8 Thanksgiving Photography Tips For Capturing Authentic Holiday Moments

Thanksgiving is full of turkeys — the actual one, and that weird relative every family somehow seems to have — and both types make excellent photographs. From capturing the food to showcasing the decor, from snagging a quick family portrait to freezing that sparkle in grandma’s eye, Thanksgiving is ripe with creative possibilities for photographers.

But add in a group of people who haven’t see each other in a while, social distancing, indoor lighting and eating entirely too much turkey, and Thanksgiving photography isn’t exactly simple, point-and-shoot photography. To make the most of the holiday, we’ve put together eight Thanksgiving photography tips to capture the best memories of turkey day.

Don’t forget the behind the scenes.

The camera shouldn’t stay tucked in the bag until that dinner call. What happens pre-turkey often makes up many of the family memories. Record Grandma making her infamous recipe, the mid-cooking jokes, and all the work that goes into that big meal. And after that turkey, don’t forget to waddle back into the kitchen and photograph the aftermath that is dishes skewed every which way (and offer to help wash or dry).

Find a window.

Thanksgiving photos are often tricky because, frankly, November is too cold to eat a nice dinner out on the patio in most areas. Indoor lighting means using wide apertures and higher ISOs, but you can also improve your shots by using natural light from a window. Claim the seat closest to the window, and move that plate over to the natural light before taking that food shot. Windows also make excellent lighting for quick portraits of family members.

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Look for details.

What are your favorite memories of Thanksgiving? Often, the smaller details make up some of that list. Get a close-up of the steam coming off that turkey. Fill the frame with a pair of hands slicing that turkey. Zoom in on the centerpiece. Take a macro shot of the whipped cream curling on top of that pumpkin pie. Create a still life of that gravy river through mashed potato mountain. You can’t photograph the smell of Thanksgiving, but you can get pretty close to capturing the sense of it by getting up close.

Watch for distractions.

The little things make great photos — and they also break them. Check the frame for anything distracting from the subject. Adjust the table setting to get a shot that focuses on just one element. Move the dirty dishes out of the background. Work to make sure everything in the photo is supporting the main idea rather then taking away from it by moving objects, adjusting the crop, or changing the angle.

Capture the not-so-perfect.

Distractions are one thing, pretending you have a magazine-worthy family Thanksgiving every year is another. Maybe family tradition requires that someone always burns those rolls. Maybe (or rather, probably) the kitchen looks like a war zone at the end of the meal. Capture the tears clinging to eyelashes when the toddler can’t eat dessert first. Maybe the dog makes off with one of those rolls. You’ve captured the food, now capture what makes that day belong to your particular family.

Mix it up with different angles and focal lengths.

I know it’s hard to move around with all that tryptophan pumping through your system, but avoid shooting every photo from the same height. To create variety, shoot from different angles. Shoot that food photo from both that popular top-down spread and using a side angle. Get a tall shot of everyone around the table, and an eye-level shot of family members together. Changing the focal length, if you use a camera with interchangeable lenses or a zoom lens, will also help add variety to those Thanksgiving albums.

Thanksgiving is all about people, people, people.

Would Thanksgiving be the same if you ate a big turkey spread — all by yourself? Snapping those Instagram-worthy food shots is great, but don’t forget to capture everyone who made it all happen. Include people in the behind-the-scenes preparation, or even in the background of the food photos. Thanksgiving is also a great time to take a quick family photo — if you can, gather everyone outside before the meal, where you’ll have both more space for all those people and more flattering natural light. Pull a few family members aside to capture quick portraits of the people that make the holiday about more than just good food.

Women cooking in the kitchen

Capture what you are thankful for.

Thanksgiving photos don’t necessarily have to be about turkey, cooking and family gatherings. Try a different angle on Thanksgiving photography and photograph what you are thankful for. Maybe that’s a person (or people). Maybe that’s an item that’s important to you. Or, maybe you’re thankful for something a little more abstract. Ideas that aren’t things are tricky, but with some creativity, you can capture that abstract thing you are thankful for. For example,  photographing a pair of work boots or ID tag could represent a job, while an image of a pair of tennis shoes or an empty medicine cabinet could represent health.

Thanksgiving mixes food photography with family portraits and even detailed macro shots. Besides just capturing family memories, Thanksgiving is also the perfect chance to turn that thing you are thankful for into a work of art — unless of course what you are thankful for is that camera you are holding in your hands.

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Hillary Grigonis FOLLOW >

Hillary K. Grigonis is a web content writer and lifestyle photographer from Michigan. After working as a photojournalist for several years, she made the leap and started her own business and now enjoys sharing tips and tricks with emerging photographers.