Photographing Christmas Lights – Part 2

Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, Akron, Ohio

Nikon D2X, 24mm lens, ISO 200, 1 second, f/8

Do you want your digital camera to decide on the color rendition, sharpness, contrast, exposure, what is in focus and what is not, in your Christmas lights photos? In other words, do you want your Christmas lights photos to look like most other people’s shots?

If all you need are snapshots, and you don’t mind that your Christmas lights photos will look like the millions of other lackluster photos that clutter up the Web, set your camera’s mode to “automatic”, set the “white balance” to “automatic”, make sure your camera is in autofocus mode, set the digital file type to “JPEG”, turn on the flash, point the camera at the Christmas lights, hope for the best, and shoot. Who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky and a few of the photos your camera creates for you will turn out OK.

However, if you prefer to make these decisions yourself, here are a few suggestions for camera settings that will provide you with more creative control over your Christmas light photos.

First, and perhaps most important, set the file type to “raw” rather than “JPEG”  if your digital camera allows it. Raw files provide much more flexibility to control color rendition, contrast, sharpness and other image qualities. You will need to have access to a raw file conversion program, but these are included in Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, Apple’s Aperture, Google’s Picasa and virtually all other image editors, and processing a raw file on your computer, with practice, doesn’t take much longer than working with a JPEG file. Raw files are also much more forgiving than JPEGs if you underexpose or overexpose your Christmas lights photos, which is very easy to do unless you are careful.

Set your camera’s program mode to “aperture-preferred (A) rather than shutter-speed preferred (S), program mode (P), or “automatic.” The aperture (f/stop) you select determines the depth-of-field in your photo. Assuming you want everything in your Christmas lights photo to be sharp, you’ll want to use the largest f/stop (smallest aperture number) that renders everything sharp in your photo. Smaller f/stops (larger aperture numbers) will require longer exposures, using slower shutter speeds or higher ISO settings, both of which tend to increase the digital noise in your photos. We’ll discuss noise in more detail later.

I generally use the default, multi segment metering method on my Nikon and Sony dSLR cameras when photographing Christmas lights, and I use the histogram displays on the camera’s LCD to fine-tune the exposure setting. Remember to “expose to the right” – you want the longest exposure that can be given without overexposing (clipping) the highlights (e.g. the Christmas lights) in the photo. By all means feel free to experiment with High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques or combining light and dark exposures using layers and masks in Photoshop if you are familiar with these approaches. Recently I’ve had success using Photomatix and the newer HDR Express to combine bracketed Christmas lights exposures into a single image that reduces the contrast inherent in Christmas lights photos without producing the “grunge” look, which I dislike.

It’s hard to adjust camera settings in the dark, so make sure you adjust these settings before you leave home. Include a small flashlight in your camera bag so you can change the settings on your digital camera during your photo shoot if necessary.

The “white balance” setting you set on your digital camera has a major impact on the color of your Christmas Light photos, as we’ll discuss in detail tomorrow.

Christmas lights in New Smyrna Beach, Florida

Nikon F100, 24mm lens, Fujichrome Provia, ISO 100

Many folks in Florida console themselves for no snow by festooning their houses with elaborate displays of Christmas lights. The owners of this Yuletide extravaganza bought the undecorated house across the street, as well, to get around the bother of taking down and restringing the lights every year.

Do you want the Christmas lights to be sharp or blurred in your photos?

If you want the Christmas lights in your photo to be blurred, handhold your camera, and turn off image stabilization if your camera or lens provides it. If you want to create some impressionistic special effects, try zooming the lens or jiggling the camera during the exposure, then checking the results on your camera’s LCD screen.

On the other hand, if you want the Christmas lights to be sharp in your handheld photos, make sure that image stabilization is switched on, shoot at the fastest shutter speed that will provide the depth-of-field you need, and rest the camera against a tree, a fence, a building, or any other stationary object nearby.

To get the sharpest results, use a sturdy tripod. To further minimize any camera vibration, use a “mirror lock-up” setting on your digital SLR if available, plus a wireless or electronic cable release. At low ISO (best picture quality) settings, at dusk or in the dark, you may need a shutter speed of several seconds when photographing Christmas lights, and it’s hard, even with image stabilization, to handhold a camera at these long shutter speeds and get a sharp picture.

I usually prefer to use manual focus rather than autofocus when shooting landscape photographs with my digital SLR cameras, including Christmas lights. Many point-&-shoot digital cameras don’t offer manual focusing, but they provide great depth-of-field, even at large f/stop settings, and getting everything sharp isn’t generally a problem. If you decide to use autofocus on your digital SLR camera, make sure that the autofocus sensor is positioned over a lighted area with high contrast, such as a group of lights, rather than a dark, low contrast area, which may not provide enough information for your camera’s autofocus system to work properly.

Tomorrow, I’ll share some tips on getting great color in your Christmas lights pictures, and how to avoid “noisy” photos.

Photographing Christmas Lights – Part 1

For the next two to three weeks, Ohio’s holiday season will be celebrated, in private homes and public places, with many beautiful displays of Christmas lighting. Over the next few days, I’ll share some tips on finding and photographing Christmas lights around the Buckeye State.

Christmas Lights at Clifton Mill in Greene County, Ohio

Christmas lighting displays in Ohio

Finding Christmas lighting displays can be as easy as driving around the streets in your neighborhood, although in my area of northeast Ohio I’m finding that folks are being much more frugal and energy conscious in these austere economic times, and there are fewer homes dressed up with elaborate Christmas lighting displays this year than in the past.

However, there are lots of great public Christmas lighting displays to visit around the Buckeye State this year. Here are ten of the best for 2010, including websites where you can find more information:

Cincinnati Zoo. PNC Festival of Lights. November 26, 2010 to January 2, 2011.  5 pm to 9 pm. Zoo admission fee. Exhibits include 2.5 million lights, Fairy Land, a Wild Lights Show on Swan Lake, and a Nativity and Menorah Display.

Clifton Mill, Greene County. November 26, 2010 to January 1, 2011. 5 pm to 9 pm. This is one of Ohio’s most beautiful Christmas lighting displays, featuring 3.5 million lights, including a 100 foot “waterfall”. The lights, which cover the mill and the nearby Little Miami River gorge, take six men three months to string. Other holiday exhibits include a Miniature Village and a Santa Claus Museum.

Columbus Zoo. Wildlights, this year using new, energy-efficient LED lights, is celebrating its 22nd year, from November 19 to January 1, 2011. 5 pm to 9 pm/(10 pm on Fri/Sat). The exhibits include 3 million lights and two miles of “rope” lighting. Zoo admission fee.

Guernsey County Courthouse, Cambridge. The 2010 Holiday Lights and Music Show, which runs from November 1 to January 8, 2011 includes 15,000 lights outlining the 1881 courthouse, 54 animated lighting displays and a 23-foot Christmas Tree with 2,600 lights. 5:30 pm – 9 pm. Free.

GE (Nela Park), Cleveland. This lighting display has been held since 1925 at the GE Lighting plant along Noble Road in Cleveland Heights. December 1 through New Year’s Day. Free.

Public Square, Cleveland. The four quadrants of Public Square are decorated from November 27, 2010 through January 31, 2011 with 4000 strands of LED lights, provided by General Electric. Free.

Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park & Museum, Hamilton. Holiday Lights on the Hill. This holiday lighting display includes more than two million lights, including “Candy Cane Lane”, which features a quarter mile stretch of road lined with 12-foot candy canes. November 19, 2010 to January 2, 2011. Admission fee.

Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, Akron. More than half a million Christmas lights are strung around the grounds of this historic mansion in the Deck the Hall event. December 2-5, 9-12, 16-19, 21-23, and 26-30. Admission Fee.

Toledo ZooLights Before Christmas, with over a million lights, is the premier Christmas lighting display in the Toledo area. The exhibits include a decorated 85-foot Norway spruce, and 200 animal lights. November 91, 2010 to December 31, 2010. 5 pm to 9 pm. Zoo admission fee.

Washington Township, near Dayton. The Woodland Lights display has been held for 17 years in Countryside Park. Open from 6 pm to 9 pm, through December 30, 2010.

If you know of other photogenic public holiday lighting displays in Ohio, please feel free to share them.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

A fresh snowfall can add a festive touch to your Christmas lights photos. In addition to providing a photogenic seasonal white blanket on the ground, the snow will reflect some of the color of the nearby Christmas lights, reducing the contrast and brightening up the photograph.

However, you might want to avoid photographing Christmas lights when it is snowing. Because of the long exposures needed when photographing in the dark, the snowflakes will appear as white or gray streaks in your photo. If this is the effect you want, shoot away, but if not wait until it stops snowing before you shoot.

Be prepared

Do you want your Christmas lights photo shoot to be very brief? Before you leave home, make sure that your camera battery is running low on power, don’t pack any extra, fully-charged batteries, and never put any extra memory cards in your camera bag. You’ll be finished shooting in no time!

Cold winter weather coupled with the long shutter speeds often needed to photograph Christmas lights can drain camera batteries very quickly, so make sure that your camera battery is fully charged and bring along one or two extra fully charged spare batteries.

Your Christmas lights shoot may also end prematurely if you don’t do some research and planning before your trip. Do you know the address of the lighting display you want to shoot, and how to get there? If the location is a public display, what time of day are the lights switched on? Regretfully, some public displays of Christmas lights aren’t switched on until it’s completely dark, so you may miss the opportunity to shoot during the magic few minutes just after sunset. A Google session checking the appropriate websites prior to your shoot will help you be better prepared for your Christmas lights photo shoot.

Tomorrow, I’ll share some tips on the best camera settings for photographing Christmas lights, and how to get sharp photos.