Quick Tip: Photographing Holiday Lights
Most holiday lights have incandescent bulbs, which are similar in color to tungsten sources. Setting your camera’s white balance to the ‘lightbulb’ icon will result in lights that will appear white or slightly warm-white.
December is a great month to photograph bright, festive decorations. One of the most eye-catching decorations is also the most challenging: Holiday lights. There are many different tricks and techniques detailed below to capture the beguiling colors, glitters, and twinkles – pick the one(s) that work best for you and your equipment, and make the most of this beautiful holiday season!
Most of the time, when photographing subjects such as lights or candles, you are in a low-light setting. However, this is one time when a flash is generally not a good option; so the first tip is to figure out how to turn off your on-camera flash.
There are three basic exposure tools to capture a great image: ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture – various combinations of these settings will optimize your camera to best capture this tricky low-light/bright-subject shot:
- High ISO: ISO is a setting that tells your camera how sensitive it should be to light. Higher settings such as 800, 1000, 1600, 3200, etc., result in greater sensitivity – the higher the ISO, the less light you need to record an image. However, the trade-off is that higher ISOs show greater levels of ‘noise’ (that pastel speckling visible throughout some images, most noticeable in shadow and mid-tone areas).
However, our current line of digital SLRs have amazing low-light performance, due in part to improvements in our CMOS sensors, as well as an important Custom Function offered in most of our recent EOS cameras: High ISO Noise Reduction (you can read more about High ISO Noise Reduction here). Our latest DiG!C 4 systems – the EOS 7D, 50D and EOS 5D Mark III — even offer various levels of noise reduction to better suit photographer preferences.
Something to keep in mind: Digital SLRs show much lower noise levels at the same ISO than digital point-and-shoots, so be cautious when choosing your exposure settings. With a PowerShot and other point-and-shoots, you may want to opt for an ISO no higher than 400 in combination with a slow shutter speed and/or wide aperture. However, with an EOS SLR, you can use an ISO of 800, 1600, or even 3200 and feel confident that you will get a very usable image.
- Long Exposures: Exposure time, or shutter speed, is another exposure tool you can use to capture great images, even in low light. Shutter speed is measured in seconds, or fractions of seconds. Longer shutter speeds let more light strike the sensor, resulting in brighter images. Faster shutter speeds will freeze action, while slower shutter speeds show motion blur.
- For photographing holiday lights, you will mostly likely need a slower shutter speed – exactly how slow will depend on a number of factors such as ISO and aperture settings, the amount of ambient light, and so on. Very generally, if you use a shutter speed of less than 1/60th of a second you will need to consider how to eliminate motion blur (or embrace it as a creative effect – more on that later).
Understand that motion blur is caused by two ‘culprits” Subject movement, and camera/photographer movement. Subject movement should not be an issue in this case (because lights are static). However, camera/photographer movement may still be a problem. Here are some options to eliminate or reduce it:
- Use a tripod. A tripod is the best way to stabilize your camera. If you don’t have a tripod, see if you can create a tripod out of a nearby stable surface (such as a car hood). If there is nothing to brace the camera on, make sure you are holding it as steadily as possible: Hold the camera firmly with both hands. Use your optical viewfinder (rather than the LCD) if you have one, so you can rest the camera against your face. Keep your elbows bent, and tucked into your chest, and keep your knees slightly bent for improved balance; basically, you want to turn yourself into a tripod.
- Even if your camera is on a tripod, consider using a cable release. If you don’t have one, use the camera’s self-timer function (because with very slow exposure times, even the slight movement of pushing the shutter button can sometimes result in a blurry image).
- Use equipment that has image stabilization. Many of our EOS lenses, as well as select PowerShot models, have built-in Optical Image Stabilization (you can read more about that here). Image Stabilization effectively reduces blur caused by camera movement – note that it will not reduce blur caused by subject movement.
- Use a wide-angle lens. Wider focal lengths, such as 16mm, 18mm, 24mm, etc., are much more ‘forgiving’, showing little-to-no blur from camera movement, even at slower shutter speeds.
- Fast lenses: Another way to maximize your camera’s ability to capture images in low light is by controlling the f-stop. The f-stop is a measurement of how widely or narrowly a lens’ aperture is opened to permit light to pass through. A lower f-stop value such as f/1.8, f/2.8, f/4.0 etc., means the aperture (also known as an ‘iris’) is very wide – letting in a lot of light. Every lens has a different maximum aperture, often starting at about f/2.8 or f/3.5 – however, there are pro-series lenses that can ‘open up’ all the way to an f/1.2!
Familiarize yourself with your camera and lens, and try to use a lower f-stop setting to let as much light in as possible.
Setting your camera’s White Balance is a great way to control the look and feel of your image. There are several options to choose from, even on basic point-and-shoots. Essentially, White Balance settings will tell the camera which light source it should capture as white, or neutral light – and every other light source within that shot will be adjusted accordingly. Common options include: Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten/Indoor, Fluorescent, Flash, etc. — here are some suggested settings that may work especially well for indoor or outdoor holiday light displays
- Tungsten: Most holiday lights have incandescent bulbs, which are similar in color to tungsten sources. Setting your camera’s white balance to the ‘lightbulb’ icon will result in lights that will appear white or slightly warm-white. If you are photographing outdoors at dusk, the sky will appear as an exaggerated deep blue (the Auto White Balance setting will probably have a very similar result, in this case)
- Daylight: Setting your camera to a daylight white balance (the ‘sun’ icon) will result in lights that appear to glow amber, orange, or yellow. If you are shooting outside at dusk, the sky will appear as a more neutral blue.
- Dialing in Color Temperature: Digital SLRs will also let you ‘dial in’ a custom Color Temperature (measured in Kelvin) that will perfectly match your subject – given a little trial and error in some cases. You can also create a unique White Balance Shift, adding controlled amounts of green, blue, amber, or magenta to your image until you get the look you want.
Holiday lights offer great inspiration for photographic experimenting. Here are some fun things to try:
- Soft Focus: Create a glowing, dreamy look with soft focus effects. Canon actually has a specialty lens with this effect built in – the EF 135mm f/2.8 Softfocus lens, which has a choice of 2 diffusion levels.
Alternately, filter manufacturers such as Tiffen or Hoya offer various fog, smoke, and diffusion filters that can screw onto the front of your lens. These are actually useful for landscape and portrait photography, as well – which may make them a good investment.
In a pinch, you can create the effect without spending any money: Try breathing on the front of your lens and taking the picture while the glass is still fogged up. You have to be quick, and the effect is not consistent/controllable – but it’s free, and you can get some interesting effects!
- Motion Blur/Streaks: This is where you might embrace the motion blur caused by slow shutter speeds. Deliberately move the camera during a long exposure will result in unique streaks of light and color that make for very creative images. Experiment with different kinds of movement: Panning, tilting, spinning, zooming in and out – each movement will create a variety of patterns and shapes.
Whatever special effect you prefer, you can probably create or enhance it in the computer, with any number of third-party image editing programs or filter plug-ins. Poke around online, and you’re sure to find a ton of options.
Whatever method(s) you choose to capture stunning images of holiday decorations, remember that every time you take pictures is an opportunity to learn more about your equipment, to experiment, and to have fun — think of it as a small gift to yourself this holiday season!