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.”

Kelowna’s October waterfront  

 

 

My friends Shaun and Jo McAvany decided to join me on a on a two-day trip to Kelowna.

Their anniversary had just passed and they had spent their honeymoon 9 years ago in Kelowna so I guess the trip was appropriate for them.

For me it was a chance to spend some time in a bigger city with it’s fancy eateries and, of course, to wander Kelowna’s waterfront with my camera before winter’s snow and ice covered everything.

They dropped off their kids at their grandma and grandpa’s place, found a friend to take care of the menagerie of dogs, cats, rabbits and what ever other animal they have rescued the weekend and jumped into my car to join me for the scenic two hour drive.

Although the Kelowna lake waterfront doesn’t have exactly the same feeling as Vancouver’s seaside, it’s pretty close. And the last days of summer are a perfect time to photograph the colour and mood of the freshwater foliage that mixes with city structures dedicated to tourism.

For this photographic trip both Jo and I carried our little Nikon mirrorless cameras. The Nikon 1 series doesn’t have a very big sensor, but if one isn’t going to be printing 11X14 or 16X20 enlargements, it’s the perfect interchangeable lens travel camera.

The weekend was sunny and it was light jacket weather. In the morning we shopped at 2nd hand stores, then ate lunch at a restaurant called Memphis Blues. (One of my favourite dinning establishments in that city) then spent the rest of the afternoon taking pictures along the waterfront.

One might say that my goal is to experience a different aspect of photography each week. I’ll admit I try very hard. Last week I was at a wondrous wilderness park with few people and this week at one of British Columbia’s premier vacation cities with lots of people.

I am not sure if it’s those changing opportunities that called me to photography, but the range available to those that answered the call of photography is certainly a grand side effect.

Doing photography with another person is fulfilling. One might be at the same location, and even with the exact same camera, but how each person chooses to creatively photograph that location, in my experience, is always very different.

Well that photography adventure is over, I have looked at Jo’s photographs and she has looked at mine. Yes we were at the same place, but our view was very different.

 

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.

Photography on a Winter Beach    

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Bootprints in the sand

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February found Linda and I spending a couple weeks in the lakeside town of Kelowna. Linda had 10 days of appointments so we decided rather than commute for four hours a day (it’s two hours each way) we would take accommodation.

Kelowna in the summer is packed. Parking is always at a premium, the cost of lodging anywhere near the beach is prohibitive and the traffic is, well the traffic is what one would expect in a city filled with vacationers. However, the days and nights in February are below freezing, and that pretty much reduces the beach crowd.

Linda’s appointments vary through out the week, but Tuesday’s was early so after a big lunch when she decided to relax with a couple magazines, I took the opportunity to grab my camera and headed to the beach.

I know that beach area pretty well. I have never seen a parking space during the summer, and any photographer wanting to capture photos of the beach, the lake, or distant mountains has to be content with lots of people included in their photographs.

My thought was to build a series of images that discussed the cold, empty winter lakeside. And I decided no matter what I saw I would limit myself to only photographs of the waterfront.

That meant to ignore the extravagant architecture of the beachfront homes, expensive cars and, of course, people. However, I was tempted to get shots of a guy eating a cup of ice cream while walking with his dog, and later on, two women slurping milk shakes while walking along on the breezy minus 6 Celsius day. There’s something to be said about Canadians.

I even declined when two tattered guys came up to me and suggested they would make good photo subjects. One fellow was waving a broken golf club handle and I stepped back saying, “I am not doing people today”. We all laughed and they ambled on leaving me alone on the beach.

The winter beach is interesting. Shoeprints in the sand instead of bare feet, the hordes of sun worshippers and swimmers are absent and the lake that’s usually a waterscape of boats has only ducks and geese this time of year.

I walked for two hours along the waterfront before deciding to turn back. And when I found a deserted bench I just sat enjoying the solitude. There is something about wandering alone along a big lake that is bordered by a large active city. I guess there is some isolation, but the noise never stops. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent opportunity to creatively point a camera without any interference.

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

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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

Don’t Miss Photographic Opportunities

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  Eagle Horses in fieldFalkland backroad

As my wife and I were rushing on a two hour drive to an appointment in Kelowna, British Columbia for which we couldn’t be late, we both lamented on the photographs we were missing – a heard of deer along the road, some coyotes hunting in an open field, eagles, a farmers field turned into a lake because of the spring run-off, and the sun glowing on white lakeside cliffs we were passing.

Linda reminded me of a long trip to Utah we made some years ago. Our route was to head east to Calgary, Alberta then turn south, follow the Missouri river as it snaked it’s way through canyons and gullies, and then head west to Salt Lake City.  We left later than we should and we were driving with as few stops as possible because I had promised my brother I would be at his house for a family event the next day. What a wonderfully scenic drive that was.  We kept realizing we should stop again and again, and we didn’t.  Linda said “We will never do that to ourselves again”, we need to leave lots of time, even days, to photograph subjects when we see them.

I think that many photographers have had the circumstance where the chance at a great photograph was missed because of the wrong lens or camera.  I remember a photograph of a moose in the hazy morning fog that I made with a little digicam because it was the only camera I had with me. At least I had a camera with me and I did get the shot, but the photo was lacking because of the limitations of the camera’s small sensor, the lack of a telephoto lens, and a tripod would have helped also. I spent time working on it in Photoshop, changing it to a black and white because I couldn’t correct the purple cast caused by the early morning’s low light on the camera’s tiny sensor.  I was able to make a passable 8×10 print, however, it lacked the quality I could have had by using a DSLR camera with a telephoto lens.

The Boy Scouts state, “Be prepared”, and I think that is a good idea for photographers. When film use was common, most serious photographers had more than one camera; one would be loaded with black and white film, the one with colour negative film, and sometimes one with colour slide film. Since digital imaging began many photographers now own only one camera, as colour, or black and white images can be manipulated in the computer.  I have my main camera, and can borrow my wife’s camera if I require a backup camera that uses the same lenses. My cameras get lots of use and I need to have a backup in case of equipment failure while I am working.

Sometimes I like the portability of a little digicam. I mainly use it for those subjects that are close to me and rarely use it for scenics. If I do, I prefer to use it with an old monopod that quietly languishes in the trunk of my car. It’s pretty beaten up, but it keeps my camera steady. Trying to take a scenic with arms extended and expecting a sharp image is asking too much of the technology.

These days it is easy to carry a camera around, and taking lots of pictures doesn’t cost anything except time, until one starts making prints.  As I began to write this article I thought about my father.  His chances of taking a good picture were pretty good because he was a prolific, dedicated photographer. As a contractor he worked all over the southwestern United States, and he usually had a beat-up, dirt-covered camera jammed under his pickup seat, or somewhere in his excavator, and he rarely missed an opportunity to photograph anything that interested him. The sheer volume of pictures he took outweighed the bad pictures. He mostly used slide film, and, as kids, my brothers and I looked forward to his evening slide shows. There were always lots of interesting (and sometimes unusual) photos and it was fun to view pictures that he hand-turned using our family’s old projector.

Like my father, photographers should be continually looking for photographic opportunities and always be prepared for them by having some kind of camera with us. And when we miss that photograph because the equipment we have is wrong, or because we aren’t using it correctly, we should at the very least learn from that so in the future we won’t have missed opportunities.

As always, I appreciate your comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com