10 Tips to Photograph the Essence of Thanksgiving

Cameraphone or SLR, here's how to capture photos worth keeping.

By Melissa Perenson

Photography shares something in common with a table of food: They both draw people together. So what better time to indulge in photography than when we’ve all come together on the annual holiday that's been set aside for us to give thanks over a feast?

Pull out your smarphone or digital camera and start documenting the day. These practical tips will help you capture every moment of your Thanksgiving, in ways you may not have considered.

1. Start early

Sometimes the craziest scenes are even before the main event. While everyone else is watching football or playing in the autumn leaves, sneak into kitchen and take some prep pictures. You know the ones--where all the ingredients are out, the kitchen is in chaos, the turkey is being basted.

Dinner in progress


Those kind of in-the-moment shots can establish the tone of the day. Just don’t irritate the chef if you want to get fed. And be sure to get The Bird when it comes out of the oven, but before it gets sliced up--or dropped on the floor.

2. Offer to set the table

That way you’ll be in the perfect place to take the requiste shots of the various completed sides and mains in all their glory, untouched by the hungry hordes. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a few seconds to fuss around with angles.


3. Have fun experimenting

Play with angles and perspectives—especially if you have a phone like the Apple iPhone 7 or Honor 8, both of which let you use shallow depth-of-field to boost your creative options. Or, if you have one of Huawei or Honor’s flagship dual-lens devices, try playing with the monochrome capture.

A black-and-white table setting experiment via Mark Surman/Flickr

Go for closeups and extreme detail—especially when shooting the main event, The Bird. And remeber to shoot the large, scene-setting establishing shots. We suggest sticking with landscape shots as much as possible. Social media favors content captured horizontally, after all--but go portrait mode for creativity.

4. Be efficient

As much as you want to document everything as artistically as possible, remember you're embedded in a house full of hungry people eager to dig into the food. You won’t have a lot of time to experiment with angles or lighting. Try to picture what you want to capture in advance, and think about the shots that might work before the food is done and cooling on the table. This way you can just reach in and shoot with minimal overhead and disruption to dinner.

5. Watch the light

Find your light sources in the room and think of how to position dishes accordingly. A good food photography rule-of-thumb is to look for lighting that comes at your food subject from the back or side, as this will add dimension and emphasize texture.

Avoid using a flash directly on the food; rather, use a hand-held LED light source or grab an assistant who can use their phone camera’s flash to shine some extra creative light on your subject.


Inexpensive LED video lights like this one from Insignia can be attached to your phone or held in your hand.

6. Pay attention to the backgrounds

Look for stray objects that can be tidied up or moved to make a cleaner background or line. And watch for stray bits of food or crumbs that can distract from your subject. Unless you’re aiming to get creative and shoot the trail of bread crumbs or dribbled stuffing.

Note how the (mostly) clean background offsets the turkey. Cynthia Loskey/Flickr

7. Embrace Burst Mode

Most smarphone cameras have easy-to-use burst-modes: Just hold the shutter button to take a rapid burst of shots. Doing so has multiple benefits. Your hand can vary the position and framing infinitesimely, which sometimes translates into a slightly better angle without even realizing you did so. Plus, this means you can catch subtle action like steam emanating from fresh potatoes. And shots can easily be stitched to form living pictures, like Google Photos does with its Animations. If you have an iPhone, enable Live Photos for a similar effect.

8. Look for the fun and unexpected

Are there fancy table settings? Pretty fresh flowers? Illuminated candles? Fun party favors made by the kids? Look for these moments, and find a way to capture them. Using burst mode to capture a candle’s flame can be particularly effective, for example.

9. The Camera Eats Before We Do

Given our collective fascination with food photography, most folks at the table will indulge some quick shots even after everyone has sat down. And may even be whipping out their own phones to document the festive meal. That said, watch for interesting food textures that might be enhanced if you were to actually bite into it first, like a tremendous turkey drumstick with a bite missing.

10. Remember the people

The holidays are all about giving thanks and being with people. Circling back to the first tip, remember to capture all of the domestic scenes of the day. Maybe your day started with a trip to a local parade.

Ryan and Sarah Deeds/Flickr

Or you have a big enough group for a touch football game, and a mountain of leaves for the kids to romp through. Or it’s cold enough that your group is just huddled around the TV watching a bowl game. Whatever the activity, take some snaps to capture those moments, too. It’s not all about the food—even though your stomach may disagree.

Happy Thanksgiving.