Capturing Christmas Lights

Posted by on Dec 23, 2012 in Techniques | 0 comments

Capturing Christmas Lights

Exposure: 3 secs @ f8 – ISO 100

Well, it’s Christmas time and the Christmas lights are lighting up our neighbourhoods.    It’s an enjoyable time of the year in which to spend the nights leading up to Christmas as special family time with the whole family going to see the magical displays put on by talented people.

So, the lights are beautiful to look at, but what is the best way in which to capture the beauty and sparkle of the Christmas lights?  The best time to shoot Christmas lights is after the sun has gone down, but before it gets completely dark (twilight), as it is easier to balance between the existing fading light and the bright lights of the display.  You can also get good images even if they are taken much later, as in the above photo.  Try to shoot some at twilight and work through into the night and see which you prefer best.  TIP: If you are shooting at twilight, try using the tungsten white balance setting, as this can give you a rich blue colour to the sky, but take a couple of test shots first and review them.  If you are shooting RAW, then you can adjust the white balance later in your editing software.

To maintain the beauty of the light display, I set my ISO to 100, leave my flash turned off and select Aperture Priority (Av on Canon & A on Nikon).  I like to start around f8 to get good sharpness with the depth of field, and because it is low-light/night time, the camera will set a long shutter speed to compensate for the smaller aperture, so a tripod is a must!  For example, the above photo was a 3 second exposure at f8.  If I had set a smaller aperture, say f11 or 16, then the shutter speed would have been much longer still.  If for some reason you don’t have a tripod to hand, look for something solid to sit your camera on.  This could be a fence post or rail, brick wall, letterbox, anything solid, even a car roof…just be careful to use your car roof and not some-one else’s!  Setting the focus point will depend on the scene.  Setting the camera to just use a single focus point often works best, and you can still move the single focus point around if you want to focus on an element off to the side somewhere.  If you leave the focus setting on its default of using “all” of its focus points, then the camera will select the closest element in the scene and this may not be what you want to get the sharp focus on, or to draw your viewer to.

 You will need to experiment to get the best results because as your exposure gets longer, you run the risk of blowing out any bright highlights.  So you need to balance getting the light display bright enough, without over-exposing the brighter lights, especially with all the new LED types, as these give very intense light.  In fact, using f18 or higher can give you a “starburst” effect on the lights, which can look really cool.  The same fundamentals apply here too.  Composition: frame your subject, look for leading lines, interesting viewpoints, interesting elements in the foreground or background, angles, etc.

Exposure: 1/13 Sec @ f10 – ISO 100

Even shooting things like this illuminated statue involves the same technique as if shooting real people.  Also, try to use the source of the light to highlight the surroundings, like with this snowman.  The image becomes just that bit more interesting when you include a hint of the surrounding foreground and/or background, in this case the plants and just a few small twinkling lights in the background.  It’s very easy to over-expose subjects like this, so experiment and keep reviewing your images as you go.  If you find they are too bright, or the highlights are burnt out (too over-exposed) then use a bigger aperture like f5.6, f4 or lower if your lens will handle it.  Be aware that you will lose some depth of field, but if your subject is a single element like this snowman, then the depth does not matter as much.

Exposure: 1 Sec @ f10 – ISO 100

The use of longer exposures also gives us the opportunity of using deliberate blurring, and this can work especially well with bright lights!  Some light displays have moving objects and these lend themselves beautifully to blurring as in this photo of an illuminated merry-go-round shows.  There is a lot of lights in this image but that is also the nature of many Christmas lights displays, so for this shot, I chose the spinning merry-go-round as the focus and placed it into the bottom right to line up with the “rule of thirds”.  It can be challenging but it’s also a lot of fun shooting Christmas lights, but the best part is you can also pack the camera away when you are finished, and just walk around and take in the beautiful displays.

From Tony, Ken & Lawrie we wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  We look forward to seeing your photos of the Christmas Lights!

By Lawrence Mengel