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Christmas lighting challenges

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  December 18, 2008 01:50 PM

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By John Tlumacki
Boston Globe Staff Photographer

This time of year is the reason why we love our cameras.

Christmas light displays are presents for our cameras, opening up the many challenges that our cameras were made for. Experimentation with lighting will always lead to better photos. I have some ideas that might help you best capture the lights of this holiday season.

I have shot lights with many types of cameras, from my professional Canon EOS 1 to a simple point-and-shoot, and have found that there is really not much that can go wrong. Almost always, I am shooting on auto-white balance. White Christmas lights are actually small tungsten bulbs that give off a yellow cast. If the camera is set for daylight color balance, the light would be an unacceptable reddish yellow hue, and difficult to print. Colored bulbs are photographed best on the auto-white balance setting to bring out their vibrant colors.

John Tlumacki Lights
John Tlumacki / Globe Staff

As far as setting the ISO, I try to stay as low as possible, usually ISO 200 or 400. Today’s digital cameras are much more sensitive to light, and I don’t think there is a need to set the ISO at the highest setting possible, such as ISO 1600. Some cameras have an automatic ISO setting, so you should change this if possible to a set ISO such as 400.

Most cameras work perfectly well on an automatic exposure setting, or program mode. However, some cameras in program mode do not allow you to shoot below 1/60th of a second for fear of camera shake, and this is a problem. Most Christmas lights require a slower shutter speed setting -- around 1/15th of a second or less to expose properly.

Also, make sure the automatic flash setting is set to “off”; otherwise the flash will overpower the ambiance of the lighting display without people in the photo. Using a flash works well in other situations that I will discuss later.

I prefer to set my cameras on automatic and let the camera pick the shutter speed or f-stop combination. My f-stop is set for the most light my lens will let in, which is usually f/2.8. Remember to brace your camera to take a long exposure.

One of the main problems in shooting Christmas lights with people in the photos is balancing the lighting display (such as a Christmas tree or a decorated house) with the people in the photo. If, for instance, you are taking a photo of children in front of a brightly lit Christmas tree, you almost always want to use a flash. But be careful! Too much flash will overpower the lights.

One way to deal with this problem is to use the camera in the automatic exposure setting so that it balances the ambient lights of the tree with the flash. Let the camera pick the exposure, and the flash will kick in with just the right amount of light. If the light from the flash is too strong, most cameras will allow you to power down the flash output. Another quick solution is to hold a small piece of white tissue over the flash to decrease the light. Try to have as many lights on inside the room that the tree is in to brighten up the tree, which, in most cases, is green and will come out dark in the photos.

And don’t have people stand directly in front of the tree because they will block all the lights. Have them stand to one side, or sit on the floor and shoot up. One idea is to stand on a chair and shoot down on the subject next to the tree.

Outside lighting displays are so simple to shoot and are the most fun because you can experiment with the camera. I like to shoot at a slow shutter speed and zoom the lens in or out during my exposure. You can do this technique also with a point-and-shoot using a long exposure. Set the camera on automatic, with the flash off, and push the zoom button in or out during the long exposure. This also will work if you can override the automatic exposure setting and set the camera’s shutter manually to a 1- or 2-second exposure. And you can see the results instantly on the back of the cameras, so try again with different settings if the photos aren’t what you want. Delete the failures.

John Tlumacki Tree
John Tlumacki / Globe Staff

John Tlumacki Wreath.jpg
John Tlumacki / Globe Staff

If your house is all lit up, try standing your subject next to a lit lamp in the yard. If you can see their face, the camera will pick it up also. Instead of just shooting wide shots, zoom the lens in to telephoto, focus on the face, and let the lights in the background go out of focus. You also can use a flash outside, if you had to, and follow the same suggestions for shooting inside the house.

Sometimes the best photos are not the whole scene, but the details such as single lights in a window display. A child’s face in a window lit by a single Christmas candle could be next year’s holiday card.

Have a tipsheet to share, or a suggestion for a topic? Send it to You can read all of the tipsheets posted to date here.

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