Photograph the Stories of the Season

The sights, sounds, and smells of the season.  Our holiday memories can be evoked, (or imagined), by these sensory triggers.  In the realm of photography, we deal in the visual so pictures that communicate to the viewer are our objective. So how can we best make photographs that are compelling, have impact, and emotion?  Let’s look at some techniques and subjects that will take your holiday photos to the next level.

I would have to guess that the holiday season sees more photos taken than any other time of year.  Sure, many of those are snapshots taken by amateurs, things like the opening of presents on Christmas morning, holiday celebrations with family, shots of the symbols and ceremonies of the season.  By all means, I encourage you to make those snapshots and record the memories of your family.  For the purposes of this article however, I’m speaking of images that are not unique to just people you know and are not special because of who they depict or the even that are uniquely your memories.  Instead, I’m talking about holiday photographs that have universal appeal, shots that might be something a stock library or publication might use.  These are images that transcend the simple snapshot and are purposely planned and executed with a message in mind.  These are photographs that are professionally done, you in this case being the professional that makes them.

I put a star-shaped cut-out in front of the lens to produce the unique bokeh in this shot.

Sometimes the two will blend, you might take photos that are personally relatable to you that will also impact others who don’t know the person in the photo or the “backstory.”  That can be hard too, separating your knowledge of who or what is behind the photograph and what the photograph says solely on its own.  If a complete stranger saw your image on the wall in a gallery, had no idea who made it, there was no title or explanation of the image nor could you be there to explain it would the message still be clear?  What story would they imagine?  What emotions might they feel?  What memories would it trigger in them?

Let’s look at what I feel are some good subjects for holiday photos and how you can “create stories” within those subject types.

This is the iconic “Rainbow Bridge” on SH55 in Idaho. I was on my way through the area during the middle of a snowstorm and stopped for the shot.

Snow and Ice

When the temperature is sub-zero, go outside and blow a big soap bubble. In a couple of minutes, it will look like this.

I know we have readers in the southern hemisphere who are having summer while those of us in the north equate the holiday season with winter.  I’m also guessing a fair number of readers may not have snow where they live and the prospect of a “White Christmas” is doubtful.  So I direct this section to those that do have snow and ice this time of year, (or who can travel to where there are those conditions.)

A mostly monochrome blue snowscape with that splash of red, this could be a Christmas card, yes?

Winter snowscapes and nature shots resonate with people.  They speak of the cold, stark beauty that is winter.  They offer opportunities for wide vistas, shots that communicate the harsh and bitter cold, the play of light and shadow, and a color palette much different than that of warmer months.  So get out and take advantage of it!  Don’t put your camera away awaiting better or warmer weather.  Bundle up, get out there and embrace what the season offers and make photos that communicate with your viewer just how it felt.

We'd heard this guy was roaming the area near the cabin where we were staying. I looked out the window and there he was! Usually winter wildlife shots aren't this easy!
Winter is a struggle for survival during the bitter winters in Yellowstone National Park.


Someone with a white beard wishes you a Merry Christmas! This is my “snow schnauzer” Schatzi.
The “biting cold” of winter. Shadow loves to attack snowballs.

I am not normally a wildlife photographer, but when I had the opportunity to go on a snowcoach trip with members from my camera club to Yellowstone National Park, I jumped at the chance.  Not only were the winter landscapes impressive but the chance to witness and photograph wildlife struggling against the rigors of winter was a special experience.  Back home in Boise, we still have some cold and snow spells each winter and the birds in my backyard and my “domesticated wildlife”, Schatzi and Shadow make for good snow subjects too.

If wildlife photography interests you, I would encourage you to take advantage of the special opportunities that winter conditions offer.  Winter wildlife photography can be rigorous and downright cold, but you will be rewarded by shots the “fair weather photographers” just don’t get.

We went to photograph a frozen waterfall and these guys were climbing it! Winter sports and activities can make for great images.

Winter Sports

Here’s another chance to brave the elements and get some action photography.  Skating, skiing, sledding, and a whole collection of other winter sports offer photo opportunities abound.  There are also non-competitive winter sports and activities that make for good action photos.  As is the case with any action photography, look for dramatic angles, use shutter speed to creatively freeze or blur the action depending on your intent, and work to make your image compelling, impactful, and unique.

A ladies Christmas tea at a local church made for this festive image.

Celebrations and Ceremonies

A moving holiday scene at the Idaho Veterans Cemetary.

The holiday season is full of many kinds of celebrations and ceremonies, great photo ops!  Get out there with your camera and capture the festivities!  Remember to seek to tell a story with your images such that the viewer can experience what it might have been like to have been there.

You know the story here, right? Use a wide aperture and the lights of the tree to get some nice bokeh.

Decorations & Holiday Still Life

This was done on black plexiglass and light-painted with a single LED flashlight.

I enjoy still-life photography and this is one you can often do inside, out of the weather, and yet still capture images with great holiday feel.  Explore creative angles and lighting to make unique shots.  Get out some of the smaller lighting devices I mentioned in my article “Big Results with Little Lights,” and see what you can do.  Come up with a theme.  Last year I photographed our Santa collection and came up with a “25 Days of Santa” series.  I’m running it again this year on my Instagram page.

Do some creative food photography!

Another possibility is to give food photography a try.  The holidays are a food festival with all kinds of “subjects” available.  Use your imagination, practice creative angles and interesting lighting and make some delicious images!  Then when you’re done photographing, you can eat your subjects!

Holiday Lights

Downtown Boise, Idaho during the holidays.

For many, the lights of the holiday season is “the show.”  Be it the lights on the tree, candles and firelight, outdoor displays and decorations, or even fireworks, the season is a great opportunity to try creative photography.  Explore bokeh effects when you throw lights out of focus, play with “ICM” (Intentional Camera Movement) for creative streaks, blurs and color, see how your subject looks lit solely with candle light, or get outside at night for the look of the “moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow.”  There are so many kinds of lighting to explore!


Landscape photographers will also find that winter in the northern latitudes makes for short days and low sun angles most of the day.  Side-lighting will result in images that are not as flat at mid-day and will also give opportunities for images where the shadows are the subject.  Even the colder blue colors of ice and snow can enhance your subjects.   “Winter light” has a different look.  The air is clearer, the contrast of warm golden light and cold blue sky reflected on ice and snow makes for interesting complimentary colors.  On overcast winter days a snowscape can be almost monochrome but add a pop of red like some frozen winter berries or a red barn and you have an instant Christmas card!

I know the subjects in the photo, but it was the “story” of winter fun that sold it to the Idaho Division of Tourism who features it in winter travel promotions.


I mentioned the more traditional holiday photos of friends and family you might make and would certainly encourage you to do so as part of your holiday memories.  But also consider images of people you may, (or may not) know simply doing the things that tell the stories of the season.  These are photos that are not about who the person in the photo is, but about what they are doing, the emotion they convey, the action they are involved in, the story they tell.  Again, think “stock photos” and you’ll get what I’m attempting to explain.

The wonder of a child at Christmas. Again, I know the subject here, but for those of you who don't, doesn't the photo tell a story all by itself?

I’ve presented a cross-section of images I have taken over the past several years during the holiday season and I hope they might give you some ideas.  Best wishes for some great photography and may you experience a joyous holiday season.

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