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.

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