This year was my 4 year old son's 5th Christmas - which is fun to say and usually confuses people. His birthday is in early November, so he was only 1 month old for his first Christmas. That means it was my 5th year of documenting my little ones' Christmas morning opening their gifts.
The first year I played it easy - just set up a video camera on the coffee table while we opened gifts. Ain't nobody got time for more than that with a 1 month old!
The second year, I got creative with things, and used the method I will be telling you about shortly. It was also our first Christmas in our house, and the first Christmas where my son kinda sorta had a clue about things.
The 3rd year, I didn't want to put up with the "hassle" of the previous year's method, and my husband wore a GoPro on his head while I shot with my camera the normal way.
The 4th year, and now the 5th year, I did exactly what I had done that 2nd year. Last year was incidentally my younger son's first Christmas, and he was just 4 months old - slightly easier than a 1 month old, but not by much. I can now say with confidence that this method is the EASIEST and, surprisingly enough, LEAST intrusive way of documenting your family's Christmas morning.
Oh, did I mention you get to be in the pictures too? You get to be in the pictures too! Your family gets to remember YOU in their photo memories of Christmas morning!
Now, keep in mind that I am a professional newborn and family photographer. I have professional equipment, including professional lighting, which I did choose to use here for maximum image quality. But this could easily be replicated with any camera, available light only, and something to keep it in place and some way of triggering the shots! I will go over what I did, and then I will offer suggestions for what you can do with any level of equipment.
I highly recommend practicing this in advance, and if possible, setting up for it the night before. Or you can be like me and be super lazy (read: tired) and just set it up quickly the morning of Christmas. And hope you can find everything. I digress.
- I cleared the room of furniture that would be in the way of the gift opening action. For me, that mostly meant I moved my coffee table out of the room, and picked up the kids' toys (read: hucked them in the other room). You'll want to have enough space to where they don't have to be in 1 particular spot in order to be in the pictures.
- I set up my lighting. I used by SB-910 speedlight with a shoot-through umbrella for maximum light spill (read: fill the room with lots of light, get it everywhere). I set the speedlight to the minimum zoom level so that the beam of light would be as wide as possible. My light was placed at ceiling height, just to the left of my camera, at a slight angle.
- I set up my camera on a tripod. Now, angle here is up to you. I originally set my tripod up for my height, which is 5'8", and decided I didn't like that angle. I also didn't really want a right-on-the-floor-with-them angle, so I took it down to around 5' tall. Be conscious of your framing - this will be the framing EVERY shot all morning will have! Pay particular attention to things like ceiling lines. I intentionally set my framing to just cut off the ceiling, as it gave it a nicer look (and we can pretend I have vaulted ceilings).
- I set up my camera to be fired by a remote. For my D800, there is a piece that needs to attach to the camera itself, and then a little handheld remote just bigger than the AAA battery it takes is used to trigger it. Different remotes will work different ways. My particular remote does not require line of sight, meaning the camera does not need to be able to "see" the remote (think of when you point your TV remote at the TV in order to turn up the volume - if you don't point at the TV but instead point to your left, the TV won't have any idea you told it to do something). I prefer remotes that do not need line of sight, as they offer more flexibility.
- I took several test shots until I was happy with the balance between flash and ambient light. If you do this the night before, you'll want to do it again in the morning to make sure the daylight from windows is not affecting your image in ways you don't like.
- I used the remote all morning to take pictures of my babies (and me and my husband)! My sons are trained enough now, being the sons of a professional photographer, to know to pose for the camera, so even though I was never actually behind the camera, I could tell them to say cheese and they would look at the camera and smile. Even my 16 month old has this down! My older son also knew to hold his gifts up for the camera and to say cheese if he wanted a picture of his new gift. This worked out nicely, and I got a mix of posed and candid shots from our morning.
If you have all of the equipment I used, then you're all set to try this out next Christmas! Or even at your next family gathering. You could use studio strobes instead of the speedlight, but while I normally use studio strobes, I opted for the wireless experience offered by the speedlight.
Now, what about if you don't have any of that stuff - what if you are shooting on your iPhone or other smartphone?
- Still follow step 1, so your shot is clear and planned. Then you would skip step 2 of course.
- For step 3, if you have an actual tripod, great! If not, just find some way of standing it up in place, whether that's via a phone holder or setting it between piles of books - whatever works!
- From there, I would recommend using a time lapse app of your choice and set it up to take a picture every 10 seconds or so - choose your amount of time based on how long your kids take to open gifts. If they tear through them in 10 minutes, maybe every 5 seconds is a better choice. My kids were slow and took almost 2 hours to open their gifts (they were also spoiled by their grandparents beyond all reason) and I felt like I took a shot maybe every minute unless something really great was going on. This is the nice thing about doing it with a remote vs a timer.
- Document your Christmas morning stress-free!
I ended up taking over 200 photos of my family just during the gift opening time. Here are my top 21 images! I'm so happy I was able to capture these with minimal effort and no forced smiles. Use the arrows or the thumbnail images to view all of them.
In the evening, just before bedtime, I got some pictures of the kids alone, basking in the glow of the Christmas tree, because why not - you only have so many Christmases with them before they are off to college. (Click these to view them larger)
I hope these tips are helpful for documenting your family without any of the drama on Christmas morning! Of course I still recommend hiring a professional photographer for your portrait needs, but don't forget that every moment with your children is one that should be preserved.