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  • Laura Paton

Tips and Tricks for photographing holiday Lights

It’s that time of year again, when we drag out a bin from the basement or attic filled with lights. It might be a menorah, kinares or Christmas tree lights, No matter what, it’s an opportunity to make some creative photography.

For photographers, lights are one of the best parts of the season because they present a unique opportunity for making photographs that we might have to wait an entire year to get again. Have some fun, be creative and relieve some stress. The lights are all around us, so get out there and shoot.

Timing matters - When photographing outdoor displays, you really do need to plan the time you are going to shoot. If you wait until total darkness, your photos may lack interest because they lose context. (The lights can look like they are floating in some abyss of deep space darkness.) It’s best to get outside, set up, and be ready to shoot when the sun goes down. The perfect time will be a short window when the light mixes between dusk and twilight. The ambient light will nicely complement the artificial lights. Set your white balance to Tungsten, and you will capture vibrant colors. The window closes quickly, so be ready.

You are not alone, we all hate tripods - We can all agree, tripods get in the way, they can be heavy and a pain to carry around, and unless you have an expensive carbon fiber model, the metal is cold on our hands in winter. Most newer cameras can handle a high ISO without too much noise. So depending on your situation you may be able to shoot the lights without a tripod. Give it a try. You may need to stabilize yourself by leaning against a wall or tree. Try pressing your elbows against your sides and holding your breath as you depress the shutter button. Another option is to rest your camera on a fence post or the hood of your car. If your images are still coming out blurry, it’s time to set up your trusty ol’ three legged friend.

Get creative with apertures - Set your f-stop to f/16 or f/22 and you will turn your lights into little starbursts with sharp rays of light shooting out from them. For an even better effect, try using an 8 point star filter. Turn your aperture dial in the opposite direction (f2.8 or f4) then use a telephoto lens to focus on a subject in front of the lights. You’ll find the lights in the background become soft creamy dots.

Avoid the flicker - The newer LED type of light photographs differently than the old incandescent bulbs. You may find that every other one of your frames records as darkness, this is because LED bulbs flicker. We don’t see it happening because the flicker is so fast that our brains compensate for it. However, our cameras do record the flicker. So when photographing LED lights, set your shutter speed to 1/125 or lower and you will get more consistent results.

Turn off the flash - Your camera may automatically pop up the flash. But in almost all cases, holiday lights are best shot without the flash, the exception is with portraiture. You’ll need to go into your settings to turn off the flash. The symbol usually appears as a circle with a lightning bolt and line through it.

Make a DIY bokeh shape kit - You can transform the shape of the lights you are photographing by making a simple bokeh shape kit. Here is a link with directions:

Zoom your lens mid exposure - Another easy trick is to set your camera for a longer than usual exposure time (1 second or more) then zoom the lens in or out while taking the shot to create a psychedelic effect.

Photographing lights can be tricky and can take some practice. So take advantage of the season and learn how to master the various techniques before the season is over. What a wonderful time of year to practice something new!

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