Photographing the lights of Christmas  

I like Christmas. I like the gaudy colours, the music, and especially the lights.

Regular readers might remember that last December I wrote that as a child my parents used to bundle my brothers and I into the family car and drive up along the high avenues around Salt Lake City so we could look down on all the decorative lights in the valley.

We even got hot chocolate from my dad’s beat up old thermos that my mother would pour for us when we finally stopped on a hill high over the city to view the lights. Although these days my drink of choice is usually wine or beer, when Christmas rolls around I have a yearning for hot chocolate, and I’ll shamelessly admit to being a Christmas light junky.

Last year I also wrote that for years I had business in Kelowna, British Columbia. And during December I always made sure I brought my camera so I could go out at night and then again at morning’s first light to photograph the Christmas lights along the city streets and waterfront.

I no longer have work to do in that lakeside city, but on the weekend of December 8th I packed my camera into my car and headed south to what I suppose will become my overnight Christmas light photography sojourn for years to come.

I left early enough, wait…that’s not right. “We left” is more the accurate.

Last week when visiting my friends Jo and Shaun I mentioned that I was planning on spending Saturday night and Sunday morning photographing Christmas lights.

I had barely returned home when I received a text from Jo telling me that she had talked her husband into letting her go and could I get her a hotel room because she would be joining me if I didn’t mind. So “We” left early enough to stop for some quick shopping, check in to our hotel and walk down the street to the eatery I had spent my evening at last year before going out to photograph the lights.

Last year I was disappointed that the weather was to warm and they wouldn’t be opening the outdoor skating rink until after I was gone. However, this time the days were colder and it was packed with people.

I don’t like choosing auto modes on my camera unless there is a good reason. Shutter Priority for a fast moving event like a rodeo, or Aperture Priority for subjects field like flowers that require controlling depth of field.

On dark nights with moving subjects I prefer the Manual mode. I can be in complete control of how I want my subject to look by changing the ISO, the Shutter and the aperture depending what I want. That way I can balance the light so the final image doesn’t look unnatural.

With the Skaters I wanted to see some movement. I knew there would be people stopping, moving slow, and of course passing very fast. All I had to do is work with those three controls to create the photograph I wanted.

We spent the night photographing the streets, decorated boats moored along the lake, the lakefront walkway, lighted trees, buildings and just about anything in front of our cameras.

We were up before dawn waiting on a highway overpass for there to be just enough daylight to give buildings some definition. We were there to photograph Kelowna’s 120 foot tall Tree of Hope.

For 20 years, the Tree of Hope made up of about 25,000 LED bulbs has been a symbol of inspiration, giving, and hope to the community.

I like to photograph that light bulb tree. Most photos I see of it either shows no background because it is photographed after dark or too much background because it is photographed after the sun has come up.

I want to barely see beginning blue of the sky. To see buildings with the tree reflecting in their windows and I want the light to vivid and colourful. So we stood in the dark and waited for the early morning sun. This time we lucked out with a cloudy sky.

All we had was about 30 minutes of shooting before the sun came up. Then it was back to our hotel to eat breakfast, warm up, pack our gear and head home.

Repeating my words from last December, “Night photography (well actually, early morning photography) gives a city such a nice mood that isn’t really manifest during the day. I like the mystery and, of course, this time of year the frosting on the cake is the wonderful Christmas lights.”

Photographing the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train 

A couple weeks ago I wrote about how much I like Christmas lights.

Well, the Christmas holiday season isn’t over yet and to prove it I got a chance to set my tripod up on the cold, winter’s river beach a few minutes down the hill from my home to photograph Canadian Pacific Railroad’s Holiday Train.

CP Rail’s website says, “The CP Holiday Train program launched in 1999 and has since raised more than $13 million and four million pounds of food for communities along CP’s routes in Canada and the United States…. The holiday season is the best time of the year, and we look forward to bringing together thousands of Canadians and Americans this season for this incredibly important cause and a great time.”

As I have in past years, I positioned myself on the beach across the river so I could get a wide shot of the brightly lighted train passing on the opposite side with the dark hills and forest behind.

I arrived an hour in advance while there was still plenty of light and made a few test shots. The schedule put the train at our location a bit after 4PM, just as the sun was going down. The time was about right for my preference of shooting just while there is still that cool, blue light illuminating the sky and I have enough light in my photograph to define the train from its surroundings.

I set my camera at ISO 3200. That allowed me to keep my aperture at f/5.6 for plenty of depth-of -field. I was a bit under exposed, but a stop or two really didn’t bother that kind of low light image. After all, the train’s lights were very bright.

As with past years there was a strong, cold wind blowing down river. In past years it was colder and I had bundled in the car drinking hot chocolate till the train arrived, but this year was warmer and I just stood there enjoying watching my neighbours children running around on the beach. When the train finally arrived the three year old boy and I both yelled, “The Christmas Train” I am sure his mother, shivering in the cold wind, just shook her head thinking, “Boys”.

A young fellow purchased a 1980s film camera from my shop today and we talked for some time about how interesting prints made from film are. He was really thrilled to begin capturing the world around him with film.

As I selected the images that I had edited and worked over using several computer programs for this article I thought of that young photographer and the journey he is beginning with film.

I am sure he will have fun, but the photographs I made of the Holiday train would have been beyond the ability of most popular films he will find at local outlets, and I had the unfair advantage of computer programs with which I could squeeze every bit of data there was in the digital file I made.

Photographing the Holiday train was fun and I am always surprised that there aren’t carloads of photographers joining me on the beach when the train comes by.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have always liked Christmas lights.   

 

When I was a child my parents used to bundle my brothers and I into the family car and drive up along the high avenues around Salt Lake City so we could look down on all the decorative lights in the valley. And we even got hot chocolate, so needless to say I am a Christmas light junky.

For years I have had business in Kelowna, British Columbia during December and I always brought my camera so I could go out at night and then again at morning’s first light to photograph the Christmas lights along the city streets.

This year I had to come down much earlier, on the last day of November. It was an early day for me and I finished just before lunch, so I wandered around looking through the store windows near my hotel until It had started to rain, no not the snow I was hoping for, but I had hours to wait till sundown so I went into an eatery called the Memphis Blues.  When I entered the place was filled with wonderfully loud southern blues music. I was delighted to find they had the perfect food for a damp cool day, southern barbecued chicken. Gosh, I am sure somewhere it might get better than that, but to me it was the perfect place to pass the time till evening and could photograph the bright Christmas lights in the city.  In spite of the rain, when I finished I decided to wander a bit with my camera for some low light afternoon photos. The last light of the day is always interesting, even on a drizzling over cast day.

Last year I photographed decorated boats moored along the lake harbor and people skating on the outdoor rink. However, to my dismay the barkeep gave me the bad news that the Kelowna winter light festival was days away and it was too warm to use the skating rink. Gosh, I might just be forced to make the winding two-hour drive again in a few weeks. Blast my bad luck.

I snapped a few from my hotel room. My room was on the 5th floor above the street so I had an excellent shot with my 70-200mm down the street towards the lake and after that I meandered along the street and beside the lake making photographs. There weren’t a lot of people, but those I did pass must have already been in a holiday mood because every person either smiled and nodded or said hello. Maybe they just liked seeing an old grey haired guy enjoying himself taking pictures of the city they lived in.

The cold wind coming off the lake finally worked it’s way in and I decided to return to my hotel room to warm up till night fall.

By 7PM the light had gone down. I began by again taking a photograph down the street toward the lake, then grabbed my tripod and camera and went out for another ‘bout with the lake’s cold wind. I photographed many of the same things I had in the afternoon light, except this time the Christmas lights were sparkling in the dark sky.

Sun-up is at 7:30 here in southern British Columbia. I like the light just before that when I am photographing city lights. I want just enough to give the feeling of nighttime without covering building details.

There I was waiting at 6:30 in the cold morning air, and by 7ish I was sadly done. I always have to tear myself away. When I was back at my hotel some time later drinking coffee and having my morning yogurt I got a text from my friend Dave. He wondered how it was going and I replied that standing alone at 6:30 AM on a cold, windy, dark deserted overpass with frozen fingers while taking pictures of street lights is damned enjoyable, Gosh, it doesn’t get much better than that. The only thing that could have made it better was if it started snowing.

Night photography (well actually, early morning photography) gives a city such a nice mood that isn’t really manifest during the day. I like the mystery and, of course, this time of year the frosting on the cake is the wonderful Christmas lights.

Photographing the Holiday Train   

Here come the train

Train 2

Holiday Train 3

Passing Train

 

Last week I wrote about how I enjoy everything about the Christmas holidays; the bright colours, the gaudy decorations, the sentimental music, the silly TV programs, and especially the festive city lights.

To that fun list I must add the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train. Each December, for the past 17 years, the CP Holiday train has travelled east to west across Canada. And fortunately for my wife, Linda, and I the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train rolls along the railroad tracks that follow the wide South Thompson River a short distance from our home in Pritchard, British Columbia.

As with last year, the train passes by just as the light begins fading around 4PM. The timing could not be better. There is still some illumination in the sky, but not enough to ruin the bright coloured Christmas lights on the train’s engine and cars.

Last year we positioned ourselves across the river for a wide panorama of the train. However, this year because of the construction and repositioning of the highway, we were able to choose a location very near the tracks that gave us plenty of time to prepare when the train first came into view and an interesting three-quarter perspective as it rushed towards us.

When we were across the river last year the long focal length lenses worked best, but this because we were so close this year we chose wide-angle lenses. Linda had her 24mm and I used my 24-70mm. Both were perfect.

We arrived about ten minutes early, made some test shots to check the fading late afternoon light, then waited with our hot chocolate to keep warm.

With the train’s movement I knew we would need fast shutterspeeds. I selected ISO 3200, which let us both use 1/350th of a second.

Linda said, “There it is!” When the train roared into sight, we jumped out of the car into the cold wind that was coming at us off the river and took pictures as it passed. The engineer tooted the horn at us but we didn’t have time to wave back and take pictures too. The whole event was over in about 40 seconds. Ha, what a rush! Then we got back in the car and ten minutes later we were sitting in our warm home finishing up our hot chocolate.

Well, one more holiday photographic occasion is over, but I know there will be more opportunities between now and January 1st. This is such a grand time of the year.

 

 

Christmas Lights are Here Again         

Street Lights

PalmTree Decor

Tree of Hope

Xmas bear

SKating rink

Beach walk

December is upon us again and the visual presentation of bright, festive lights has begun. Yes, the Christmas holidays are coming. The bright colours, the gaudy decorations, the sentimental music, the silly TV programs, and, for me especially, the Christmas lights in the city.

This past week my wife and I had to journey for a late afternoon meeting to Kelowna, which is two hours south from our home, however, that winding country road can be treacherous on dark, snowy nights and so we decided to stay overnight in Kelowna.

For some that means dinner out and just waiting the night out in a motel, but for me it’s an opportunity to have fun experimenting and photographing the season’s sparkling lights. In anticipation I had packed my camera with a 24-70mm lens and, of course, my tripod.

My preference for evening photography is to select a location before it gets dark, and to begin shooting when the lights are first turned on, when there is still some light in the sky, yet dark enough for the lights to be bright. However, our meeting lasted until after dark and I had lost the light.

I have been fascinated by Christmas lights since before I picked up my first camera, and remember family outings this time of year when my parents would pack us up in the old 1954 Ford station wagon for after dark drives along the high roads above the Salt Lake City valley. We would drink chocolate milk and look down on the colourful city lights. At that time my father was in charge of the awkward, accordion-like Kodak camera, that I doubt ever used anything but black and white film.

In spite of the late hour we drove by the downtown Kelowna lakeshore past the Yacht Club. I was sure the city would have lights along the sidewalk and hoped that some of the boats might be lit up. I had also heard that a public skating rink was opening and I wanted to experiment with a slow shutterspeed.

During the time when ISO ratings were limited, photographers who shot after dark ended up exposing for only the lights, and the resulting photographs would show lots of colours, but didn’t say anything about the location, or environment. Nowadays most modern cameras have no trouble with ISO 800 or 1600, with some even 3200, and don’t show the random speckles, which indicate degraded image quality.

Making some test shots I quickly found that the city lights were bright enough to allow me to use ISO 800. I also tried 1600, but I lost Christmas lights detail, and the buildings and walkways didn’t look like they were photographed after dark.

As usual Kelowna had lit up its tall “Tree of Hope”. I photographed that very tall electric tree last year and knew from experience that the best time to get pictures of it was early in the morning. When I left my hotel room at 6am the next morning I was greeted by a couple inches a fresh wet snow. Perfect. More light reflection.

I shot with my camera set to “aperture” priority. When I use aperture priority for this kind of photography I also employ the camera’s exposure compensation feature. If one just used the aperture priority mode the camera will, as it is programed to do, try to correct the lighting and that makes the sky too bright. This time I think I used -1.7 to darken the sky.

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

Photographing the Lights of Christmas Holidays

Kelowna-Tree-2014

Kelowna tree 4

Kelowna-5

Kelowna tree 2

Kelowna-tree-3

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