Thanksgiving is that wonderful time of year when we count our blessings and get together with family. Who then promptly drive you crazy.
Whether your family drives you nuts or not, Thanksgiving can be a fun time to get your camera out and make some photos. Making photos on holidays like Thanksgiving is a good way to make memories spending time with those closest to you. It’s also a good opportunity to practice your photography skills by making you think about lighting and composition—and great practice for wedding photographers who do a lot of candid photography.
These Thanksgiving images should get you in the spirit of the season and hopefully give you some inspiration for photographing your own Thanksgiving festivities.
When I shoot events and family gatherings, this is usually the type of shot that value most. Including multiple subjects in your frame (while filling the frame) around an activity that everyone is engaged in—in this case sitting at the dinner table about to dig in to Thanksgiving dinner—is the best way to tell the story of the day in my opinion. Detail shots and scene setter shots are great and complete a photo essay but photos with people interacting interest me the most.
On a technical note, I like how this photographer centered the turkey. The family is about to eat it so they’re all focused in its direction, so it serves as a logical focal point in this Thanksgiving image. I also like how the photographer evenly spaced the subjects throughout the frame.
This photo still features multiple subjects, but the photographer chose to zoom in on a detail of the frame, in this case of two people holding hands at the Thanksgiving dinner table before the turkey is cut and food is served. It looks like they may be starting a prayer, as the people across from them aren’t holding hands. Either way, I think it’s a nice detail shot that shows a highlight of a typical Thanksgiving day.
There’s nothing more iconic about Thanksgiving than a turkey cooked to perfection.
I like how the photographer of this Thanksgiving image photographed this turkey in context: at the dinner table, surrounded by side dishes right before serving.
There’s great lighting in this photo from the upper left side of the frame from either a window or an artificial light source. The highlights on the turkey make it glisten. I like how the turkey is lit brightly as the rest of the image is dark and contrasty with lots of dark shadow, which makes for a dramatic look.
Here’s one of those ‘decisive moment’-type shots that you can capture if you’re prepared and you’re in the right place at the right time. Part of getting shots like these is metering before the moment so you can get your exposure correct and then be ready to frame the shot when something like this happens.
This is another good example of a Thanksgiving image that uses the full frame. It essentially has three different layers, each with two subjects talking and interacting with one another. What I like about photography like this is that it invites the viewer to follow throughout the frame and explore each layer visually. Notice how the photographer spaced out the subjects so that there’s minimal overlap.
This is kind of a cool image that shows a plate ready to be filled with tasty Thanksgiving food and a natural centerpiece for the table behind it. I like how the backlighting creates dramatic shadows and I think the frame is filled nicely.
I like how the photographer who did this image framed this table from up high in order to get everything on the table in the shot. It’s a little too contrasty for my taste, as it looks like some of the blacks in the image are crushed but I still think it’s a good shot. It’s nice how it captures someone placing the turkey dish down on the table.
When you’re taking pictures during Thanksgiving, it can make for nice images to photograph the dinner table with all the food on it like this. On the other hand, I don’t know if many peoples’ Thanksgiving dinner situation is going to be like this, where the table is set with all the food on the table, no plates served and no one sitting at the table so something like this may take a bit of staging and that’s personally not my thing but if it’s yours then more power to you.
This could be a Halloween photo also but I think pumpkins are part of the holiday season all the way to Christmas. It’s not clear whether these pumpkins are on a table or the ground in front of the wall behind them but it’s a simple, straightforward composition. Five pumpkins in the foreground against an off white background. If I shot this I might have cut out less of the pumpkins on either side.
Here’s an even better shot in my opinion of a family saying a prayer before their Thanksgiving meal. I say better just because it was caught at a better moment because all the people at the table are holding hands and praying. I like how the photographer used a wide aperture to show the hands holding but everything in the foreground a little blurry. It highlights what’s important in the shot and defocuses the stuff in the shot that is a little less important.
This Thanksgiving image looks more like a staged photoshoot for a magazine or something than an organic shot but it does give you some good ideas as to how you could take photos of your turkey and how you can arrange the setting around it to make it look festive.
Here’s a cool shot. Not only does the turkey look delicious but the framing is unique. Rather than just zoom in on the turkey, the photographer took a more creative approach by using a large aperture, focusing on the turkey, but still including the family in the background of the photo.
The family is in blurry bokeh but you still get enough context to see that it’s a family sitting down at the dinner table getting ready for their Thanksgiving meal.
Here’s another great angle you can shoot your turkey from. This is just a nicely composed photo of a turkey shot from the side. It’s nice that the photographer included a little context too, with what looks like a gravy boat and side dish to the sides and bokeh balls from strings of lights in the background.
Here’s another approach you can take to having the turkey be the main focus in your Thanksgiving images: taking some shots after the meal has started so you get a sense of what that was like as part of the day. It’s a good case for keeping your camera close by at all times throughout the day; I imagine this photographer taking a quick snap after starting their own meal and then putting the camera back down to eat.
This is another great way to photograph a Thanksgiving turkey. The photographer included what looks like most of the table in the shot so you get to see all the other side dishes for the meal. It’s also a nice touch that they snapped the photo just as everyone was starting to eat and you see peoples’ hands reaching to fill their plates.
This one is a bit on the cheesy side, but it’s still nice to see people’s reactions to something exciting or anticipated and also see the thing they’re reacting to. It looks like this was shot with a longer lens or a zoom lens, which would be a good idea to have in your kit if you want to more easily take shots like this where it may be hard to fill the frame if you’re using a wide lens and you have something like a table keeping you from getting up close to your subjects.
This is a good example of focusing in on one Thanksgiving plate, which I think is nice to show as it’s different than showing just the turkey or the entire table full of food. It gives you one more aspect of the entire story of the Thanksgiving day. Notice how the lighting from the left side of the frame makes the turkey and cranberry sauce glisten.
This is another good display of a Thanksgiving day plate and you get some extra context on its sides with it. The side dishes and the nice texture of the wood table. The dark blacks in the shadows give this Thanksgiving image a dramatic look.
Cutting the turkey is a nice moment to photograph on Thanksgiving day. It’s kind of a big deal for the day—kind of like popping a champagne bottle or something. It’s extra nice when the turkey looks nice and juicy like this one.
It would be a crime to photograph all that Thanksgiving food and then not get the best part, the dessert. It’s nice how the photographer put a couple of things in the foreground, the pumpkin and spoon, for a little creative flair while positioning the pumpkin pie as the photo’s subject a little off-center in the frame.
This one is not subtle in its messaging considering there’s a card with the words ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ on it but I think it’s a nice, moody shot. The dark ambiance and candles make it look like nighttime on Thanksgiving day after everyone has eaten and things are winding down.
This is another after-dinner Thanksgiving image with a moody feel to it. Food has been swapped out for wine glasses ready to be poured. There’s not really a specific subject in this photo but it’s more about the lighting and atmosphere.
Final Thoughts on Thanksgiving Images
I tried to include a wide selection of Thanksgiving images here running the gamut of the types of photos you can do. When I photograph holidays like Thanksgiving or events like birthday parties where I’m not working but want to document the day, I still kind of try to approach it like I would a paid gig, just with a lot less intensity.
I try to get a bit of everything when I photograph events; group portraits, candid photos of interesting moments throughout the day, the decorations, the food, etc. I like to go from wide shots (like taking photos of the house or wide shots of a living room where you can photograph the whole family) to doing macro shots of things like decorations or food. I try out different lighting styles and see what’s working at the location where you’re at. A lot of times I just use natural light and try to find angles with some good window lighting. For portraits, I usually like to bounce flash off a ceiling or wall.
I don’t think there’s any one way to go about photographing Thanksgiving, as with any photography really. Find your style you’re comfortable with and go with it, in my opinion. If that means just doing photography of the food or whatever, I say more power to you.
I hope you got some inspiration out of these Thanksgiving images so you can shoot your own. Happy Thanksgiving.
Brandon Ballweg is a photographer from the Kansas City area. He is the founder of ComposeClick.