The secrets of successful festive snaps

Learn these rules, then break them, to create the most memorable pictures, writes Joel Chant

Christmas time is a great opportunity to be creative and capture some happy memories with your camera. So it's a good idea to always keep it close at hand. They say the best camera is the one you have with you at the time. Most households have a camera these days. Many have modern digital equipment, as well as camera phones. When used correctly, these can take good quality photos to enjoy for years to come. Whatever you do, the rules, once learned, are there to be broken. Study photographers you admire, learn from them and develop your own style.

Timing is everything in photography. The famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the phrase "the decisive moment", which refers to the split second in which you've timed the photo perfectly to capture a great image. If you bear this in mind, you will not only anticipate, but take better photos. Have the camera ready and look for images. Once you start looking you'll see pictures. All you have to do is raise your camera, frame it and shoot. That is, once you have set the ISO and exposures correctly for the environment in which you are photographing. Take a few practice shots, check them on the camera, adjust your settings and you'll be ready for action. If you are prepared, you'll get good results. Often you'll find the most appealing shots you take will be the observed moment where the subject is not aware they are being photographed, especially with kids who might otherwise become self-conscious.

For a posed group photo, it's worthwhile shooting several frames in case one member of the group blinks. It's important to get all faces looking to the camera and smiling, so interact, talk from behind the camera, make them laugh and you'll get the expressions you're after. You could also put the camera on a tripod, leave a space in the group, set the timer, and dash into place to be a part of the photo.

It's also worth trying a less staged version by asking the subjects to toast their glasses, meeting each other's eyes rather than making contact with the camera. This can also reduce the risk of red eye. If people are looking at the camera and you have a detachable flash gun, bounce the light off a white ceiling. If not, switch the camera to its red eye reduction setting. You could also turn off the flash and use a medium to high ISO setting if it's bright enough. Afterwards software such as Photoshop can be used to correct colours or sharpen the image if you didn't get it quite right.

Better still is to shoot using the fly on the wall technique, which lets you photograph your family while they are at ease. Smiles and laughter look most natural when the subject is caught unawares. Your family and friends should be used to seeing you with a camera, so won't be too self conscious if they see you with it. Stand back a bit from the party, observe what's going on and be ready to raise your camera when you anticipate something is about to happen and you'll capture the moment. Be it joy on the children's faces as they open a present or the surprise on people's faces at the pop of a champagne cork.

Photos of children look best when taken from their level, so you're not looking down on them. You will find the picture works well from their perspective and they interact better with the camera. Children can be camera shy, but if you make it fun you'll be rewarded with some great pictures for the family album. Catching your kids off-guard while having fun will result in less self-conscious images. Look for them becoming absorbed in what they are doing. If you can zoom in on their face, your picture will benefit from a frame filled with their beaming smile.

Everyone will be glad to get some fresh air after festivities at home, such as walking in the park on Boxing Day, and this can make some great fun shots. Have the camera ready and you can shoot fun photos of the family wrapped up warm in hats and scarves, throwing snowballs or running with the dog.

Experiment with a few techniques. Even compact cameras tend to have zoom lenses, so you can shoot some of the family from a distance walking towards the camera, as well as some wide shots from in front of, to the side or even behind everyone. Try a little blurred flash. Use a slow exposure combined with flash so the subject remains sharp but the background is a blur, thus indicating movement. You might also try this when "panning" – move to follow the subject and photograph them as you're both moving. It gives a great sense of drama and can be very effective. Again, using digital, try a few and perfect your technique. You can review what you've tried out and reuse the techniques that work for you.

Often these days, digital photos stay just on the home computer. Why not select your favourite photos and have them printed out, as an album or have a book produced? Many high street labs offer the service. You can also display your photos on digital picture frames or email them to friends and relatives.

The main thing to remember is to be ready with your camera, have the settings prepared for the situation and enjoy taking the photos and the wonderful memories they capture.

www.joelchant.com

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