Christmas Photography with a Phone

Christmas Photography with a Phone

Some say that photographers never take a vacation. Some say that every person with a smartphone is a photographer. The truth is somewhere in between. You may be an amazing photographer using just a smartphone camera or you may not, and you may also take a vacation and still be a photographer. Taking pictures with your smartphone during Christmas is the perfect example. You can stay away from your heavy gear and concentrate on family, friends, and beautiful moments. In the same time, you can capture the holiday's spirit, without wasting too much time.

Christmas is a very generous subject for a photographer. From family portraits to festive decorated houses, from steaming beverages to glowing snow, everything is inspiring and joyful. Spend some time with your phone camera to better understand what it can offer to you. That big screen is nothing like a viewfinder. Your phone has a lot of built-in filters and effects, but it can lack settings and manual functions. The good news is that all composition rules you know still apply. After all, a good photograph happens first in your head, and then in the camera.

Playing with lights

Christmas is all about the lights. Decorated houses and streets, candles, glowing Christmas trees, sparkling windows, they all invite you to photograph lights. With your normal camera you'll have endless possibilities. A smartphone camera is much more restrictive, but you can still change ISO, shutter speed, and exposure. In addition, a smartphone camera has many filters you can use to warm up the picture. It also allows you to see the results before taking the picture.

If your phone’s native camera app doesn’t have many controls, think about downloading a third-party app, for example, DSCO (which is free)

If your phone’s native camera app doesn’t have many controls, think about downloading a third-party app, for example, DSCO (which is free)


The problems appear when you have less light than needed. Smartphone cameras are not so good in low lighting conditions. Very low shutter speeds are not always available and using a very high ISO will make your pictures noisy. Using flash is also a bad idea during Christmas. You want golden, touching lights, not people blinded by the flash and darkness all around them. So keep in mind that your smartphone camera won't perform in low lighting conditions, and focus on the light. Another way to deal with difficult light conditions is using a wide-angle lens. This lens will allow more light into the lens, as it receives it from a wider angle, which can help you to take a better shot.

  • From wide angles to macro details

  • Christmas is a wonderful opportunity to photograph traditional markets and large street events. Even architectural photography needs wide angles on Christmas. Your smartphone wide angle camera is perfect for this. Most smartphones have the equivalent of a 35 mm camera lens or smaller. You'll have no problem framing your entire family or the church's choir. But if you need a wider angle, you should try using an external lens.  

    Small and colorful details are also part of Christmas. Tree decorations, ornaments, food and drinks also require attention. In order to capture tiny details, you will have to  get really close to your subject. Zooming in is probably the first thing that comes to mind. But most smartphone lenses have a very limited optical zoom and using digital zoom is always a bad idea. The best you can do with a smartphone camera try macro photography. So if you want to photograph the tiny ornaments or lights, party glitter, candle’s fire or the snowflake you will probably need an external macro lens. They are easy to attach and use, and can increase your optical zoom up to 10x.

  • Exposure and dynamic range

  • Most smartphone cameras let you change the exposure. This means you can adjust the brightness and the contrast of an image. While this is very useful, you should also consider the dynamic range of your subject. Dynamic range means the number of light intensities between white and black. If your subject's dynamic range is larger than your camera's dynamic range, some of the subject's shades will miss. Christmas has many night events and also many bright subjects. This can be more than your smartphone camera can cope with. The result is an overexposed or an underexposed image. To keep a festive atmosphere and enjoy the holiday, keep in mind the following:

    • Change the lighting conditions, if possible (if you take pictures into a house, you can always switch on/off some lights)
    • Change exposure from your camera's settings
    • Focus on what most interests you (the bright colors or the dark colors). This way, you'll force the camera to expose considering what you want.
    • If you still get an unsatisfactory image, you can always try to apply some photo filters or textures (for example, grunge texture) and transform it into an artistic statement
    • Use smartphone camera special features

    While a smartphone camera doesn't have all the manual settings you are used with, it has some special features. They are easy to use and fast, and the effects are amazing. For example, some smartphones have preset modes for achieving a shallow depth of field. Others have editing tools which mimic a long exposure. Many smartphones have panorama mode, selective focus, and artistic effects.

    But besides all these digital effects, a smartphone allows you to find new perspectives. It weighs so little that you can take pictures from almost any position. You can use sticks, tripods, and remote controls to make self portraits. You can move the smartphone while taking pictures to achieve an intentional motion blur. Use your creativity and take the best Christmas pictures ever. Don't forget to have fun, after all you are a photographer on holiday.

  • Candid photography

  • Christmas is a rich holiday. Even if you don't celebrate Christmas, you can observe the spiritual charge, family atmosphere, joyful events, the need for ornaments and beauty, the lights, and the general good mood. It is the perfect opportunity for candid photography. Take pictures when no one looks. Catch facial expressions, gestures, and emotions. Photograph people as much as you can. Even if you know them, don't stage the pictures. Photograph them in motion, take them by surprise. Use new angles, the smartphone can be rotated. Don't stay locked in landscape or portrait format. The large screen allows you to photograph from above or from below. Explore!

    Christmas photography is magical even when you use a smartphone camera, if you enhance it with an additional lens and gadgets. Be truthful to your compositions. Rely less on technology and more or your instinct and creativity. Most of all, be present.

    About the Author

    Max Therry is an architecture student who is fond of photography and wants to become a professional photographer. He is also working on his photography blog about photo editing, modern photo trends, and inspiration. Feel free to reach him by email 

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