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!

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