March 1, 2024

10 Thanksgiving Photography Tips and Ideas

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When it comes to opportunities to capture heart-warming images, Thanksgiving photography is near the top of the list. Family members gather at the dinner table, airports and highways buzz with the excitement of the season, and the holiday shopping shifts into high gear.

A camera is the perfect tool to capture memories that last a lifetime. Combining it with a big holiday like Thanksgiving makes perfect sense.

Whether you’re a professional or amateur, a quality camera, some patience, and a touch of creativity coalesce to create timeless photos of this annual tradition.


In this article, we outline Thanksgiving photoshoot ideas. We dive into tips and tricks to spark your creativity, from the dinner table to family members, candid shots in the kitchen, portraits, and group photos. And we look at parades and events that give you some outdoor ideas.

bird on plate for thanksgiving.
The Thanksgiving bird is a must-have photo.

Planning and Preparing for Your Shoot

Even if you are just shooting your family members, it’s good to create pro-level Thanksgiving photos. So, a little planning goes a long way in capturing out-of-the-ordinary images.

Begin with a quality camera, either DSLR or mirrorless. Next, choose a versatile lens. An ideal choice for an indoor shoot would be a 24-105 mm zoom lens. This will give you a full range, from wide-angle shots of the group to close-ups for food photography.

Clean your gear, both the camera sensor and lens. Pack a fully charged battery and a backup along with extra memory cards.

If you’re not familiar with the setting, arrive early and scout it. Take note of the natural light and the space you’ll be shooting in, and pay attention to small details. Get a sense of the available light and where you may need an external flash.

digital camera.
Get your gear in good working order for Thanksgiving.

Adjust Your Camera Mode and Settings

To keep things simple, shoot in semi-auto settings such as aperture priority or shutter priority. You’ll spend less time working with the camera and be ready when special moments happen.

Use Auto White Balance. Most cameras are very capable at this, and if you shoot in RAW, you can tweak it in post production.

Take a few test shots at different ISO settings to strike a balance between a fast shutter speed and an acceptable noise level. Bring along an external flash for low-light situations and a tripod for group shots.

A flash may be a distraction in some situations; however, it’s a good option for posed family photos. I would avoid a camera’s pop-up flash, which can give your images a harsh look.

thanksgiving dinner toast with wine glasses.
A shot of the Thanksgiving toast says this is a special occasion.

Tips for Thanksgiving Dinner Shots

Step outside your comfort zone and get creative! To prevent all your holiday photos from looking the same, break some habits. Search Thanksgiving family pictures on stock photo sites like Shutterstock or Adobe Stock and find some inspiration. Look for moments, scenes, and favorite dishes. Get the kids, loved ones, and friends into the frame. Find the main subject for each photo, whether it’s the cranberry sauce or a candid shot of a family member. Here are a few ideas for your Thanksgiving photoshoot:

1. The Thanksgiving Table

Tablescapes tell an essential part of the Thanksgiving story. Get a few photos of the table decorations to show that this is a singular event. Then, when the Thanksgiving feast is on the table, take more shots before everyone is seated. Thanksgiving food photography is practically a genre of its own.

table decoration with turkey salt and pepper shakers.
An elegant table setting features Thanksgiving themes.

2. Get Behind the Scenes

Capture the activity in the kitchen during food preparation. Take food photos and detail shots: shots of the turkey coming out of the oven, a pair of hands slicing vegetables, and rolls being placed in a dish. Stand on a chair and get a birds-eye view of the whole scene.

3. The Moment the Guests Arrive

Use a long lens and shoot from some distance so you catch candid shots of the hugs and kisses. Let the viewer feel the joy as family and friends reunite.

4. A Group Photo

Be sure to take a few group shots with all the family members and guests. You may be able to do this at the dinner table or, if it’s a large group, head outside. Be mindful of the background and lighting. Shoot a burst to make sure you have an image with no one in mid-blink.

thanksgiving family photo.
Group photos are family favorites.

5. Family Togetherness

When everyone is seated at the table, the family may take a moment to practice their religion. The prayer process with everyone holding hands is a good time to set the camera to silent mode. Then, as the meal gets underway, look for the smiles and expressions of joy. Also, a group toast is a moment that conveys people’s emotions. Read our article on fun and unique ideas for family photography.

6. Leave Room for Dessert

The pies, cakes, and sweets that follow a Thanksgiving meal are photo opportunities all on their own. In addition, treat yourself to candid photos of kids and grown-ups savoring the desserts.

pumpkin pie on wooden table.
Apply a creative eye for Thanksgiving desserts.

7. Ready for the Big Game

Whether it’s on TV or in the backyard, a little football is part of the Thanksgiving holiday. Catch the reaction of viewers responding to a great play or a grandson carrying the ball.

8. Post-Meal Naps

When the food comas set in after dinner, snap some pictures of Grandad catching flies with a wide open mouth or a child napping in Mom’s arms. These make photos that will be treasured.

9. Go for Candid Photos

Shots of people relaxed and socializing capture the true personality of a person in a manner that posed photos miss.

The unexpected and spontaneous candid photos add an element of authenticity. Keep the camera ready.

woman and child meal preparation for thanksgiving.
Stay alert for special moments in the kitchen.

10. The Aftermath

The after-dinner table shows that everyone had a good time. The cleanup in the kitchen and dining room, along with organizing the leftovers, tells a story about the work that went into this Thanksgiving celebration.

The Thanksgiving dinner offers great photoshoot ideas with the possibility of catching images that people will cherish. But if you want to get away from the family photos and explore another essential part of the holiday, here are a couple of alternatives.

Photographing a Thanksgiving Day Parade

Many cities hold Thanksgiving Day parades. Macy’s parade in New York City is one of the most well-known, although Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is the oldest, dating to 1920.

woman with baton at holiday parade.
Parades offer motion and color for photographers.

All parades feature many of the same elements, so if you’ve seen one…well, you know. But that means coming away with worthwhile photos is an accomplishment. And it takes a little extra effort. Here are a few tips to help.

What Lens to Use?

If you have the gear, use two cameras with two different lenses. One camera with a 17-40 mm zoom is good for wide angle scenes. The second camera could have a 70-200 mm lens when you want longer reach. Both allow for some creativity. But if you have to bring just one lens, I’d suggest the 70-200 mm.

Arrive Early

Know the parade route and get to the staging area well ahead of time. Look for compelling images of the parade preparations. You can capture candid photos as people get their floats ready, tune up their instruments, and make the final touches on costumes.

You may want to take notes during this time so you have the right information when it comes time to write captions.

trumpet player in costume at holiday parade.
A trumpet player in costume tells the viewer that this is a unique event.

Look for Details

Create a narrative. Instead of shooting groups or vehicles as they pass, find the small details that get overlooked. Shoot close-ups of a drummer instead of the entire band. Capture the expression on a child’s face rather than a group of onlookers.

Try Different Angles

Get the photo from a low angle or find a spot that gives you a birds-eye view.

Shoot Wide and Fast

To get a nice bokeh to blur the distracting elements and get sufficient light, go with a wide aperture. And shoot at a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. You may have to raise the camera’s ISO if necessary. And if you’re hand-holding the camera, don’t forget to enable image stabilization.

Capture Thanksgiving Photos at a Turkey Trot

Thanksgiving is the number 1 day for charity run/walk events. There are more than 700 of these Turkey Trots across the US, and they raise millions of dollars for a variety of charities. Some offer multiple runs; for example, a marathon, 5K, 10K, and kids run, or some combination.

Take in one of these events, and you will find runners outfitted for competition and walkers decked out in all manner of Thanksgiving-themed costumes. It’s a photographer’s bonanza.

starting line of a holiday charity run.
Thanksgiving day charity runs bring big crowds and lots of photo opportunities.

Start or Finish?

You may have to choose between setting up at the starting line or at the finish line. However, some events have a more circular route, so you can shoot the beginning of the race and then hustle over a few blocks and be ready when people cross the finish line.

Many of the tips outlined in photographing a holiday parade also apply to the Turkey Trot. Go for details, try different angles, and catch the fun and excitement of the event.

Conclusion

Look at your Thanksgiving photoshoot in a new way to keep your photos from looking like everyone else’s. Find some inspiration and trust your eye as a photographer.

Shoot plenty of pics and edit with a thoughtful eye. Families appreciate things like photo books, images optimized for social media, and wall prints.

thanksgiving table decorations.
Table settings provide details of this annual tradition.

If you’re taking photos of a parade or Turkey Trot, you may be able to market your images to stock sites, local media, or event organizers.

Thanksgiving photography offers an opportunity to document occasions that only happen once a year. I hope this article helps you capture the festive atmosphere of this special holiday. If you have any comments or suggestions, please submit them in the space below.




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