Institute of Photography - Tips for Better Pictures
How To Capture
Thanksgiving With Your Camera
When the Pilgrims gathered in 1621 to give thanks for the
blessing of the past year, the seeds of Thanksgiving were
planted, and in 1789, President George Washington
declared it a National Holiday. We've celebrated this
uniquely American holiday every November since.
So much for history. What the day has come to mean for
most of us is our family gathering together over the
traditional Thanksgiving dinner turkey and all the
trimmings. And that's the spirit you want to capture in
your Thanksgiving photographs the spirit of family
This is a wonderful opportunity for great family
pictures. After all, this may be your only opportunity
all year to photograph the entire family together
from the newest baby to great grandmother. But if you
want to transform your so-so snapshots into memorable
photographs for the family album, here are a few simple
guidelines to follow.
The most important guideline is to know exactly what you
want to be the subject of each picture. If it's Great
Grandmother, when you look through the viewfinder make
sure that she's the most important thing in the frame and
try to eliminate anything that distracts from her. If the
subject is the carved turkey, do the same for it.
The second key element to capture in your photograph is
the spirit of the occasion, and we have already defined
the spirit of Thanksgiving as family and togetherness.
To capture that sense of family and togetherness, let's
look in detail about how to set up two formal photographs
the "dining-room-table" shot and an
outdoor family group portrait.
First, let's look at a basic
"dining-room-table" shot. A picture of the
carved turkey, by itself or with all the trimmings, is
pretty dull. But you can add life to the photography if
you think of the classic Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving
painting of the family gathered around the table as
Father is poised to carve the turkey. That's the spirit
you want to capture in your photograph. And here's how
you do it.
Position yourself and your camera at the far end of the
table directly opposite Dad (or Mom, or Uncle Bob,
or whoever does the carving). Don't shoot from a seated
level because the most important visible thing in your
picture will be the clutter of dishes, silverware and
napkins on the table and you don't want that.
What you do want to feature in your picture are the
family members, the elegant setting, and the turkey. So
stand up. If possible (and you are steady on your feet)
stand on a step stool. From this higher vantage you can
get all the family in your picture, along with the turkey
and the person poised to carve. That makes the people and
the overall table setting the important subjects, not the
Now don't make this a candid photo. Instead, direct
everyone in what to do. Take one photo with them all
holding up their glasses in a toast and looking toward
the camera. Take another with everyone looking toward the
about-to-be-carved turkey. Take one with them all talking
to one another. And in every photo, the
"carver" be it Dad or Mom should be
holding the knife at the ready. Hint: Avoid catching
people in the act of eating. They usually look awful.
How should you light this scene? If you camera has flash,
use it. But the problem with built-in flash on many
cameras is that it may be too weak to light up the far
end of a long table. So, shoot some pictures without
flash too, so that if the flash pictures are not well
lit, the non-flash ones may be better. This way, you can
take your choice. Another hint: For your non-flash shots,
try to use a fast film say, ISO 400 or 800. While
these films will work with flash as well, their speed can
come in handy when you don't use flash.
If you can't get everyone on your end of table in your
shot, don't worry, you'll include everyone in the next
formal picture, the family group photo.
Family Group Photo
Thanksgiving presents one other classic photo opportunity
a large group portrait. Since the extended family
can amount to a small army that doesn't fit around one
large table, get them all together for a special
portrait. If additional friends and relatives will be
dropping by for desert or an after-dinner cup of coffee,
wait until they arrive as well.
Consider gathering the entire group outside, perhaps on
the front porch. The key to a successful shot the
key to any successful group shot is the way you
arrange the subjects. Don't line them up like soldiers at
attention. Rather, aim for a casual up-and-down
arrangement. If the porch has steps, have some people sit
on the steps, sit some on chairs above, have some stand
while others lean against the railing. Don't forget the
family pets (if they don't keep wandering away).
After you have everyone in place, check the scene in your
viewfinder. Make sure you can see every face. If
necessary, ask people to move closer together to close up
any empty spaces. Remember, togetherness is the theme.
Show this togetherness in your picture. Don't separate
Since it's likely to be getting late in the day by the
time you get everyone assembled after dinner, we suggest
you use flash for this photograph so that everyone will
be visible in the photograph.
Steady now. And we mean this. If you can use a tripod, do
so. It's best for a large portrait. And, say something
right before the shutter trips that will get them all
laughing. If "Say Cheese!" makes everyone
laugh, use it. (But if they really say "cheese"
forget it the smiles will look forced.)
Another good reason to use a tripod is so you can leave
the camera in a set position if you need to step into the
group to make some last minute adjustments in the pose.
That way, you can help Aunt Molly move a little to her
left, straighten little Joey's hat, and get the dog back
into the photo without losing the framing that you've
And don't forget yourself. If your camera has a
self-timer and it's on a tripod, you can hurry into the
picture before the shutter clicks. If not, ask someone
outside the family to snap the picture after you set it
Now the hard work is done. You've
taken two great formal photographs that capture the
spirit of the day. Before you stop however, it's time to
take some candids of the kids playing touch football,
Uncle Max dozing on the sofa, and the "clean-up
crew" at work in the kitchen. Here's a chance to
concentrate on the individuals who make your family
special. If you're feeling energetic, you could even
shoot some family portraits.
But your Thanksgiving pictures should not end on
Thanksgiving Day and be forgotten. Since family and
togetherness is the theme, follow through. When you get
back the prints, select the best ones and arrange to send
copies to everyone in them and don't forget to
also send them to those who were invited but couldn't
make it. If a picture is really good, consider sending
blow-ups 5x7 or 8x10. There's no surer way to make
yourself a hero in your family. These photos, slipped
into a nice frame, can also make great Christmas