Photographing Christmas Lights – Part 4

GE Nela Park Christmas Lights, Cleveland Heights, Ohio

Nikon D700, 24-120mm lens, ISO 800, 1 second at f/11

General Electric’s Lighting Division has held a Christmas lighting display at their headquarters along Noble Road in Cleveland Heights since 1970.

Make sure that your camera’s internal flash is switched on if you want to really mess up your Christmas lights photos.

Does your camera have a built-in flash? If you set your camera mode to “auto” and leave the flash switched on, when you take a photo of Christmas lights in the dark the camera flash will probably go off. Problem is, the built-in flashes on point-&-shoot cameras, and even digital SLRs, haven’t got much power, and the light they produce is balanced for daylight. So any Christmas lights near the camera will be over-exposed, with the wrong color, while the background will be underexposed and black.

If you want to photograph the Christmas lights as you see them, it’s important to turn off your camera flash and take the photograph using the ambient light alone. As we’ve discussed earlier, this requires a long exposure, often one second or more at the moderate ISO settings that will provide the best image quality, and you’ll need to use a sturdy tripod or brace your camera against a solid object to eliminate any camera movement during the exposure.

What if there is some snow or other attractive subject in the foreground, and you would like to brighten it in your photo. In this case, you may be able to use your camera’s built-in flash, or an accessory flash, to provide some supplementary light to lighten the foreground. This is called fill flash. The basic approach is to set the camera to take the main exposure without the flash, and then trigger the flash to “fill” some of the shadowed areas in the foreground with light. You’ll need to read your camera manual to find out how to set this fill flash mode as well as the amount of light delivered by the flash. Try a fill flash setting of -1 or -2 f/stops and evaluate the results on your camera’s LCD so you can fine-tune the amount of fill flash to taste.

If you want to take a photo of a relative or friend with the Christmas lights in the background, using fill flash is a great way to light up the person’s face and avoid getting a silhouette. If possible, try to do some testing to determine the optimal amount of fill flash beforehand, rather than trying to figure it out in the dark with impatient friends or relatives who would rather move on  than stand around in the cold!

Do you want your camera and lenses to break out in a cold sweat when you return home after your Christmas lights shoot?

If so, be sure to remove your cold camera and lenses from your camera bag as soon as you enter your toasty warm house.

Ever tried to photograph butterflies in a glass conservatory? When you first enter the warm, humid conservatory, your camera lens will mist up. You can keep wiping off the condensation with a cloth, but until the camera warms up to the ambient temperature in the conservatory you won’t be able to do much shooting. Depending on the relative indoor and outdoor temperatures and humidity levels, this usually takes about ten minutes – a good time to reflect on the blessings in your life and scout for some good photo locations in the glass house. Condensation isn’t a problem when you go from your warm house into the cold winter air, but it is when you return home with cold cameras and lenses. So be sure to wait for 10-15 minutes before you unpack your camera gear when you return home after your Christmas lights shoot.

Finally, I’ll share a few tips for photographing the lights of Las Vegas, where it’s always Christmas.

Neon at Flamingo Las Vegas
Neon at Flamingo Las Vegas

Nikon D2X, 24-120mm lens, ISO 400, f/11 at 1/8th  second

Fountain at Paris Las Vegas
Fountain at Paris Las Vegas

Nikon D2x, 24-120mm lens, ISO 320, f/8 at 0.7 seconds

It’s always Christmas in Las Vegas

For many of us, the Christmas holiday season, from Thanksgiving to the New Year, is the best time to find and photograph lighting displays. But in Las Vegas, you can find incredible lighting displays to photograph every night of the year. Most of the spectacular lighting shows in Sin City are located along five blocks of Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas, earning it the name of Glitter Gulch, and along  The Strip, south of downtown, which is lined for several miles  with huge casinos decked out in neon lighting. Many of the casinos, including the Bellagio, put on elaborate displays of lighting as part of the shows and other events that are staged continuously along The Strip for visitors.

You can get a bus ride from The Strip to Fremont Street, which is filled with older casinos and covered by a vaulted roof to help protect the unique old downtown architecture. Neon lights cover the buildings, and a light and sound show is presented each evening, starting at dusk. More than 12 million LED lights illuminate the 90-foot high overhead canopy, which stretches for 1500 feet, about four blocks.

The 4.2 mile stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard South, known as The Strip, is lined with some of the most dramatic – albeit faux – architecture in the world. I visited Las Vegas briefly in November 2005 and 2006 to conduct photo workshops as part of a landscaping convention, and I spent most of my free time walking along The Strip and Fremont Street, admiring and photographing the amazing architecture and lighting displays.

The techniques needed to photograph Christmas lighting displays at home will work just as well in Las Vegas. There are usually large crowds of people in the evening strolling along The Strip and Fremont Street, so stay alert and keep a close eye on your camera equipment. Don’t expect to see any snow!

Best wishes for the holiday season, and enjoy your Christmas lighting photography!

Photographing Christmas Lights – Part 3

Christmas lights in Newbury, Geauga County, Ohio

Nikon D2X, 12-24mm lens, ISO 400, 1 second at f/8

Do you want the sky in your Christmas lights photos to be black, gray, or blue? The time of day you shoot and the “white balance” setting on your camera are two key factors that affect the color of the sky and the lights in your photos.

The time of day you shoot has a big effect on the quality of your Christmas lights photos. Most people wait until it is completely dark, and the sky is black, before taking pictures of Christmas lights. This is too late, if you want the most pleasing color. The best time to shoot is usually just after sunset, when the sky still shows some color – deep blue on a clear day. So try to arrive at the Christmas lights display you plan to shoot before sunset, so you can do some scouting and figure out a few of the best angles and compositions, especially those in which the lights are outlined against the sky. As the light fades to a deeper and deeper blue, the Christmas lights will begin to glow against the sky. This period when the ambient light from the sky and the Christmas lights are well balanced only lasts for 10-15 minutes, so plan your shoot to take as many photos as possible between sunset and the time when the sky becomes completely dark.

The white balance setting you use on your camera is also very important. If most of the Christmas lights are incandescent, then a white balance setting of “tungsten” (2700 – 3300 K) may provide the most pleasing color, though this setting is often a bit cool for my taste, with a pronounced blue color cast. The “daylight” and “cloudy” settings (5000 – 6500  K)  are usually too warm, rendering clear skies a bluish-gray. To my eye, a white balance setting which corresponds to halogen and some fluorescent lamps (3500 – 4500 K) often provides the color that is most pleasing. On the other hand, if the Christmas lights are some of the newer, more energy efficient LED bulbs, you may find that a much higher value will provide the most realistic color rendition.

If you shoot in raw mode, as I strongly recommend, you can adjust the color temperature to taste when you process the raw file in your image editor’s raw converter. I use Adobe’s Camera Raw, which is the raw converter used in Photoshop and Lightroom. Even on a cloudy day, when the sky fades from gray to black, you can produce a blue sky in your photo by simply using a cooler, “tungsten” setting in your raw converter when you process the photo back at home. If your point-&-shoot camera doesn’t provide raw files, and you are using Adobe Photoshop as your image editor, you can use the File “Open As” command to open your JPEG files in the Adobe Camera Raw program, which gives you access to the color temperature sliders. You can also open JPEG files in Adobe Lightroom and obtain the same color temperature controls.

What color rendition do you prefer in your Christmas lights photos?

Clock tower in Hudson, Ohio

Nikon D700, 24-120mm lens, ISO 800, 0.6 second at f/8

Do you want lots of “noise” in your digital Christmas lights photos – a grainy appearance, especially in the darker areas, with strange colored pixels that can be seen when you blow up the photo on your computer screen?

If so, use a very high ISO setting of 1600, 3200, 6400 or even higher on your digital camera. The higher the ISO setting, the more noise you will get in your photos.

If you shoot in raw mode, you can use the noise reduction sliders provided in the raw conversion program to reduce the noise in the photograph. In Adobe’s Camera Raw program, used in Photoshop and Lightroom, there are separate sliders for reducing luminance and color noise. The color noise consists of random red, blue, and green pixels which appear in dark areas of the photo. You can often eliminate most of this color noise using the color noise slider. The luminance noise is a generally grainy appearance in darker areas of the photo that is mostly a function of the brightness level. It can be reduced by using the luminance noise slider, but this noise reduction is often accomplished by slightly blurring the fine detail in the photo, which can result in an unnatural, plastic or smeared appearance in your photos. There are also several powerful noise reduction packages, including Noise Ninja, Neat Image and Dfine, that can be used as stand-alone programs or, in some cases, as plug-in programs for Adobe Photoshop and other image editors.

You may find that a certain amount of noise in your Christmas Lights photos is OK and doesn’t bother you. However, if you want to minimize noise in your Christmas lights photos, use a lower ISO setting, such as 200 or 400, on your digital camera. The lower the ISO, the less noise will appear in your photo.

Point-&-Shoot and cell phone cameras, which have very small digital sensors, are especially susceptible to noise at high ISO settings and long exposures. Many of the newer SLR cameras, however, such as the Nikon D3s, D700, and D7000, and the Canon 5D Mark II, 60D, and 7D, are remarkably noise-free at  ISO settings of 800, 1600, or even much higher. Check out some of the on-line camera review websites, such as for more detailed information on how your digital camera performs with regard to noise at high ISO settings.

Tomorrow, I’ll share some final thoughts on (not) using your camera flash when photographing Christmas lights, and a place where you can shoot amazing light displays every night of the year.

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.