, it can cause a mess, which is why I mention that in one of the bullet points (under the first tip). Thanks much and hope it works!

  2. What would be the distances between lights/subject/camera to get those real big blurry lights but subject in focus? thank you for this tip

    1. Hey Rebecca, normally I’d always pull for the longer length as I’m a sucker for tight frames, background compression, etc. But in this particular spot I was kinda crammed for space (200 was tooooo long), so I got the 24-70 going. 🙂

  3. Thanks for the tips, but in curious how to get that good of a pic if we don’t have another window, if the tree is in front of the only window in the room? How would you get there tree in the background and the kids in front?

    1. Hey Whitney! Thanks for the great question. I’d vote for cranking up the ISO and using whatever ambient light you have (even indoor lamps) if the alternative is an on-camera flash. If you have a speedlight, I’d try bouncing it off the ceiling (or another wall) as linked above. Lastly, the costliest and most complex is to learn off camera flash…which isn’t crazy hard, but takes some commitment a far as gear/investment is concerned. At the end of the day, I’d steer parents to invest in a great prime lens first. Then you can use a big aperture with a correct white balance and get a decent result in low light situations. If this is sounding a little confusing, take heart. Stick around and there’ll come a day when we can plug you into a class that will walk you through it step-by-step 🙂

  4. With toddler twins (re: constantly moving children), what would you recommend for aperture indoors with decent window lightings? I’ve tried the widest, but with the 2, it seems impossible to nail the focus.

    1. 3.5 for 2…and try and get them in the same focal plane (think “cheek to cheek” or imagine a piece of paper set perpendicular to your camera and each twin would need to touch their nose to the paper (focal plane)). But yeah, with the constant movement, I realize that’s easier said than done! Also DOF will depend largely on focal length as well. We have a dedicated lesson on this in the Photo Fix.

  5. Hi Kyle! I love your blog and I am planning on doing our Christmas card shoot this weekend. I own a basic Canon DSLR (T6i). What lens would you use between a Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8, Canon 50mm f/1.8 or Canon 55-250 f/4-5.6? I will try using natural light only and my backup plan is to bounce my flash (Speedlight) on our white ceiling. Thanks!

    1. For a single subject (just one kid, etc), I’d definitely try to keep the focal length at 50mm or longer. Reason being: background compression and more pleasing face shapes. Wide angle lenses tend to magnify/distort facial features if you get too close. In other words, you can give someone a big nose even if they don’t have one 🙂 Obviously, with a family shot you might need a wider lens to fit everybody in, depending on how far you can back the camera up. Hope it works well!

  6. will this tip work with an iPhone 6s? I got some great shots with my phone in a semi dark corner with my son covered in a strand of lit xmas lights, but I haven’t tried anything in front of the tree yet…

  7. Thanks for all your great tips. All of the sudden I’m having focus issues. For instance pictures in front of a backyard tree subjects were blurry (soft) tree was in focus. People weren’t horrible but obviously out of focus. It’s been happening a lot. Any tips would be appreciated. Btw even tried with focus square right in person still happens. Thank you!!

    1. Hi Toni,

      If it’s happening consistently even with the active focus point right on the subject, then I would guess that your lens is front or back focusing. If you have another lens, try that lens and see if the problem persists. If it doesn’t, it’s almost certainly your lens.

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