Things to try in December

01 Ruffle a few feathers by Mark Hamblin

01 Ruffle a few feathers by Mark Hamblin

01 Ruffle a few feathers © Mark Hamblin

01 Ruffle a few feathers – shoot garden birds. In a good way

Winter is the ideal time to photograph garden birds because it’s the one time of year you can be sure they’ll flock to a feeder. All you need is a long lens (300mm+), somewhere to conceal your presence (such as a garden shed) and plenty of patience. “Preparation is key when shooting an image like this,” says wildlife photographer Mark Hamblin. “I set the branch up in my back garden near a well-established feeder, and made sure the background looked nice and light from my hide. I also chose a large branch with plenty of snow on it to make it look the part, and I waited until the snow was coming down thick and fast before venturing outside.”

“When food is scarce squabbles like this are fairly frequent, but they only last a split second so you have to get set up before the action unfolds. In this case I was already shooting the greenfinch on continuous mode, so when the female chaffinch arrived all I had to do was recompose and press the shutter release.”

Get started today…

* Expose for the background first, and pre-focus on the perch so that when you come to re-focus on an alighting bird, your lens won’t waste precious seconds hunting for a focus point.

* Ensure the background is clean and clutter-free, and set your lens’s widest aperture to blur the background.

* If you want to capture a hint of motion blur in the wing tips of a bird, set your camera’s shutter speed at around 1/500 to 1/800 sec.

* Overcast conditions are best when it comes to garden birds, as flat, even light renders feather detail much better than direct sunlight.

02 Get great group shots – photograph your friends and family with confidence

Christmas is the ideal time to photograph loved ones, but getting natural-looking group shots can be a real challenge. Our very own portrait pro Ben Brain, who’s shot more group photos than he cares to remember, has this advice: “People are used to the speed of compacts, and inevitably expect you to be just as quick with your SLR, so work out your settings – ISO, aperture, shutter speed and white balance – beforehand.” “It’s also a good idea to use a tripod: once you’ve framed your shot, you can look up, engage with the group to get them smiling, and then take the picture without having to peer through the viewfinder.”

Get started today…

* Expose for ambient light to capture Christmas lights and log fires, but use flash to bring out detail in faces.

* Tilt or swivel your flash unit to bounce it off walls or ceilings, but keep an eye out for coloured ceilings, which can create an unwanted colour cast.

* Take multiple shots to be sure of a keeper – in groups of three or more, you can almost guarantee at least one person will be blinking or looking away in many of the photos.

* Don’t wait for the perfect pose. People who are larking about while they’re getting ready to pose often look more natural.

03  Splash out with a flashgun – have fun with liquids

Whatever your tipple, the festive season is an ideal time to try your hand at photographing liquids. You might think that capturing a drink being poured is strictly for those with a sizeable studio and a patient cleaner, but all you really need is a tripod, a flashgun, and a helper to pour the drinks. One man who‘s made more of a splash than most in the advertising world is liquid specialist Jonathan Knowles, who’s shot ads for everyone from Schweppes to Smirnoff. “A flash is essential,” he explains. “I typically use a shutter speed of 1/800 sec, but even this isn’t fast enough to freeze the splash completely. The duration of the flash from a standard flashgun, however, can be as fast as 1/40,000 sec at low power, which is fast enough to freeze the motion of a speeding bullet, let alone a splash.”

Get started today…

* Position your flash behind the glass, and place a sheet of white Perspex – or a few sheets of tracing paper – between them to produce a clean white background.

* Measure out a small quantity of liquid, use a plastic jug with a fine spout for pouring, and place a container below the glass to catch inevitable spillages.

* Tilt the glass to make it easier to pour into, then straighten it in Photoshop.

* Use the actual product rather than dyed water, as alcoholic drinks react and flow differently to water.

04 Get creative with Christmas decorations – look at reflective baubles in a whole new light

Christmas lights and decorations are often photographed quite literally, which is fine if the lights themselves are very dramatic, but less interesting if they’re just wrapped around a tree. By thinking more creatively, it’s possible to come up with something more striking. Motion and zoom blur can be used to create vibrant light trails, for example, while shooting lights so that they are as out of focus as possible produces bright, circular discs that can make great abstracts. Reflective baubles are also ideal for shooting clichéd subjects in an original way.

Get started today…

* When shooting lights at night don’t rely on your camera’s suggested exposure settings – you may need to under-expose slightly to avoid burnt-out highlights.

* If you’re photographing lights, set a shutter speed of a second or more and experiment by panning or zooming in and out.

* Turn off autofocus, focus your lens as close as possible, and then crop in on lights that are close together to produce abstract patterns of brightly coloured, overlapping discs.

* Look out for reflective surfaces, but try to avoid including yourself in the reflection.

Rose hips - Rosa canina - coated in hoar frost. Scotland. December.

05 Pick out winter berries © Mark Hamblin

05 Pick out winter berries – isolate the colour and texture of frost-encrusted fruit

There’s something distinctly appealing about bright red berries covered in frost. Perhaps it’s because white and red work so well together, or perhaps it’s the contrast in texture between the smooth, glossy skin of the fruit and the crisp edges of the frost. Whatever the reason, winter berries make a great subject for macro photography. And wherever you live, you won’t have to travel far to find some. You’ll find rose hips like these in almost any public park in the UK. As with garden birds, one of the most important considerations when you’re photographing frosted berries is the quality of the light – in direct sunlight, it’s almost impossible to avoid blowing out bright white highlights without making the rest of the image look under-exposed. If it’s cloudy or the subject is in shade, however, it’s much easier to bring out every detail in the shadows, mid-tones and highlights. A clean, clutter-free background is also important, and with berries, light backgrounds tend to work better than dark ones, as the image above illustrates.

Get started today…

* A macro lens is recommended for shooting individual berries – standard lenses just won’t enable you to get close enough.

* To focus, set your camera on a tripod, switch your lens to manual and move the focusing ring back and forth until the part of the subject you want in focus is pin-sharp – in most cases, this will be the ice crystals nearest the camera.

* Don’t simply set the widest aperture to blur the background; a smaller aperture will allow you to get more of the berry in focus.

* If necessary, use a piece of white card to bounce light back into the shadows, or to provide a clean background.

06 Take a mug shot – create presents with a personal touch

Showing off your photos doesn’t have to be limited to prints and slide shows. There are many online companies that can print your favourite shots on almost anything you care to imagine, from jigsaws to wallpaper. Some options might not be to everyone’s taste (photo teddy bear, anyone?) but what’s overly sentimental to some might make the perfect present for others. If this all sounds just a little to cheesy for your palette, take look at the photo books offered by companies such as

Get started today…

* For all manner of photo gifts try or

* If you’re thinking about canvas prints, mounted prints or posters, bear in mind the colour scheme – and the use – of the room it’s destined for.

* If you’re going big, check the size of your original image, and if necessary enlarge it in Photoshop or a dedicated interpolation package such as Genuine Fractals, which may provide better results.

07 Don’t miss a single moment – get great pics of kids opening their Christmas presents

Anyone who’s ever tried to photograph children opening presents on Christmas morning will know how difficult it can be to capture that magical moment between the wrapping being ripped off and the present being tossed aside to make way for the next! As our technique editor and father of two Paul Grogan explains, the key is to set your SLR to continuous and to follow the action. “Once kids get used to the camera they soon forget it’s there. By watching things unfold through your viewfinder, and firing off short bursts, you’re more likely to get a winning shot.”

Get started today…

* Don’t be afraid to increase the ISO – flash can kill the atmosphere, and often results in overly-bright images.

* Anticipate the moment, and shoot loads of images. Getting it right takes bags of patience – and a large memory card!

*Use continuous mode to capture every expression.

08 Shooting stars – make the sky spin, not your head

Photographing star trails might seem daunting, but it’s easier than you might think, as night owl and landscape pro Steve Sharp explains: “Even at ISO100, noise becomes very noticeable in long exposures, so you need to keep exposure times to less than ten minutes. The problem is that stars don’t move very far in ten minutes, so the answer is to take a sequence of short exposures, and then blend them together in Photoshop.”

Get started today…

* In the northern hemisphere, all stars revolve around the North Star. To locate the North Star, find the Big Dipper and then draw an imaginary line between the two outer edges of the constellation – this line will point towards the North Star.

* To combine multiple star-trail photographs, create a layer stack of all the images in Photoshop and then change the blending mode of every layer apart from the base layer to Lighten.

* Use a fairly wide aperture of f/5.6 to ensure the trails are bright and distinct in each image.

Christmas market in Annaberg-Buchholz

09 Photograph a Christmas market © Franz Marc Frei

09 Photograph a Christmas market – capture the colour and atmosphere of your nearest festive fayre

There are few better places to capture the spirit and colour of the festive season than a bustling Christmas market. Stalls piled high with seasonal gifts and produce all make great subjects, as do bright-eyed children gazing at toys and treats. Shooting Christmas markets brings its own unique set of challenges, not least shooting in low light, but resist the urge to use your flash on auto, as it will invariably make your shots look over-lit and slightly cool. Instead, increase your ISO and keep your shutter speed down to preserve the warm glow of the ambient light given off by candles and streetlamps. This may result in images that aren’t quite as sharp as they could be, but this can actually add to atmosphere, especially if you use motion blur.

Get started today…

* Include something that adds a sense of time and place, such as a Christmas tree or Christmas lights.

* If you must use flash, expose for the ambient light to ensure the background isn’t completely dark, and then use fill-flash to light up your subject.

* For wide shots, get up high for an overview of the whole market.

* Keep an eye out for possible abstracts and quirky details such as the bubble-blowing Father Christmas toy pictured below, left.



Famous Photographers: 225 tips to inspire you

44 essential digital camera tips and tricks

13 tips for better pictures of babies, toddlers and teenagers

Family Portraits: 10 tips for setting up your home studio

21 street photography tips from the professionals

Digital camera effects from A-Z

Night photography tips: 9 essential steps for beginners

53 essential photo ideas for winter


Follow us on Pinterest!