Thanksgiving is behind us and Christmas is only a few weeks away. I, like many folks, enjoy going out and viewing all of the holiday decorations. I like to check out local venues such as Botanical Gardens for the light shows they set up. Every year I am asked how to correctly expose for the lights. A few quick tips for photographing holiday lights and other decorations:
First, try and get out during the “magic” light. I consider that magic light to be just shortly after the sun has set over the horizon and there is still a decent amount of light in the sky. I find it is extremely easy during that half hour or so to capture great shots with little or no special consideration what so ever. During that magic time, I shoot on Aperture Priority, Matrix or Multi-segment metering at f8. As the sky darkens ever so slightly I may have to adjust the exposure compensation to -1/3 or -2/3 to keep the sky dark but maintain good color. After that half hour has passed the only adjustment I make is to set my exposure compensation to -1. I have been using this formula for many years and I have found it to be pretty much failsafe. I also tend to leave the White Balance on Auto. Often the lights are different temps; one may be an LED while others could be Tungsten. Leaving the setting on Auto usually gets it pretty close. Because I shoot on RAW, I can always tweak the balance in Photoshop.
Another tip would be how to control the amount of “burst” occurs around the lights in your shot. It is a natural effect for the light to take the shape of a starburst when the light is a small pinpoint of light. You can control the amount of the burst very easily by adjusting your aperture setting. The smaller the aperture, i.e. f2.8, the smaller the burst, the larger the aperture, i.e. f16, the more burst. I usually keep my aperture somewhere between f8 and f16.
A tripod is a necessity after that magic hour, but it is very possible to shoot some great lights using only the Vibration Compensation on the lens. In order to do so though, you may have to shoot at f4 or f5.6. My favorite lens to shoot holiday lights are the Tamron 10-24mm, Tamron 17-50mm VC, and of course the Tamron 18-270mm VC PZD lens.
Don’t forget to pull out the Lensbaby too! Christmas lights and Lensbaby go together like Peanut Butter and Jelly! I love using the Creative Aperture disk to change the shape of the lights. I went to my local hobby shop and picked up a “cutter” from the scrapbook section that allowed me to cut a blank disk in the shape of snowflakes. All of the out of focus lights take the shape of snowflakes! I usually use my Double Glass optic for the lights but the Single Glass or Plastic optics also does great effects too.
Whatever you choose to capture your shots, the key is to get out there and shoot! Do some shopping too. If you are finished shopping, I have a few things I can add to your list…
Photos by David Akoubian