A lovely reader recently asked for some tips on taking some pictures for an event where the Christmas lights were being turned on. Night time photography can be the hardest, especially if you prefer the use of natural light. So these are just a few things that I keep in mind.
Ideally you don’t actually want to be shooting pictures of lights once it is completely dark. As it is just becoming dusk there will be more light so you might still be able to ‘free hand’ it plus you will get some more interesting details in the sky. That said I can’t imagine a company will be turning on Christmas lights when it is just dusk and if you live a bit too far north it is dark before you leave work anyway.
Shoot in RAW
Shooting in RAW will allow you a little bit of grace in your pictures as it holds a lot more information and so if your shot is a bit underexposed you can lighten up the picture. Some cameras have an option to see where it is 100% black or white. Use that and try not to go 100% of either in too much of the photo. I have photoshop but if your camera allows you to shoot in RAW it should hopefully come with some software which you can edit it in. I’ve never used GIMP but this video explains how to use an accompanying programme to edit RAW photos.
Use a tripod
The nice thing about Christmas lights is they don’t move – which means you don’t have to move! If you have access to a tripod this is the best way to go to get sharp photos. You will also need to put your camera onto timer or have a shutter release so you don’t shake the tripod when taking the picture. Set your ISO to 100 (or as low as it will go), set your aperture (this is an artistic decision but if you want it basically all to be in focus I would say 8 and up) and then change your shutter speed until you get the correct exposure. Note that for the examples in this post I have not used a tripod so it is still possible.
If you don’t have the option of a tripod push your ISO up as high as you are happy with. This requires a little bit of playing around – the super expensive brand new cameras can go really high but more entry level cameras might only look good up to 1600 ISO. You will also probably have to open your aperture wide up (f1.4 – 2.8 is great if you have it). Try and keep your shutter above 1/60s but if you have to drop below that keep your position steady – stand with legs shoulder width apart, hand holding under the lens to keep it steady. Lean against a wall if you can. The great thing about Christmas lights is that blur works really well!
Variety is the spice of life and it also helps to tell the whole story of an event. Don’t be limited in just shooting the full scene. Move in close and get some detail shots too. Get some ones with lovely bokeh blur (just move to manual focus and get the lights out of focus).
It’s not just about the lights
If you are also shooting for an event it is important to remember that it is not just about the lights themselves but the people ‘interacting’ with the light. The same applies if you are going out with friends or family to see some lights. Use available light, boost your ISO up to a high number. Set your shutter speed to a ‘hand held’ level (1/60 or above) and then set aperture to however low it needs to get to get properly exposed photos.
This photo below is far from technically perfect but it gives an idea of how people where interacting with, in this case, the band that were playing. I wouldn’t blow this photo up to an A3 print but works well on the web and a Facebook page and might even pass as a small print in a photo album. Making photos black and white can also be a useful artistic decision…
Learn from others
Head over to flickr to see what others got up to. The nice thing about flickr is that it more often than not tells you what the camera settings where for an image. It is a great way to learn about settings. You can also see some of my other ‘dark time’ photos
I hope this is helpful to those taking some Christmas photos. Let me know if you have any questions and share a link to your Christmas pictures for some inspiration too!