Photographing Holiday Lights

As the cold air settles in, and twinkling lights take over the neighborhood, it’s time to get our cameras ready for photographing holiday lights. Night becomes magical for photographers. Dimly lit Christmas trees, colorful nativity displays and beautifully decorated homes can all become wonderful photographic holiday memories.

What You Will Need

Wear warm, but flexible gloves when shooting outdoors in cold weather. Choose gloves with half fingers, and a mitten covering on the end. This way you can stay warm until you need the dexterity of your fingers to make selections on the camera.

Dig the tripod out of the closet. A steady surface for the camera will be needed for long exposures. If it’s windy, grab sandbags to steady the tripod. Grab a cable release for manual film cameras. A flashlight will help you see settings on the camera in dark evening conditions. Keep a notebook handy to record settings on the camera for each frame you shoot. This will help you recognize a pattern and preferred settings for your lighting conditions, making it easier to shoot frames of that scene later.

How to Set Up

Plan to document the holiday lights without including people. Attach the camera to the tripod, and place it on a smooth even surface, such as a hard floor or sidewalk. Avoid thick pile carpet, or uneven lawns. Secure the legs with sandbags if needed in outdoor weather. Add film or a digital media card and fresh batteries to the camera. Since long exposures use extra power, you don’t want the camera to shut off mid-exposure from low battery power.

Choose a low-speed, fine grain film or digital ISO setting. Selecting ISO 200 or 400 will produce fine grain images when exposed properly. This type of exposure will make enlargements with less visible grain than a high-speed film or digital setting.

Set the camera to the TV setting in the modes section or on the command dial. TV is the time value setting. This allows you to select how long the camera keeps the shutter open to record the scene. In dimly lit situations with holiday lights, the shutter needs to stay open longer than a daytime snapshot.

Start experimenting with the TV setting. Adjust the camera to a one second exposure. This is about 60 times longer than an indoor snap shot using the camera’s auto setting. The extra time allows more light to flood into the camera. Increase the exposure time depending on the darkness of the scene. The longer the camera exposes, the brighter your final image.

Fixing Our Mistakes

If this is your first attempt at photographing holiday lights, you might have a few photos you’d like to make better. Use computer editing software to adjust the density of digital images. Color correction tools can lighten, darken and manipulate the colors of a digital photograph. If you shot film, have a few reprints made of dark images. Ask the lab to manually lighten the selected images, so the holiday lights are visible. If the majority of the images turned out dark, the exposure was too short. If the holiday lights are too bright on the prints, and the overall images are washed out, don’t expose the frame for as long next time.


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