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This article was written by the New York Institute of Photography, America’s oldest and largest photography school. NYI provides professional-level training via home study for photographers who want to give their images a professional look, and perhaps earn extra income with their camera.
to Take Great Photos of Holiday Lights
this time of year, many of the world's cultures and religions celebrate
holidays that involve lights. While the use of lights and candles is often
explained in terms of the rites of the particular culture, most scholars
agree that the lights came first; the explanations followed. After all,
since humans gained control of fire, light has been used to illuminate
the darkness - especially, during the depths of winter - rather than curse
Christians explain the candles, tree lights, and Yule log in terms of the birth of Christ and the Star of Bethlehem. The impact of these lights - if not the explanation - is so powerful tht even modern-day Buddhist and Shinto Japan is ablaze with lights and decorations at "Christmas time." And, in the same dark days of the winter solstice, Hanukkah is the "Festival of Lights" celebrated by Jews around the world.
|weren't very sensitive. They had difficulty recording an image in the low-light of a candle, for example. And if the photographer opted for a "fast" film - which probably meant ISO 400 or less back then - the picture was going to be awfully grainy.|
longer. Technology has solved these problems. In the past decade, there
have been a number of great color films introduced to the marketplace
that offer high speed - ISO 800 and higher - with very little grain. We
have found that two particularly good films are Fuji Super G 800 and Kodak
Gold Max 800.
addition, most photographers today rely on auto-exposure with their point-and-shoots
or SLRs. Unlike the light meters of old, which were often "fooled" by
low-light situations, today's meters in autoexposure cameras are able
to give good readings even in low light.
This is an important point because holiday lights usually look their best when shot without added light. In fact, this is Rule One when it comes to getting good pictures of lights: Turn off your strobe. Let's repeat that: For most pictures of holiday lights, turn off your strobe!
that we said "most." There are a few occasions when you will want to
add light, but usually you won't.
|So this brings us to the question: When should you use your strobe, and when should you avoid it? Let's look at a few examples, starting with photos taken indoors.|
|©Chuck DeLaney - NYI Dean
DeLaney - NYI Dean
at these two photos of the same beautifully decorated Christmas tree.
The picture on the left was taken using flash. We see the tree and we
see the lights - but not the lighting - and ornaments on it. When this
is the effect you want, use your strobe.
On the right we see the same tree, only this time the strobe was turned off. What we see, in effect, is the lighting of the bulbs themselves - and this lighting is bright enough to also illuminate the tree and the ornaments. The effect is totally different.
Which is better? It really depends on your objective. The first example might be better to show what a great job you - or the tree trimmer in your family - did on the tree. The second example is better in showing off how great the lighted tree looks. Each has its place.
Now, let's remember one important point if you're taking a picture without strobe: You're probably going to need a very slow shutter speed. This means you should mount your camera on a solid unmoving surface to avoid camera-shake. A tripod is best.
|When else might you want to use your strobe? Let's say the subject of your picture is your kids under the tree. How are you going to light their faces? On the one hand, you may find that the Christmas-tree lights are sufficient and give a very soft glow to their cherubic expressions. Or maybe it's Christmas morning, and they are lighted by window-light that is streaming into the room. In these cases, you don't need your strobe. But, on the other hand, maybe you don't have enough light to really see their faces. Then you may have to use your strobe. How do you know which way to go?|
approach is to shoot both ways, then select the better image. We think
a better way is to plan ahead and meter your subject. Remember that Guideline
One of the Three NYI Guidelines for Great Pictures is to decide on your
subject before you do anything else. In this case, you've decided that
the subject is the faces of the kids. Guideline Two is to draw attention
to your subject. One method of drawing attention is to make sure your
subject is well-exposed. So meter the light that falls on their faces
from the lighted tree. Get in close and meter just the faces! If there's
enough available light for a well-exposed picture, shoot it. If not, use
move outdoors. Here we see elaborate lighting and decoration on houses,
stores, and streets. Again, if you want to capture the lights themselves,
don't use your strobe.
what if you want to take a picture of your friend in front of a brightly
You want to capture both the bright lights and your friend. If you use strobe, you get your friend, but you're in danger of minimizing the bright lights behind. On the other hand, if you don't use flash, you get better detail of the lights but your friend is reduced to a silhouette.
One other tip for outdoor lights – you'll get the best results when you shoot at twilight. That way, you'll
some color in the sky, rather than the pitch-black tone that will be recorded
on film later at night.
There's an answer. Many of today's point-and-shoot cameras have a funny-looking setting that looks like this:
This setting tells the camera that you want the flash to fire (which will light your friend in the foreground), but that you also want the lens to stay open long enough to record the lights in the background. In fact, the symbols for this setting on many cameras is sort of a hieroglyph that tries to indicate "person at night in front of lights". Your solution to getting light on your friend's face and capturing the light display is to use this setting. The strobe exposes the face. The long exposure captures the lights.
But, again, watch out here. The long exposure - typically, one-quarter of a second long - requires that you steady your camera to avoid camera shake. Once again, we advise you to use a tripod.
one other key area of holiday lights – candles.
DeLaney - NYI Dean
young boy's portrait was made with a point-and-shoot camera using just
the light of one candle which was about two feet from the boy's face.
Normally, the camera's strobe would have fired, but it was turned off
by the photographer.
The exposure for this photograph was lengthy, probably about half a second. That presented two dangers - either the camera would move and blur the picture, or the boy would move. Since he wasn't using a tripod, the photographer braced his elbows on a table to minimize camera shake - not as good as a tripod, but better than nothing. Recognizing the problem, he shot several frames of film. When he examined the prints, here's what he found: One was no good because the boy moved. The second was no good because the camera moved.
in this frame, he got what he wanted: Both the boy and camera were still
enough to produce a stunning photograph. While the photo isn't razer sharp,
it's sharp enough to convey the warm felling clearly
By the way, he relied
on the exposure meter in the point-and-shoot that he used for this great
picture. As we said before, old-style amateur cameras were not good
at calculating proper exposure in low light. They were really designed
for bright daylight. But you can usually trust the meter in today's
Student Mel Wolk
Wolk's sensitive photo of two boys with a Menorah on the last night of
Hanukkah combines light from the nine candles with some sort of overhead
room lighting, or bounce from a strobe (probably off the ceiling) that
gives clear illumination to the boy's faces and garb. How do we know that
the lighting is not just from the candles themselves? One clue is that
the lighting in not as warm as the first photo we looked at. Candle light
is rich in reds and oranges, which we don't see here on their faces.
the candles are not strong enough to produce the bright white on their
yarmulkes (skullcaps). Our conclusion is that there is additional light
in the room, and that light is bright enough to add light to the young
subjects, but not so bright that it overpowers the light of the candle
One thing we are certain of, Mel did not use direct strobe here! Can you imagine what effect the harsh direct light of the strobe would have on this photo?
So, to take great holiday photos in this season of lights, we offer you these four tips:
|© 2003 |New
York Institute of Photography