Photographing the Lights of Christmas Holidays


Kelowna tree 4


Kelowna tree 2


Well, it has been a wonderful Christmas holiday and I have enjoyed everything about it; the bright colours, gaudy decorations, the sentimental music, silly TV programs, and I especially like the Christmas lights in the city.

A drive this time of year through any town or city neighbourhood is an exciting visual presentation of festive bright lights and another opportunity for, at least a few weeks, to have fun experimenting and photographing the season’s sparkling subjects.

Photographers that want to make pictures of Christmas lights usually wait until dark and end up exposing for only the lights, and the resulting photographs show lots of colours, but don’t say anything about the location or environment; and a photograph in daylight doesn’t show the lights at all.

The photographer’s goal should be to balance an exposure for ambient light (existing environmental light) to and the electric lights. So to provide help and clarification to my readers here is my quick holiday how to for photographing their city or town’s Christmas lights.

As I suggested when I wrote about photographing the CP Holiday Train, begin by choosing the location well in advance, before it gets dark, and prepare to begin when the electric lights are first turned on, when there is still some light in the sky, yet dark enough for the lights to be bright.

Place the camera tightly on a tripod so it’s nice and steady because the exposures can be long. I like using a cable release, but if you don’t have one available, use the camera’s self-timer. The idea is to stop camera-shake.

Photographers can experiment by setting the white balance to “tungsten”. That setting will correctly balance the different lighting types; and as a bonus it will deepen the blue in the sky. I then control the final intensity with PhotoShop.

The composition should also include reflective subjects in the foreground like snow, sidewalks, cars and anything else that adds to the viewer’s attention.

Expose for the sky or buildings and make several test shots and keep checking the camera’s LCD. The lights will become more and more exciting as the sky light fades and as pictures are captured. There will be some length of time between your first images just before the sun sets and the last when everything gets very dark. I also do this in reverse, starting before the sun comes up in the morning.

Dress warm, so you aren’t uncomfortable and rush things. I expect the whole “shoot” should last less than 15 minutes if one is prepared. When the images on the camera’s LCD look too dark everything is finished and its time to rush home, excitedly transfer the images to the computer and have a warm drink.

Most importantly, the quality of light in a photo comes down to balancing the light; it creates the whole look of your photo and now is a good time, with all the added decorative illuminations, to learn about controlling the light around us. If your goal is a black and white image you will need an exposure that shows detail in all the subjects.

In summary, select the correct time of day just before everything is too dark or too light for a composition with sky, foreground, and bright lights. And be sure to leave enough time to experiment. Readers should be able to successfully photograph their own towns, or any favourite location.

I look forward to any comments. Thanks, John

My website is at

Photographing the CP Rail’s Holiday Train at Day’s End


Holiday Train 1

Holiday Train 3

Christmas Train 4


This past week I viewed a photograph made by a photographer at night that was not much more than a dark, featureless, long block with a string of brightly colored electric lights on its surface. The person that made that photograph commented that she was disappointed with what the result.

I suppose the photographer didn’t know there wasn’t much that could be done with a subject that has no light on it. She might have thought a high ISO would work, and like many others new to the medium of photography, didn’t understand that surfaces that don’t generate light, must have light reflecting off the surface it if we are to see or photograph it.

I thought about that frustrated photographer as I set up my tripod alongside my wife, Linda, and our friend, Nancy. We were preparing to photograph the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train that would be rolling along the railroad tracks that followed the wide South Thompson River a short distance from our home in Pritchard, British Columbia. We had read on the Internet about the train traveling through Chase and Kamloops on December 16 and had estimated the time it would come through Pritchard that is nestled between the two locations.

We positioned ourselves on the beach on the other side of the river so we could photograph the train passing on the opposite side and we would have a wide shot of the engine and all the brightly lit, Christmas box cars.

We arrived an hour in advance while there was still plenty of light and made test shots of a passing freight train. The schedule put the train in our location just at sunset, giving us plenty of light to define the train from its surroundings even with the declining light.

We set our cameras at ISO3200. That allowed my wife to set her camera at 1/250th second with her f4 lens, and with my f2.8 lens I could use1/400th second. Even at that we were both under exposing our images, however, in my experience, a stop or two under exposure when making exposures in the last light of the day usually works pretty well.

I prefer shooting just at sundown when there is still that cool, blue light illuminating the sky. It is easy to select out and brighten up the subject without affecting other elements in the landscape, whether making the final image in a traditional film darkroom, or using a program like PhotoShop.

I wrote that we were using tripods. Tripods are the best way to keep one’s camera still, but with our tests on the freight train that we photographed in advance of the Holiday Train we found that quickly releasing the camera from the tripod as it passed, handholding and panning worked best.

I like to preplan, so we had gone down to the river a week early and selected our observation site. In addition, on the day of the train we arrived an hour early, and that gave us time to test, to move about and experiment with our location a bit, so that when the train rolled by we were ready.

There was a strong, cold wind blowing down river directly at us. But we parked our car at the edge of the riverbank just above us with a good view to see the approaching train. After we had set up our tripods and camera, we sat in the car bundled up in blankets and drinking hot chocolate until the moment arrived. Suddenly exclaiming, “There it is!” we ran laughing and hopping down the sandy riverbank for three exciting, adrenaline filled minutes of photography.

My favorite times for scenics, and for the Holiday Train that was my center of interest for this scenic, is the hour just after sunrise and the hour just before sunset. I am sure one can find great light any time of the day and night, but these two hours are the most predictable when it comes to workable light.

Please don’t hesitate to comment. Thanks, John

My website is at

Photography at the Christmas Party

Tree Planter's 009 Tree Planter's 040

Tree Planter's 076 copy Tree Planter's 255


The Christmas season is here and that means photographers, digital cameras in hand, will happily begin filling memory cards with all the photographic opportunities as they join family, friends, and co-workers at all this month’s festive events.

I have the feeling that for many, it is more about the process of picture taking than it is about making memorable photographs, or even documenting the party.

The act of picture taking has become easy and so much fun as a process as photographers rush over to take a picture, look at the LCD, and quickly slide back to show others those tiny images. And seem more interested in that quickly snapped candid than what is actually happening at the moment.

Most images made in this fashion never become more than files stored on computers and tucked away on hard-drives with good intentions, but after that initial viewing, most photos loose their value because there are too many, and very few are good enough to give to others anyway.

What is my advice for photography at the next Christmas party? Yes, continue to make candid photographs of people having fun, but, perhaps, think about making pictures that tell a story, capture an exciting moment, and importantly, flatter the subjects. Most people don’t mind seeing a picture of themselves being silly or having fun, but they don’t like pictures that make them look stupid or unattractive.

My approach is to take a moment to look at the room in which I intend to make photographs, make a couple of test shots using longer shutter speeds (my favourite is 1/60th of a second), to include the room’s ambient light when making exposures using an on-camera flash (I always use a flash) so as not to end up with brightly lit faces surrounded by a black environment.

I suggest taking group shots with two or three people. Get them to position themselves so they are squeezed together with a tight composition, and include only a little background or foreground. Don’t shoot fast, steady the camera, and select a shutter speed that includes the ambient light, and use a flash. Fortunately most modern DSLRs easily allow ISO sensitivity that can be set to 1600, and some can go a lot higher.

Shutter speeds of 1/60th of a second, or less, doesn’t always work for children playing in the snow during the day because moving subjects will be blurry, but, with limited indoor lighting, moving subjects will only be properly illuminated when the flash goes off.

Lighting everything with complicated studio equipment would be great, but that would ruin the party for everyone. The occasion would become more about the photography than about the fun and festivities. I use a hotshoe mounted flash and make adjustments as I go. I want to join in on the fun, blend in, and not act like a photojournalist.

Family and friends don’t mind having their pictures taken as long as it’s enjoyable and I want pictures that show them having a good time. So, along with those quick candids I make posed portraits with smiling faces, and if I select some pictures to give away later I want people to like, not be embarrassed by, the pictures taken of them.

I always look forward to your comments. Thanks, John

My website is at


Your Photographs Make Great Christmas Cards


My favourite from last year


Horse sleigh ride

enlarger ghost 3

xmas chickens

Another favourite


The Christmas season is a perfect time for photographers to give friends and relatives some photographs. That could mean a framed photographic print, but personally I like to give Christmas cards.

Last year, at this time, I wrote about an early December visit that my wife and I spent in San Francisco, California, and the scene we were greeted with when we decided to spend an afternoon on a picturesque beach at John Muir Park. There were three young people involved in what we assumed was the production of a Christmas greeting card for a barefoot young woman that stood at the water’s edge wearing a long dark skirt, a billowy white shirt, a red vest, and a Santa Claus cap. She posed and smiled as she supported a gangly four-foot Charlie Brown Christmas tree at her side and her friends laughed and photographed her as the surf rolled in. What a great idea for a card!

There are stacks of generic greeting cards being offered at stores, but for photographers it’s a perfect excuse to give people photographs. Personally, I want people to see and enjoy my photography, even if it’s only as a 5X7 card. I go through the many images languishing in my hard drive, add some festive greetings and voila! I have some cards for the Christmas season.

It is rare that we give the same picture to more than one person. And not all our cards say Merry Christmas. To me, it doesn’t matter; Happy Holidays, Season’s Greetings, a good New Year, and anything else I think fits a particular picture.

It doesn’t even need to have a Christmas look at all. (Actually, they rarely do and are usually pretty silly) What matters is the picture and it’s important that the card is unique. And I really don’t care what they do with the card I sent. I hope people like what I give them, however, if it gets thrown out with the gift-wrap after the holidays it doesn’t matter either, they had the opportunity to see a photograph taken by my wife, Linda, or myself, and that’s what’s important.

Don’t be a Grinch and hide your pictures away. Just showing some picture on your iphone or facebook isn’t enough. Print it, make a card, put it in an envelope, and give it to someone. And it’s easy, just get a 4×6 print and glue a photo to card stock or construction paper and write something festive on it. In my opinion Christmas cards don’t really need to be just about Christmas. Call them greeting cards, holiday cards, or whatever you want. That way if it’s a bit late for Christmas they can be sent or delivered anyway.

I enjoy all comments. Thanks, John

My website is at