Thanksgiving Photography Tips

Thanksgiving starts the holiday season and highlights autumn’s harvest with the anticipation of the coming winter. The winter holidays present interesting opportunities for photographers because of their festive nature, the gathering of family, and the picturesque decorations that come out in force. This is a time to create memorable, emotion-invoking images that will be enjoyed by your family for years (and generations) to come.


Plan Ahead

Thanksgiving wreath hanging on residential door

Every photography project or endeavor is better served with some sort of pre-planning – thinking about what shots you want to get, and making sure you’ve transferred all existing images on your memory card(s) so you have clean ones. Recharge your batteries and clean your favorite lenses. Scout the location (the family house or apartment) taking notice of specific details. Observe how the light filters in through the windows and illuminates the room. Don’t be afraid to take notes, take test shots under various lighting conditions to check exposure values, and try out compositions. This way when it comes down to actually photographing your family, you’ll know exactly what to do, where to position people and what are the best times to shoot.


Zoom in for Details

Thanksgiving Dinner with turkey and vegetables

Part of how you “see” the world and then translate that vision to your photographs is determined by what you concentrate on – what draws your eye, and how you decide to compose that image. Perhaps you may even decide to take extreme close-ups. In any event, you’ll be best served shooting with a zoom lens during the holidays (more flexibility in composition). Fill the frame with details that will evoke the spirit of the holiday. For Thanksgiving what strikes your fancy could be the turkey when it comes out of the oven or when it’s placed on the table. Wine glasses, the wreaths on the doors and autumnal flower arrangements around the house are all great details. The underlying concept here is to imagine what images – when closely cropped in the composition, will have the most dramatic impact.


Family Group Shots

Thanksgiving Day Photograph of a big family

Every holiday demands several family group shots, and then a series of candids to complete the memory (one of the key things photography is used for). However, these standard shots can be boring, so our best advice is to employ compositions that are as unique and robust as possible. Have fun if you can, and that might mean using props (you have a whole table full, so get creative). You’ll want to position the family in such a way that you take into consideration the height and width of your frame (you might want to get a step ladder or stand on a chair to get a different/better vantage point) and position your family so they fill the frame. Since you need to be in some of the photos too, use a tripod and the auto-timer to get the composition you want (perhaps from up high looking down) and still get in the photo. Obviously, the hearty Thanksgiving meal needs to be a centerpiece in the composition, and make sure the cook holds it up or showcases it (if it too heavy). The goal for group shots is to get your entire clan in the photo, but not have too much headroom (as too many pitiful group family shots have). Also, avoid using a flash. Let the natural light or the light from the table be your key light.


Take Candid Shots

Thanksgiving Photography - A toddler looks at a pumpkin in a pumpkin patch

Candid shots are where the fun is! Posed and constructed shots can get a little tedious (and put a strain on your family’s patience). You want to get your family – especially any young children – enjoying and experiencing the holiday without any conscious recognition of the camera. Thanksgiving centers around the meal, so you’ll want to get the carving of the turkey to be the focus point in many of the photos (if you can, don’t force it… as it will look forced). Keep the zoom lens on, with a wide aperture and fast ISO to capture the action (such as laughter) as it happens and not have to worry about “designing” a shot. Candids capture your family when they’re not expecting it, so utilize a long focal length and fast shutter to capture singular moments that will tell the story of that holiday years from now.


Use Creative Angles

Happy family with child on autumn orange leaf.

Composition is paramount for the most startling images, so that’s what your goal is, what you must constantly be striving for. While the Rule of Thirds is a good jumping off point, consider altering your vantage point (height, distance from subject, lens focal length) to increase the variety of angles and positions so you have the most flexibility in choosing angles for your composition. In the above photo, the photographer got above his subjects for an overhead shot that is fun and shows the unity between the two sisters; it’s much better than them standing side-by-side! Their eyes are on the same plane, but their smiles are not, so you are drawn to the faces one at a time. Another part of “using creative angles” is deciding how to crop the subject with the frame to emphasize the composition and angle.


Position Pleasingly

Happy family in autumn park on Thanksgiving Day

Inevitably, there comes a time for formal groups shots on Thanksgiving; to succeed, think of them as family portraits without the pro-photo studio. One of the things you’ll want to do is to arrange your subjects in positions where the environment compliments them. This might mean using the holiday decorations or taking advantage of the outdoors as your setting. However, you don’t want the background to be too much of a distraction, so use a wide aperture (like f/2 or f/2.8 to sufficiently reduce the depth of field). Group your family together so that they fill the frame (or at least dominate the frame – the key is to limit the headroom). You might want to utilize your flash to fill in the shadows, particularly if you’re shooting outside late in the afternoon.


Recommended Settings

As the fall/winter holidays are family gatherings centered around a meal (often dinner), you’ll want to capitalize on the intimacy and emotion of the moment. These are usually low-light moments that you want to capture without a flash. You’ll want to use a fast lens and set the aperture as wide open as possible (f/2, f/2.8)… this also reduces the depth of field and requires using a slower shutter speed to obtain an adequate exposure… but you’ll obtain a more dream-like image, which helps elevate the moment’s emotions in your photo. An ISO setting of 400 is probably the best bet for low-light shooting.


Recommended Equipment

You don’t want to be overly formal, so keep your photo equipment limited, but efficient. As mentioned before, a tripod might be necessary to get the best (a high) angle of your family and to allow you to be in the shot as well. If you insist on using a flash, be sure to get a detachable one so you can use the flash output to shape the contours of your subjects’ face and bodies (instead of the flattening front flash look we’ll all tired of). A zoom lens will probably work best for your Thanksgiving photos, however, you also might want a fast wide angle (say a f/1.4 28mm) for candid shots around the dinner table.



Thanksgiving is the big family gathering holiday, and emotions can be high during this time. When the family members start to arrive, and from the moment the first person comes in the door you can be snapping away – getting candids, zoomed-in close ups and detail work. There are a few critical pieces of equipment (tripod, detachable flash) that you should bring to make things easier, but it’s really just you and the camera. Don’t forget the turkey is ready for a close-up the second it comes out of the oven.

Attila Kun

Attila is the founder and editor-in-chief of Exposure Guide. He is an avid photographer, graphic designer, bedroom DJ and devoted Mac addict. Attila got his first DSLR camera, a Canon 10D, back in 2003 and he has been hooked on photography ever since.