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Nail your festive photos

Getting good festive photos can be tricky. Cranleigh photographer Sian Tyrrell gives us her top tips.

Whether your festive season is large or small, traditional or uniquely you, it’s likely that you’ll want to capture a few festive images and there’s no better tool for getting creative and experimenting than your smartphone.  You’ll always have it on you (well most of the time) and smart phone photography doesn’t have to mean blurry, low quality shots – with just a few things in mind you can make something you’re proud to share and catch a few memories at the same time.

We have a tradition where you can look at, but not touch the presents under the tree until Christmas Eve – so much self-control needed! Photograph: Sian Tyrrell


Modern smartphones are getting much better at focusing where you want them to, but they are still not fool-proof especially when it’s a bit darker.  Most people forget that they need to nudge the camera towards the right focus because the majority of the time the device does a pretty good job itself.  However, if you’re taking photos early on Christmas morning, before the sun is properly up and when it’s pretty dark, you’ll want to give your smartphone a helping hand.

On many phones it’s a simple as tapping on the bit of screen where you want the focus (usually someone’s face), but check online for your particular phone so that you’re prepared.  If your phone has Focus Tracking (you’ll find it in the camera settings) then it may be worth putting that on so that you only have to tap a face once on your screen and the camera will stay focused on that face even if the person moves – pretty useful!

Getting the focus right means that your viewer’s eye will be drawn to the part of the image that’s important, so even if there’s a mess in the background it won’t be quite as noticeable!

For a shot like this you want to make sure that the focus is on the gift and not the tree and lights behind so you might need to help your camera by telling it where to focus.

Ready, steady, presents!

We all dream about capturing that moment when a person opens the perfect gift we’ve given them.  That genuine smile, the look of delight.  But so many shots are of the person wearing a glassy, fixed, joker-style grin while showing the present to the camera – not quite the same.  To get a more natural and appealing shot you need to do a little preparation and that’s not always easy in the frenzy of Christmas morning when you’ve got wrapping paper everywhere, you’re trying to keep track of who got what from whom and there’s a turkey in the oven.

My advice is to keep just one or two presents that you really want to catch them opening, aside until the initial madness is over.  Think about the backdrop and get your subject sitting comfortably in front of the tree or with some nice lights behind them.  Try and hold your phone discreetly, maybe at waist height rather than in front of your face and just let them crack on with the opening (you might also need some distractions for other family members who want in on the action!).  You can just snap a few shots while they are engrossed and maybe even catch that smile.  Try video too because many video apps will now let you take a few still frames while you’re recording so that you can have the best of both.


What’s your tradition?

Everyone has some sort of festive tradition, whether it’s taking a family walk after lunch, making sure Grandma wears a silly hat at lunch or my personal favourite – the sweepstake on how long it will take Dad to fall asleep once the Queen’s speech has started!  Think about using these little traditions to build a picture of your day (or days!).  It’s tempting to focus on the big moments at family events, but it’s the little things that you’ll treasure looking back at these photos later.  If you do this for a number of years you’ll even be able to watch the traditions develop over the years and that is always fun.  You can even make your own festive cards for next year with the photos you take this year!  So much nicer than a shop bought card and really easy to do with great online services like Photobox.

Well it is traditional!


Traditional tree decorations make super sweet pictures and you can use them for your cards next year!



Whether you’ve gone the whole hog with a handmade Christmas or (like me!) you’ve gone a bit minimalist it’s great to capture those little details that make this a special time for you.  Whether it’s the food, the decorations or even the board games after dinner – these details are worth preserving.  I like to use these image for cards the next year or as little vignettes when I put together slide shows or albums of photographs.  In many ways it’s these little things that make it YOUR celebration.

Smartphones are often not great at focusing really close up so you might need to shoot from a bit further away and crop in later. Get close to your target and tap it on the screen to focus it (or however your phone focuses) and watch the screen carefully to see if it looks sharp.  If not take a small step back and try again, continue this until you get a sharp image – the good news is that decorations and food tend to stay still for you!

This is our family Christmas tree.  We aren’t very traditional!

Let it snow! 

If we are lucky enough to get some snow this Christmas, for sure you’ll want to capture it on camera. Unfortunately the results are often disappointing with the snow looking more grey than white.  Most cameras tend to compensate for the brightness of the snow by darkening your photo and that leads to a ‘dirty’ looking image.  If you can brighten your image before you take it that can really help, but you may need to do it later using a processing app.

Words and photographs by Sian Tyrrell

Sian Tyrrell is a portrait photographer based in Cranleigh, Surrey. You can find her work at

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