Photo Tip Friday: Taking Great Inside Holiday and Family Shots

by Mary Denman       Twitter: @MaryDenman     Instagram: @MaryFDenman

With Thanksgiving and other family holidays headed our way, I want you to learn how to take great family shots inside your home at holiday events.

Taking pictures inside your home can be a challenge.

Why? Because of low lighting. Without lots of natural lighting flooding in, our photos can be dark, grainy or blurry. That's pretty frustrating. 

But there is hope! 

Once you learn a little about your camera ISO works, you can start shooting inside and be happy with the results. 

Let's get started.

Quick refresher on shutter speed (time), aperture, and ISO.

Time Value: how long the shutter is open to let light in (shutter speed)

Aperture Value: what size the aperture (shutter) is:

  • f/2.8 lets in more light, shallow depth of field
  • f/22 lets in less light, greater depth of field
ISO: speed of the film, how much light it needs:
  • 100 needs lots of light, think SUNLIGHT
  • 1600 needs less light, think CANDLE
Understanding how to control lighting for your camera is a key ingredient to getting great shots.

Let's look at a few pictures, taken over the course of Thanksgiving Day. I had lots of natural lighting when the day began. As the day progressed, the sun set. This made me change how I took the photos. 

None of the following shots have been edited or used a flash.

I will mostly talk about the ISO values for the pictures. Why? This is an easy way to control your camera so you can banish those dark, blurry inside shots.

How do you do this? I'm glad you asked. We're going to take it picture by picture.

Photo 1
Photo 1a: Carving the Turkey
This good looking guy, my hubby, is carving the turkey. He was in a bright kitchen with lots of natural and overhead lighting. In order to get a good shot, I used an ISO of 200.

An ISO of 100 would have been a little too slow. How do I know this? Look at the time. I was handholding the camera and the shutter was open for 1/40th of a second. That's pretty close to the limit (1/30th of a second) that you can handhold the camera and still get a clear shot.

The aperture value or f-stop is f/8. This means I get a good dose of light, and the depth of field is deep enough to have him and the turkey clear. Yet, the background is blurred.

Notice as well that I filled the frame with my husband, the turkey and the plate. Compose the shot so that you convey a message. 

Don't you feel like you're ready to grab the plate in the foreground and dig in?

TIP 1: Learn to be comfortable with changing your ISO.

Photo 2
Photo 2: Grandpa
With this picture of my father-in-law, I sat across the table from him with the big bay window behind me. Because of the contrast of his dark shirt and the natural light, I went with a faster ISO which helped balance the lighting by taking the picture very quickly (1/160th of a second).

Also, notice I said the light from the window was coming in from behind me. See how even his skin tone is? The few shadows he has are very soft. Move your subject near a window and use natural lighting whenever you can!

I probably could have used a lower ISO but I like the result of the shot as it is.

TIP 2: Be aware of the lighting. Use a window for natural lighting.

Photo 3
Photo 3: Family Gathering
As the day progressed, it got darker. By the time we gathered around the table for our meal, I had lost a lot of natural lighting. Too, the dining room table was not very near a window.

How did I handle this? By going with a fast ISO of 1600. The aperture was at f/4.0 to let in more light. The shutter snapped the picture in 1/80th of a second.

Notice how I framed the shot. I have people from one side of the photo to the other. The actual center of the picture is the flowers, not someone's face. I captured enough of the table settings and chandelier to create the feel of what I actually saw standing there.

Hopefully, you can also feel the emotion of that day. We were very thankful to have our father-in-law with us since he was in Hospice care. It was a special day.

Photo 4
Photo 4: Special Moment
In this very special shot, I didn't want to be obtrusive because I wanted to take a picture of Pap-Pap, as my kids called him, talking with each grandchild. It was nighttime and I didn't want to use a flash to interrupt the moment. 

I used an ISO of 3200, had the lowest f-stop for my lens of 2.8 and stood really still to handhold for 1/30th of a second. I love the soft lighting and the sweet expression on my daughter's face. 

This isn't a typical shot. We often think of having all of the subjects face us. But in this instance, standing off and taking a photo from behind was a better way to go. 

Honestly though, my father-in-law was a photographer and a ham and he probably wouldn't have minded. But I preferred to stand off at a distance and capture this very special moment. 

Photo 5
Photo 5: Cousins Singing
Some of my nieces and nephews decided to go sing around the outside Christmas tree on the deck. I had to take several shots, with their cooperation, to get a few good ones because of the very challenging lighting conditions.

I used a high ISO of 3200 and bent down on my knees to get the tree, the people and the moon all in the shot. The light from the cell phone as they read the lyrics helped as well. Definitely worth it!

Photo 6: A Look Back Inside

Photo 6
As I turned to go back into the house, the warm light from inside, showing the family together at the kitchen table proved to be another special photo opportunity. Again, I used an ISO of 3200 and took a shot looking back into the house. 

I'm glad I did. 

So, what are the big tips for today?

  • Learn to change the ISO on your camera. Use a higher ISO for low light shots.
  • Move your subject close to a window if you can like in Picture Two.
  • Take pictures that tell a story or capture the mood of the gathering. 
  • Practice these soon! Don't wait until you see a special shot, but then miss it or have it come out too dark because you're not ready.

BLOGGERS: Always be aware of the life around you and document special events. You may be able to use the photos to personalize your blog and relate to your readers 

CELL PHONE USERS: Here's a link to a post I did on cell phone camera apps that will help you control the ISO. Read post here. (Note, I purchased the apps and tested them myself. I do not receive any compensation for this. It's just to benefit you!)

Taking Great Inside Holiday and Family Shots (Click to Tweet)



  1. Timely tips Mary - thanks for sharing!
    Congrats - you are our Friend Of The Week at Friendship Friday at Create With Joy -
    well deserved my friend! :-)

  2. Great tips! I have enjoyed photography for years..and really enjoyed your post. It was very interesting!

    Congratulations on being Friend of the Week at Friendship Friday at Create with Joy!

    1. Thanks Melissa! :) It was a wonderful surprise!

      PS..I saw your post was about Ramona Richard's book! How cool! I know Ramona! :) Small world!

  3. These posts are so helpful! I'm moving from an fully automatic 35mm to a manual and it helps to get the instruction and see examples. Thank you!

    1. You're so welcome Edie! You already have a great eye!

  4. Great tips Mary, I always find something new to learn when I visit :) Thanks for sharing at the weekend blog hop

    1. I'm glad the tips help! I hope you have a restful weekend!

  5. This is a great post on both the level of the great tips you pass on but also the peep into your happy thanksgiving family celebration, it looks wonderful.
    Enjoy your Sunday Mary :)
    Wren x

  6. Great tips as always Mary. I need to get a better camera as soon as possible so I can try all these techniques o ut.

  7. Wonderful information! I can use all the help I can get lol. Thanks for sharing at Funtastic Friday!

  8. These are great photography tips!! I'm always wanting to learn how to take better pictures. I appreciate you sharing your knowledge.