This shouldn't come as a surprise, but Christmas is upon us. It arrives on the same date every year, so it's not as if it sneaks down your chimney, past your gas-powered log and into your living room without notice.
So, why aren't you prepared? Why aren't the Christmas presents bought? Why aren't the house lights up? And, finally, why haven't the Christmas pictures been taken?
With this thought in mind, it can safely be assumed that a review is in order of the proper techniques to shooting good holiday pictures.
Not every Christmas picture has to be shot with your children sitting on Santa Claus' lap in a shopping mall. There are plenty of good photo opportunities around the house.
That's not to say that photos with Santa aren't any good. But there are no long lines in front of your Christmas tree at home. Christmas memories can come from more than people. Nice close-up shots of the tree ornaments, knickknacks or holiday wreaths will help preserve memories of the occasion.
There are two ways to approach these pictures. If your primary objective is to shoot the ornaments, you should use a flash. This will help the decorations sparkle and pop right off the tree.
Pay attention to how sparkling lights reflect off the ornaments and tinsel. The shapes and patterns can create interesting close-ups for the photographer who is looking for that unique holiday picture.
If you're more interested in shots of the tree and the lights, it's better to shoot without a flash, using available light. You should place your camera on a tripod and bracket (vary your exposure) if your camera allows for it. Remember, a Christmas tree is vertical, so don't forget to turn your camera.
A place to start is with an exposure of 1 second at f/5.6 with 100-speed film. This type of long exposure should only be shot at night with a moderate to low amount of ambient light in the room.
Consider using an unconventional source of light such as a fireplace or candle to add life to your photo. These two light sources will produce a much warmer cast in your picture and, if the only light source in the room, will produce a more dramatic picture.
Don't try any of this indoor photography without a tripod, unless you're looking for that blurred lighting effect. Keep in mind, Christmas lights can vary, so experimentation is very important to get the proper exposure.
If you don't have a tripod, you should try using a higher-speed film, such as one with a 400 rating. It should allow you a faster shutter speed, thus allowing you to hand-hold the camera. However, by using a higher-speed film you sacrifice quality.
These same rules apply if you are shooting the exterior house lights. Something you might want to try is a portrait of your family in front of your decorated house at night. Photograph them in the foreground and use fill-in flash to illuminate them. Keep in mind, you will need a slow shutter speed to get the right exposure for the sparkling Christmas lights. Again, don't forget your tripod and bracket your exposure. This isn't an exact science unless a past Christmas present has been a $400 exposure-and-flash meter. And please, make sure your family holds still for as long as possible.
If you really want to get fancy, buy a cable release. This will allow you to shoot the picture without touching the camera, cutting down on any possible vibrations.
A cross-screen or star filter may give you that dramatic lighting effect you've been looking for. This filter will break up the lights into starlike flares, giving your pictures an extra glimmer.
If all this seems too complicated, which it really isn't, you can always march your youngest down to the local mall for the proverbial picture with St. Nick.
Most malls allow parents to shoot their own pictures, although it's not always encouraged. South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa imposes a $4.50 fee to allow parents to use their own camera to shoot a picture of their child.
The malls will offer to shoot the picture for you at costs ranging from a single shot for $4 to multiple photo packages for $17. The type of photo also varies from the instant variety to those that take up to three days. It's wise to research your Santa before you make your decision.
The best-kept Santa secret, at least until now, is at South Coast Plaza Village in Santa Ana. There is no photographer present, and this smaller shopping center encourages parents to shoot their own photos. However, Santa's on a tight schedule, available only from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
At the end of the day, when Santa heads back to the North Pole, you should head to the one-hour photo lab. Don't underestimate how much relatives appreciate a picture of your children in the annual Christmas card.
Bear in mind that Christmas is more than ripping open presents in a frenzy. Tell the whole story. The preparation can be as enjoyable as Christmas itself.