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.

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