HOW TO SHOOT CHRISTMAS LIGHTS INDOORS OR OUTDOORS
Christmas is a wonderful time of year and it’s particularly exciting if you’re a photographer. People are cooking fantastic food, wrapping presents and putting up decorations, and taking a picture is a perfect way to capture that moment to record some family moments to treasure.
In last week’s blog we looked at a few fun things to shoot over the festive season. In this blog we’re going to explain how to execute one of the trickiest things to photograph – Christmas lights. Without the right technique, it’s all too easy to get unsharp, grainy and blurry photos of Christmas lights, but we’re going to show you how to nail the perfect shot every time.
Shot by Norm Lanier taken with an OLYMPUS OM-D E-M5 + OLYMPUS M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 9‑18mm 1:4.0‑5.6
WHAT YOU’LL NEED:
1. A Camera
The scenes you plan to photograph will probably be quite dark and therefore challenging for any camera. However, using the right technique you can achieve fantastic images whether you’re using a compact, bridge, mirrorless or DSLR camera; or even a smartphone provided it has manual controls.
Shot by Norm Lanier with an OLYMPUS OM-D E-M5
2. A Tripod
To get the best shots of your Christmas lights, you will need long exposures. This means you will have to keep the camera steady during the exposure times, so a tripod is a must. If you haven’t got a tripod, then try modifying something to hold your camera as steady as possible. If you’re at home, a steady chair and a thick catalogue work a treat!
Shot by Flickr user picturesbyJOE taken with an Olympus OM-D E-M5
3. A Self-Timer/Cable Release/Oi Share App
Even when a camera is fixed to a tripod or placed on a steady surface it’s still easy to knock it when you press the shutter button, which will affect the exposure. To get around this you can do a variety of things. First, you can use the self-timer function to count down a few seconds before the shot. This will mean you’re away from the camera and it’s steady by the time the picture is taken. Second, you can use a cable release, which is a purpose-built device for doing exactly this job – taking a picture without jogging the camera. The third option is to use a Wi-Fi app to remotely trigger your camera. Many Olympus cameras have Wi-Fi, including OM-D, PEN, TOUGH and STYLUS models.
Shot by Tim Perdue with an Olympus E-600
SETTINGS – THE BASICS:
Mode: AV mode
Focusing: All focus points + AF
Shot by Sascha Kohlmann with an Olympus OM-D E-M1
If you want to capture everything sharp, from the foreground to the background, then shoot from f/8 to f/11.
However, if you’re feeling adventurous it’s worth having a play with a large aperture like f/2.8 in conjunction with manual focusing to get areas that are out of focus and cool bokeh effects.
As you’re using a tripod or have kept the camera steady some other way, you can use a long shutter speed without having to worry about blurry images. Choose whatever shutter speed suits you. The best thing to do is set the camera to aperture priority or AV on the mode dial and let the camera calculate the exposure. You can use exposure compensation to give the image more or less exposure if needed.
Bright-light sources are easy to focus on, so your best option is to select all AF points with AF-S or single-shot autofocusing. The camera should automatically find the right point to focus on without too much trouble.
Keep the ISO low! The advantage of having your camera steady is you can use a low ISO and compensate for it with a slower shutter speed. I would recommend an ISO sensitivity of 100-400 as a rule. This will allow you to get highly-detailed images without any risk of blighted images due to grain or noise in your images.
Shot by Zollie with an Olympus E-PL6 + OLYMPUS M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 9‑18mm 1:4.0‑5.6
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT:
If you think you have a couple of good shots, move to a different spot and try a different angle. Sometimes, you get a much better composition and much better images from an angle you hadn’t originally considered.
By checking your histogram you can see if there are blown highlights in your image. A few are to be expected when photographing light sources, but if the whole Christmas tree is a complete white-out the image isn’t going to look very good. Check the histogram on the back of the camera and you should walk away with some great shots.
This seems like an obvious point, but to get the most out of a shot you’re going to have to wait until it’s dark so the lights show off their full potential. If you’re taking pictures outside, then it’s worth waiting until shortly after sunset or shortly before sunrise. This will allow you to capture a balance between the Christmas lights and the ambient light without it being pitch-black outside.
At this time of day/night you will be able to maximise the detail captured in the night sky rather than it being black space in the picture. It’s not essential though as if you have a camera that shoots in RAW you can simply lighten the shadows in post-production.