‘Tis the Season
No matter whether you call them Christmas lights or holiday decorations, this is the time of year when bright multicolored bulbs soften the chill of our bitter winter cold. I have always disliked the tendency to over-do the decorations.
Inflatable Reindeer and a bedazzled Santa prancing across the lawn have never juiced my holiday spirit, but when tastefully applied lights can be a powerful reminder of the warmth of family and the traditions that make this season special.
Of course the lights are an invitation to capture the spirit in photography. Christmas lights photography is not difficult, but as is always true, a few simple rules can vastly improve your results. Also check out this week’s Getting it Right in the Digital Camera Blog for more images and the story of how I tried to hit the “sweet spot” in Keene’s Central Square.
Shoot the Blue Hour
Probably the most commonly stated rule of Christmas lights photography is to shoot in twilight. During the “blue hour” after sunset or before sunrise, the sky has a lovely cool color and the details in the foreground and under the lights are subtly visible. Once the last glow has faded, the lights seem to float in space with little suggestion of context.
In my example from my favorite location around Central Square in Keene, New Hampshire, the blue in the sky provides a contrast to the warmth of the lights on the Gazebo and church. This year, my problem with catching twilight on the square was that the lights on the classic church didn’t warm up until after the sky had descended close to complete blackness.
After a number of calls, I finally found the folks in charge of the church lighting and they agreed to turn the spots on two hours early. I was able to capture the scene at dusk of a snowy evening. Perfect! The church shining through the snow provided a much more balanced glow. I owe the city a print, but then again I have already donated my pictures for their website.
Traditionally Christmas lights are most naturally captured with color balance set to match the tungsten bulbs, although some lights are now LCDs and experimentation may be necessary. It is a matter of personal preference. Daylight settings exaggerate the warmth of the scenes, but shooting in the tungsten captures truer colors and also works to enhance the blue of the sky. Of course, if you are shooting in RAW, as you should, color balance can be easily adjusted in post regardless of the initial settings. I usually start with tungsten and adjust based on my initial results. The advantage of setting a fixed color setting, even in RAW, is that, since the color balance doesn’t change shot to shot, as it could with Auto White Balance (AWB), a single color adjustment can often work to adjust a batch of images.
Sometimes bouncing lights can form an interesting abstract image, but most often you will want to firmly steady your camera. Long exposures are usually necessary to capture enough light while keeping the ISO noise within manageable limits. A tripod is the best solution, but in a pinch you may find a tree, mailbox, car hood or friendly shoulder to provide the necessary stability. Last week, I was tripodless and used most of these solutions, including Susan’s head, while shooting the lights on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Of course the tripod will do nothing to reduce the effect of windblown lights and branches. You can wait for a lull in the gale or boost the ISO to allow a shorter exposure. The same result can be obtained by opening up your aperture, but a wide aperture will limit the depth of field and also has another effect on the appearance of the lights that should be considered.
The Star Burst Effect
Reducing the aperture will increase your depth of field, but it will also affect the appearance of the bright pin points of light coming from the Christmas bulbs. Light passing through a small aperture is bent more strongly through the process of diffraction. Diffraction is the reason that images taken with small apertures are softer and it also causes a star burst pattern around any strong light source.
This effect is most commonly noticed in photographs taken directly into the sun, but also occurs when Christmas lights are captured through a small aperture. The individual lights take on a twinkling appearance that adds sparkle to the image. The number of rays is dependent on the number of leaves in the lens iris.
The effect becomes more prominent as the aperture is reduced and when shorter focal lengths are used. In the example here, the aperture was at f/18 and is noticeably more sparkly than the image captured at f/8.
Of course, with Christmas lights, we are working in the dark and small apertures may not always be possible, but, when practicable the star burst effect can add life to your images.
It seems silly to have to say this. But for those with automatic cameras that try to force flash on every dark situation, learn to turn the damn thing off! Rarely a touch of muted flash can help to add detail to a dark foreground, but as a general rule, if you can’t figure out how to turn off your flash, cover it with black tape.
The general rules of composition are no different for Christmas light photography and the creative breaking of the rules is just as powerful in creating interesting images.
The lights always need to be hanging on something and whether it is a tree, a house or your spouse the lighting scaffold is an important part of the composition.
Foreground elements can be used to complement or frame the lighting, enhancing the sense of place. Sometimes non-illuminated elements of the scene may be the major focus with the bulbs providing a soft background.
The lights may be seen in reflection off of a lakes, puddles or even a shiny car hood. The important thing is to construct a balanced image, not just take a snapshot of pretty lights.
For me, the Christmas light jackpot comes when I can catch the lights at twilight just after a snow storm. The trick is to catch the fresh snow while it is still clinging to the tree branches and other structures, the “Winter Wonderland” time. I try to get out as the storm is passing, when the snow is still closely illuminated by the lights, and before the heat of the bulbs has melted pockets around each light.
I rushed into Keene to capture this tree at about 11 pm, just about one hour after the snow had stopped. It was the prettiest Christmas tree I have seen in the Square. The only thing missing was the blue hour. The sweet time, when the snow is clinging to the branches and nestling the bulbs is short, but definitely worth the effort required to blast your way out of your driveway.
Too soon will the branches be bare and the roads streaked with grime. I hope these few suggestions will be of some help for your Christmas lights photography.
We may be getting a little late in the season, but the lights generally linger at least through New Year’s. Of course, it is important to remember that all the basic rules for cold weather photography still apply. So bundle up, keep an extra battery warm in your pocket, and have fun.
Check out my companion personal blog with more images and stories.