Photographing the Lights of Christmas Holidays

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Kelowna tree 4

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Kelowna tree 2

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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 www.enmanscamera.com

Using Flash – even – for Sunny Day Portraits

John Mike & Shannon Constable Mike Moyer View from the Bonniville Royal Canadian Mounted Ploice

Using a hot shoe or auxiliary flash is confusing for many photographers, and when I say that I prefer adding flash to all my portraits whether inside or outside, on overcast or bright sunny days, and that I rarely make a portrait without one, will often produce quizzical and disbelieving looks from photographers.

I got one of those looks recently at a wedding I was photographing under a cloudless +35C day. The unforgiving conditions were sunny and bright with participants’ faces constantly affected by strong shadows. A guest, wielding a sophisticated DSLR that was sporting a very wide angle lens, inquired about my bracket-mounted flash and politely listened when I said I always used flash, however, I could tell that he walked away still confused as to why I would bother to use a flash when there was plenty of daylight. I suspect that the unflattering shadows across the subjects’ faces were not all that evident on his camera’s LCD, or he just did not see the problem. Besides, he might have thought himself more of an event chronicler, or, because of the wide-angle lens he was employing, an artist.

I read a query in an online photographer’s forum asking, “I’ve been shooting headshots recently and it got me thinking a lot about metering. How do I meter for flash portrait photography on location? I know that without a flash, I would just spot meter their face…and snap. What happens when I have an off camera flash? Do I just meter normally then shoot? Because when I do this, once the flash goes off, the exposure would be completely different than what I’ve just metered, which would usually mean overexposed. This is so very confusing. Please shed some light on this (no pun intended).”

I also recall a friend’s class assignment to photograph someone wearing a wide brimmed hat under the midday sun. (My apologies to those that adhere to the words from Noel Coward that “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”).

She explained, “Our assignment was to light the shadowed face under the hat and still have properly exposed surroundings.” At that time flash technology only produced constant light. The solution was to diffuse the light by placing a white handkerchief folded once or twice over the flash head to open up the deep shadow.

Fortunately, modern TTL flash is almost foolproof and only a modicum of thought is required on the part of the photographer as to how much light should be added for the subject’s exposure.

My camera is usually set to manual exposure mode. That allows me, not the camera, to choose the overall ambient exposure, and to add flash to those areas that are underexposed by shadows.  I meter the existing light, set the exposure, and make tests using the flash’s exposure compensation feature to increase or decrease the output level. I then check the histogram to see if there are blinking borders around any white areas indicating over exposure, and if I observe them I dial the exposure compensation down, till the flashing borders disappear on further test shots. That highlight-warning feature is set in the camera’s menu.

My photographs from that wedding day are evenly exposed with attractive, open shadows and do not appear as if there was a flash involved. Besides, using a flash really was not much more effort than if I didn’t, and I did not have to spend hours using postproduction software to lighten and darken my subjects from that day.

I use a bracket that places the flash high above the camera that can be quickly removed if I want to light the subject from one side. The bracket isn’t a must, however, I recommend a connecting cord from camera to flash so it can be used off camera.

I also advise reviewing the camera manual to determine if it has a feature called “high speed sync” that allows for a high shutter speed when using a flash. That’s a discussion for another time, but I recommend doing some recon on the web where there is lots of information.

Blending flash with ambient light isn’t really a mystery. The combination of off-camera flash, and a light meter to measure ambient and flash contributions, will give you complete control to craft portraits your friends and family will love.

A burst of flash will reveal your subject’s eyes and soften shadows all round, so it’s definitely a good thing and will improve your pictures.

I appreciate comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com