When shooting photos at a holiday party with your extended family and friends, there are lots of ways you can capture a dud. You might over- or underexpose the photo. Or, your subject may be out of focus. Sometimes, you might just miss the shot altogether for practical reasons, like running out of battery power. The list can go on and on.

Here are a few tips to help you shoot great holiday photos, whether you're looking for a formal family portrait or a casual candid. And while I wrote most of these tips for a digital camera, most of them also apply to shooting photos on a smartphone. 

Great holiday photos include an image of two kids by a christmas tree.
Sometimes it's best to let your kids choose their own poses, which can look more natural.
Photo: Terry Sullivan

Be sure to charge your battery. You don’t want to take the time to set up a great-looking photo only to find that when you’re ready to start shooting you’re out of power. One important rule is to always fully charge your batteries, and, if you can, have a spare battery on hand. This is particularly important if you are shooting outside in a chilly part of the country. The same weather than can create a photogenic snowy scene will tend to drain your batteries quickly—if you do have a spare, try to keep it warm in an inside jacket pocket.

Shoot on cloudy days. Whether you’re shooting indoors or outdoors, look for good lighting. For outside shots, shooting on a cloudy, overcast day may be ideal since it will prevent harsh shadows from appearing on your subject’s face. If you want to shoot on a cloudless day, plan ahead and see if your can shoot during the early morning or early evening, which are the best times to capture photos—the sunlight is softer and more visually pleasing.

If you’re indoors, you’ll probably need to use your camera’s flash. First, try using the auto setting. If you’re not satisfied with the results, turn on the slow-sync-flash mode, which leaves the shutter open after the flash fires. The downside: If there's any movement in the scene, you'll get some motion blur, although you can also get some very cool effects with slow-sync flash. It's worth experimenting with. If you have an external flash on an advanced camera, such as an SLR or mirrorless camera, try angling the flash so that the beam of light bounces off the wall or ceiling. This creates very natural lighting and helps avoid the red-eye effect. (If you do capture photos that have subjects with red-eye, don’t worry: You can generally correct that by using image-editing software or an app.)

For outdoor shoots, dress warmly. Although this seems like a rather obvious tip, it’s important, particularly when your photographing kids during the holiday season. Don't ignore this tip even if you're just running outside for a quick photo shoot in the snow: You don't want pictures of people looking uncomfortable and eager to get back inside. Don’t forget about yourself either. It's hard to concentrate and enjoy the process of photography if you're preoccupied by being uncomfortable.

Check Consumer Reports' 2015 Holiday Guide for our picks of the best gifts, details on the latest deals, time-saving tips, and much more. And see our countdown calendar for top gift ideas for everyone on your list.

This is a photo of a boy and Christmas Trees
Look for expressive gestures when you shoot.
Photo: Terry Sullivan

Don’t pose group shots. You can learn a lot about shooting family gatherings from wedding photographers. And some of the best of those pros avoid rigidly posing their subjects, even when they are asking people to stand together for a group shot. Often, it’s best to let people congregate, more or less, instead of positioning them in a certain order. You can still get the cousins you want in the photo while avoiding the stiffness that often emerges when you ask people to stand in a certain order. Another important tip: While you are shooting, try casually chatting with individuals in the group to put people at ease. 

Check your ISO setting. If you’re shooting with an advanced camera, such as an SLR, it’s easy to set a high ISO setting, and then forget to change it back to a low ISO setting or to Auto. For example, I once accidentally shot an event at 1600 ISO, and the photos were very noisy or grainy. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much I could do after the fact to remedy those flaws. So, be sure to check your ISO settings before you start shooting.

Make sure your main subject is in focus. Check your photo to see if the main subject is in focus, especially when shooting indoors. Today's cameras have such fast autofocus capabilities that it's easy to accidentally focus on another object in your composition as you're about to snap the shot. When that happens, especially in low light, your main subject may look soft or incorrectly exposed.  

These are photos of two kids pinching each other's noses
It's also important to let your subjects have fun.
Photo: Terry Sullivan

Look for expressive gestures. Candid photos are often the most captivating ones. Be on the lookout for expressive gestures. I know that when my relatives get together, their faces can become very animated when they’re engaged in conversation. Also, look for moments when your subjects are joking or clowning around; these can make for a great holiday photo.

Know your equipment. Before a family party begins, take a few minutes to review your camera equipment and settings, especially if you don't shoot very often. Depending on your camera or device, you may be limited in the number of settings you can change, but it’s best to be able to switch among them during an event without having to resort to a manual or lots of experimentation.