10 Tips for Taking Better Thanksgiving Photos

In between touchdown cheers and the timing of the turkey and green bean casserole, photos will be taken. And invariably, there will be photos of your family members as well as the Thanksgiving Day feast. In light of this, RMSP extends our 10 Tips for Better Thanksgiving Day Photography.

1. Use Natural Light

Nothing will make your scrumptious fare look worse than the orange-colored lighting of incandescent chandeliers or overhead halogen bulbs. Take that platter of food over to a north-facing window and backlight the food. Avoid direct sunlight and let the natural light bring out the color, tones and texture of your meal.

2. Experiment with a Wide Aperture

Rather than a shot that shows off all the dirty dishes in the background of your shots, a better option might be to selectively focus on your favorite area of the room with a wide aperture that will blur the background (think f/4 or wider). Perhaps the best photo of your kids wrestling each other on the living room floor will look even better when the couch is blurry.

3. Mind Your White Balance

Be sure to shoot in RAW for more flexibility with editing the images, and keep an eye on your white balance so that you can render any of the orange overhead lighting in the room less orange. You can always create a custom white balance in your camera by setting your camera to “Custom WB” and taking an image of a pure white piece of paper in the area you’re shooting.

4. Avoid the Pop-Up Flash

There is no quicker way to drop the caliber of your holiday photo than to hit everything with the pop-up flash. It is usually better to raise your ISO than to introduce the pop-up flash into the scene. If you MUST use the pop-up flash, one simple trick is to use a very thin napkin or thin paper towel directly in front of the pop-upflash to diffuse that light a bit. It takes some dexterity to hold the camera with one hand and the “diffuser” with the other, but it will drastically improve the quality of the pop-up flash’s light – so practice beforehand!

5. Plan an Activity for People to Do

An activity is much more exciting to photograph than people sitting on recliners watching football. So, before the game gets going, photograph a few family members throwing a football around and take some action shots outside. And rather than shots of the kids watching a TV show, have them make some construction paper turkeys at the table and get some close-up portraits of them engaged in the activity and with one another. Plus, you’ll love looking back at the looks of creativity on their faces!

6. Focus on the Details

A wide-angle, overall shot of the whole dinner spread is a fine shot to have in the bag ? but don’t be afraid to focus in tighter on the details, too. Perhaps Aunt Martha brought an antique platter with a lovely hand-painted detail on the side ? shoot it up close! Or maybe it’s the devoted hands stirring the mashed potatoes. Maybe the sparkling wine or juice with its bubbles and fizz catches your eye. Get close, get lower, and shoot across the food rather than down on it.

7. Mind Your ISO

Nothing will ruin your shots faster than having an ISO that is too high or too low for the situation. Keep an eye on your ISO and if you are shooting near natural light, use the lowest possible ISO you can. This will enable you to get a shutter speed that is fast enough to get a sharp shot and will prevent too much noise (which looks like grain) in your images. If you are shooting in a dark living room, use the highest ISO that will give you a reasonably fast (1/30th or 1/60th) shutter speed. The higher ISO will make your images show more noise, but at least you’ll get the photo! And when/if you can, put the camera on a tripod, so that you can take a photo with a slower shutter speed instead of raising the ISO!

8. Use the Self-timer for Family Photos

Gather the family and arrange them for the group portrait (see our next tip for posing ideas). If you can use a tripod, that is best – but, in a pinch you can put the camera on top of the TV or on the edge of the table. Since you’ll obviously need to include yourself in the photo, use the 10 second self-timer. Depending on your family, you may consider livening up the group with suggested poses. Try the “Secret Agent Man” pose (think Charlie’s Angels), or the “Make a Funny Face” shot. Try asking everyone to “fake laugh,” too! It almost ALWAYS turns into real laughter. These little tricks will go a long way for getting people in a more relaxed mood before the requisite “Everybody smile!” shot.

9. Stacking the Group Pose

One idea is to get the grandparents sitting on the couch and build your pose around them. If there is a very small child, sit the smallest child sideways on grandma’s lap. Next, any of the very tall, younger members of the family can sit at grandma and grandpa’s feet and around the front of the couch, with their legs out to the side rather than coming directly towards the camera. Get another couple of kids around these taller, sitting members. Once those members are in place, the last step is to get the other adults in a mix between standing behind the couch, or sitting on an arm of the couch. Be sure to direct all the adults in the room to look at the camera and stay concentrated on that – while you direct the children if they need more direction. There’s nothing more difficult than a group shot where no one is looking because the adults are focusing on the squirrly kids!

10. And finally, though it may go without saying, be sure to take photos before the food comas set in!



  • Jeff McLain

    Jeff McLain is a photographer, videographer, digital technician, and location sound mixer. After his photography education, Jeff got his start as a freelance photo assistant in San Francisco working on editorial, catalog and advertising shoots. His skills in Photoshop and computing allowed him to help photographers bridge the gap between the film days and all-digital workflows, and he stood at the forefront of the advent of the career of the "Digital Technician." Jeff then moved laterally to video capture. Locally, he is the Director of Arrowroot Productions, LLC, a commercial videography business. His background as a multi-instrumental musician has also benefited his understanding of sound design and audio capture, which can be a technically challenging aspect of film-making. He is regularly called by filmmakers and television networks to record sound-for-video. He has been a freelancer for over 20 years and takes a 'real-world' approach to his perspective of the photographic and video industry and the skills needed in today's market.