Light It Up

November 30, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

O CHRISTMAS TREEO CHRISTMAS TREEThe tree at the Wrigley Building (1920) nods at its cousin standing in Pioneer Court directly across Michigan Avenue.

Chicago, Illinois
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go. (Tip of the hat to Meredith Willson: legendary composer and pride of Mason City, Iowa. He gave us that song.)  Each evening twinkling wonderlands come to life as neighborhoods, towns and cities are illuminated to celebrate the season.

While the installation process may not always be a picnic, once they're up the lights are festive and fun to admire. It's even more fun to photograph them. I look forward to capturing the magic with my camera every year.

I've been something of a holiday light connoisseur since I was old enough to say "Merry Christmas" so it's not like anyone has ever had to drag me outside to gaze at all that sparkling glory. Still, shooting the spectacle has elevated the experience to a completely different level.

Never tried it? This photographic adventure is guaranteed to put you in a merry mood. Be forewarned: it can be addictive.

You won't have to look far to find subject matter. Start with your own house. Walk around your neighborhood. Check out the decorations in town.

If you want to go for the gusto, head for big city mega-displays. 

LUMINOUSLUMINOUSParliament Buildings and Front Fountain, ready for for Christmas.

Victoria, British Columbia
The best time to shoot is during twilight, before the sky has gone completely black. Ambient light generally makes for a more interesting photograph: the shadows retain definition and you'll be able to capture more detail. You're only going to have about 20 minutes to work, though - that's the downside. Be set up and ready to go so you can take full advantage of this narrow window of opportunity.

Twilight comes twice a day; you'll have another chance at dawn. Many municipalities leave their lights on overnight. When I'm working in a city I prefer shooting in the morning because there are far fewer pedestrians to contend with.

[Note: Speaking of pedestrians, if there's more hustling and bustling than you'd like, you can make people disappear by using a long exposure. Only those who are stationary will remain clearly visible in the frame.]

This doesn't mean you can't/shouldn't make pictures after the sky has lost all color. Sometimes it's unavoidable. For example, holiday light shows at botanic gardens or zoos often don't begin until after the sun has set. That said, if the sky is going to be included in the composition, you'll generally be more pleased with the final product if you can make the photo before it's fully dark.

As for settings, I recommend shooting in manual mode. Photographing lights can be tricky; asking the camera to make all the decisions is asking too much of it. Full manual means you'll have complete control over the many variables at play. This includes autofocus; I turn it off. In low light the camera might have difficulty "seeing" well enough to lock into focus.  

Use the lowest ISO you can; try to stay at or below 400. This will keep noise to a minimum and maintain image sharpness. If you absolutely must bump the ISO higher, do so sparingly.

By necessity, then, your shutter speeds will be slow. Put your camera on a tripod and use a remote release. 

Be aware of flicker: this isn't much of an issue with incandescent lights but the on/off cycles of LED lights can be a problem. Your eyes don't notice it but the camera will. Shooting with shutter speeds that are too fast will inevitably capture some lights mid-cycle: they'll appear dark.

Experiment with the aperture setting. For "general purpose" string light photos, f/8 is a good choice. Stop way down to f/16 or smaller to create a starburst effect. Doing so will render street lamps, tree lights, or any bright points of light as if they're sparkling.

OLD FASHIONEDOLD FASHIONEDEarly on the Sunday morning before Christmas, quiet streets are a little brighter than usual as holiday lights illuminate them. Especially when dressed for Christmas, the town has a lovely feeling of yesteryear.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Conversely, select a wide aperture to create beautiful, soft bokeh; background lights will read as small orbs rather than distinct points. The wider you go, the more pronounced the effect will be. To make the spheres larger, increase the distance between the subject and whatever is behind it.

LOVE'S PURE LIGHTLOVE'S PURE LIGHTVibrant Christmas lights create a festive backdrop for these Christmas lanterns.

Temple Square
Salt Lake City, Utah
I set my camera on auto white balance and shoot in RAW format. Any color temperature adjustments are easy to address when processing.

As with any landscape photo, think about shapes, lines, color and negative space while creating the composition. Distill the scene to its essence. Consider how you want the viewer's eye to move through the photograph. 

Even though all those lights are the scene stealers, there's almost always more to shoot. Capture the festivity of holiday street scenes: things like decorated store display windows, light posts and doorways. If you're lucky enough to have access to a Christmas market those can be great places to find interesting subject matter.

When photographing in a busy downtown you might want to add light trails from vehicles to your composition. Rule number one: make sure you're standing out of the way of traffic! Experiment with shutter speeds until you get the desired effect. Tail lights are easier to capture than headlights, but you'll probably have both in your shot unless it's a one-way street. Keep an eye on your histogram to avoid overexposing the white lights. 

While you're at it, why not venture into the realm of the unconventional? Experiment with intentional camera movement: zooming in or out, light painting, panning or spinning. If you've got a LensBaby in your kit, try using it to put a unique spin on holiday lights. 

Combine various shutter speeds and movements to achieve any number of results. 

The sky's the limit when creating abstracts. Don't feel you must do something with these images. If you get something you like and can use somewhere, great! If not, who cares? 

Use your imagination. See what's possible.  Wherever it may be and whatever you might find, get outside and have some fun capturing festive holiday scenes with your camera.

It's the most wonderful time of the year!

TINY BUBBLESTINY BUBBLESReflecting pool at Temple Square

Salt Lake City, Utah


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