Set the scene for your season's memories

With extended families gathered together, twinkling lights, glittering gifts and lavish meals, the Christmas season is festooned with photo opportunities. So why do so many of our snapshots fail to capture the mood and magic of the season? Here's how to make those holiday lights truly sparkle and those loved ones really jump out of our holiday pictures.

"Most people, all they really need to do to make the picture look more interesting than just a snapshot is really movement and placement of the camera," said David K. Hauver, a product buyer and tester at Samy's Camera, which has six full-service photography stores in California and a robust web portal, Samys.com. "People shouldn't be afraid to come in close to the subject to separate them from the background, or even change the angle."

Just kneeling to shoot up from below or taking an elevated position to shoot down from above can change a photograph dramatically and, as Hauver put it, "tell a different story" -- even with a smartphone camera, point-and-shoot, or a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera in "automatic" mode.

Changing the camera-to-subject distance can also profoundly affect the look of a photo, even without using manual camera settings.

"If you've got a couple that's sitting at a table, rather than taking a big, wide shot where they're ... minimized in the frame, come in close and really isolate them from the background," Hauver suggested. "Get a nice big shot where they fill the frame. That tends to look a bit more professional than ... the whole table and all the distractions in the background."

Of course, manually adjusting the camera's shutter speed (to freeze motion or add artistic blur), aperture settings (which dictate depth-of-field), and focus (and/or using multiple lenses) opens the door to all sorts of dramatic effects.

"When you get into photography, the different focal lengths sort of become your tools in the bag," said Hauver.

For example, for holiday portraits a medium telephoto (aka portrait) lens used with a large aperture (i.e. small f/stop number) for a shallow depth of field would probably prove most effective, whereas for large groups of people or landscapes, a wide-angle lens would be more appropriate.

"A portrait lens ... tends to cause what's called 'compression', which is maybe a little trick up the photographer's sleeve," said Hauver, citing its slimming effect on the subject.

These longer lenses can also contribute to an effect wherein the background of a photo appears very soft, like a color palette, and the subject "pops out" in very sharp focus in the foreground.

"Especially with the twinkling lights and everything going on it's really fun to ... get that sort of dreamy quality in the background while the subject's got that holiday cheer in the foreground," said Hauver.

For larger Christmas images such as outdoor family groups or city decorations, a wide-angle lens can pack multiple seasonal visuals into single frames.

"You can have somebody in the foreground and then just sort of a large-scoped frame with the Christmas tree over here and Santa's Village over here and the lights twinkling and the ornaments," said Hauver. "You're getting a lot of information into one photo and that gives the viewer that excitement of the moment."

You no longer need to blow your entire holiday budget to get camera equipment capable of achieving the effects described above. Especially with seasonal sales and rebates, DSLRs can be found below $500. And before shelling-out big bucks on fancy lenses, you can find the perfect setup for your rig by renting from Samy's Camera for as little as $10/day.

-Paul Rogers for Samy's Camera

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