Today on The Slanted Lens, we are getting into the holiday spirit and are headed out to photograph Christmas lights. There are only a couple basic things you need to understand so you can go out and take great photographs of Christmas lights this holiday season.
1. Time of Day: The best time to photograph outdoor Christmas lights is at dusk while there is still a little daylight. Just as the sun is going down and there is still ambient light they will look great. If you shoot in total dark, the lights are too stark and there is no detail in the house and it does not separate from the sky. To solve this we are going to use the ambient light at dusk as a fill light on the house. We will get a great fill on the house and great color and depth in the sky.
2. The sky can be the best part: Wait until the ambient light and the sky are dark enough to match your Christmas lights. There is a very short window when these two will be the same exposure. You can keep lengthening the shutter to bring the sky into a correct exposure but the lights will eventually become too bright. The graph below illustrates this idea:
3. Use a tripod: Don’t be crazy, use a tripod for crisp sharp images or lean on something like a car. Sometimes I will use the timer setting for a real long exposure so I am not touching the camera as it exposes.
4. Don’t use an on camera flash: It won’t do much of anything and is silly. Turn it off.
5. Camera settings are critical. I am using a Canon 5D Mark III.
- White Balance – Set your white balance on Tungsten or Daylight. Tungsten makes the sky more blue and the lights more neutral or proper colored. Daylight makes the sky less blue and the lights warmer. Both can look great.
- Shoot Raw – I shoot raw because if I want to change from Daylight to Tungsten I can do it as I process the images. It gives me both options.
- ISO – Set the ISO at 620 or higher. I started at 620 ISO on the Mark III.
- Aperture & Shutter Speed – I set my Aperture at 5.0 and my shutter speed at 1/8th. This is a good exposure on the lights but the ambient was way too bright. I will just keep shooting until the lights and the sky become the right exposure.
Eventually it will get too dark to get a good fill on the house. Here is the image of the house at the ideal time and a couple more as we lost the light:
I hope you have a great holiday season and take some great photos. Our next lesson will be about combining strobes with great holiday bokeh. Keep those cameras rollin’ and keep on clickin’.
-Jay P. Morgan