Feeling Crowded?

December 10, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

Last week's Christmas Project post prompted a few questions about navigating around crowds. In short, how can you make these types of holiday images without people getting in the way?

It can definitely be a challenge. After all, cities and towns alike are hustling and bustling during the Christmas season. 

Further complicating the "people" factor - for me, anyway - is an aesthetic preference: I try to avoid pitch black skies in my images featuring holiday lights, which means working late at night (when more people are tucked in bed and there's some elbow room) isn't the best option.

Sometimes colorless skies can't be helped. For example, some venues (like botanic gardens or zoos) don't begin their shows until it's nearly dark. But if I have control over the schedule, I prefer that beautiful, deep blue/purple you get overhead just before all the color fades away. The window for that kind of sky lasts for only about fifteen minutes and in December it happens early: beginning around 4:45pm local time in places like Boston, New York, and Chicago. At that time of day you've got commuters, holiday shoppers, and tourists all on the sidewalks at the same time.

Following are three solutions to the people problem:


Depending on the location and/or how you've composed the shot, you may be able to work in the midst of a sea of humanity and still avoid including any of them in the image.  

Low CeilingLow CeilingOn a misty evening just a few days before Christmas, the ceiling dips lower and lower - dancing with the top of the Hancock Building before nearly obscuring much of the structure an hour later. Two eras of the city of Chicago are represented here: the landmark Pumping Station (built 1869) and the Hancock (1968).

This photo of Chicago's historic pumping station tower juxtaposed with the Hancock Building was made at the corner of East Chicago Avenue and North Michigan Avenue at about 5pm a week before Christmas. If you're unfamiliar with the city, that's smack dab in the middle of the main shopping district and directly across the street from the landmark Water Tower. It was like a scene straight out of the song "Silver Bells" - city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, shoppers rushing home with their treasures. Because I was focusing upward, though, that didn't matter. The only challenges were carving out a spot large enough to set up my tripod, trying to keep from getting bumped, and stability issues (I only partially opened the tripod's legs to avoid creating a tripping hazard). 

Side note: I know, I know. Technically speaking, it's not the John Hancock Center any longer. As with the Sears Tower, there has been a name change. And like the Sears Tower, which I continue to refer to as the Sears Tower, this remains the Hancock in my book. Later we can discuss Comiskey Park. :)

Slow Shutter

As long as people aren't stationary, don't forget: you have the power to make them disappear from the shot!

The lower the ISO, the longer the shutter will have to be open to get the correct exposure. The longer the shutter remains open, the more motion begins to disappear. 

Grand Central TerminalGrand Central TerminalThis Midtown Manhattan landmark is ready for the holidays. (New York City)

According to the clock on the building's facade, this photograph of the 42nd Street/Pershing Square entrance to Grand Central Station in Midtown Manhattan was made at about 4:55pm. I was surrounded by pedestrians. Obviously! Everybody was making a beeline for mass transit as the workday came to an end. There was also a lot of vehicular traffic. Yet all you see are a handful of people and the streaking lights created by a passing automobile or two. 

I used an ISO of 64, which enabled me to keep the shutter open for many seconds. As a result, all those people hustling in front of me and around the terminal's entrance "disappeared." I waited for parked taxis to drive away and for the nearby stoplight to lend an assist. Whenever it cycled to red, everyone waiting to cross 42nd Street got moving.  

Get Up Early 

The very best solution to beating the crowds is to shoot in the morning. After all, that fifteen minute window of deep blue skies doesn't just happen at night. 

In my experience, the vast majority of municipalities keep the Christmas lights on all night. Dusk to dawn. (It's not true everywhere, of course. I've been disappointed a few times.)

Even in large cities, you might be surprised how few people are out and about early in the morning. This includes New York. Which never sleeps. Those who are up and at 'em typically aren't hanging around looking at Christmas decorations. They're on their way to work. Or out for a run. Or whatever. First thing in the morning, you'll lose nearly all of the tourists and definitely all of the shoppers. 

Situated in the heart of downtown Victoria, B.C., the grounds around the Parliament Buildings are very busy in the evenings over the holiday season; everyone wants to see the beautiful decorations. The night before I made the photograph below, a huge crowd gathered to celebrate the lighting of the city's official Christmas tree (located on the grounds). And they lingered. I stopped by at 11pm, willing to shoot with a black sky - yet people were still hanging around. In the pouring rain.

Very early the following morning, but for two security guards, the place was empty. Perfecto! 

AglowAglowBritish Columbia Parliament Buildings and Front Fountain, ready for for Christmas. (Victoria, B.C. - Canada)

Now you know why there are so many deep blue skies in my Christmas Project images - and how I've been able to capture many cityscapes with nearly empty sidewalks.

I've found photographing holiday scenes to be addictive. It's also somewhat exhilarating not to have to worry about whether or not there's cloud cover, or whether or not there will be a spectacular sunrise or sunset. Interesting conditions overhead are a bonus but not a prerequisite. 

Light up the night!


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