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.
How to Take Great Photos of Holiday Lights
Years ago, taking great photographs of holiday lights was difficult because the films of yesteryear 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.
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 flash. Let's repeat that: For most pictures of holiday lights, turn off your flash!
On the right we see the same tree, only this time the flash 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.
When else might you want to use your flash? 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 is Christmas morning, and they are lighted by window-light that is streaming into the room. In these cases, you don't need your flash. But, on the other hand, maybe you don't have enough light to really see their faces. Then you may have to use your flash. How do you know which way to go?
But what if you want to take a picture of your friend in front of a brightly lit display?
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 symbol 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 flash exposes the face. The long exposure captures the lights.
Even using ISO 800 film, the exposure for this photograph was lengthy, probably about half a second.
Mel 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 flash (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.
Digital Holiday Lights
Digital cameras add some new twists to the holiday light photography challenge. In fact, most consumer-level digital models struggle in low light situations. Here's why - the cost to manufacture a CCD or CMOS chip that is super-sensitive to a wide range of tonal (light) values is expensive. You'll find these expensive chips in professional-level SLRs, not in your $300 point-and-shoot model. One way to compensate for this deficiency is to use a cheaper image sensor and then process the digital signal with proprietary software. This can cause some problems. Let's look at the most important ones.
Increasing your film speed makes a lot of sense when photographing subjects in low light. However increasing the ISO setting in your digital camera isn't always the best idea. In order to improve the sensitivity of an electronic image sensor, the digital signal is "amplified". Amplifying a digital signal is like turning the volume up on your radio as loud as it will go. At the maximum volume every hiss, pop, and scratch is heard and, depending on the quality of the equipment, quality is diminished. The same thing happens in a digital camera. When the ISO setting is increased, every image artifact and defect is magnified, reducing image quality quickly.
Regardless of the ISO setting chosen, most reasonably priced digital cameras produce "noise" during long exposures. Noise is caused by the small electrical disturbances that are present in every electrical system. In order to capture a weak light signal, such as a subject in low-light, longer exposures are usually needed. The longer a digital camera shutter is open, the more electrical noise is recorded as well.
Limited Dynamic Range
To make things worse, digital cameras have a limited dynamic range. Image sensors are only sensitive to a specific range of brightness. Anything outside of that range is recorded as pure white or pure black. This can result in an image without shadow or highlight detail.
Here are a few ways to solve these problems. Noise can be reduced with software. In fact some cameras offer in-camera noise reduction features. Proprietary software is used exclusively, yielding uneven results. Test your camera's capabilities before committing to this feature. There are many noise reduction software products on the market today, some as stand-alone applications and others which are plug-ins that work in conjunction with your favorite image editor. This means you can select a camera with noise reduction or address any problems later in the digital "darkroom."
Timing is Everything
When shooting holiday lights outside, I find that the best exposures can be made at twilight. Twilight is after the sun has set but before the dark of night. This fleeting balance of light and shadow will yield the brilliance of the lights while maintaining details in the shadow. Don't underestimate shadow detail to help establish your composition. Consult your camera's manual for details on your white balance options and how to adjust them.
When shooting holiday lights inside, try turning on lights in the room to increase the ambient light, rather than using a flash. Flash can produce a harsh, high-contrast quality that obliterates the brilliance of the light. A carefully positioned incandescent light can work increase the ambient light without overpowering your holiday lights.
Shoot Two Exposures
One way to extend the tonal range of a digital image is by making two exposures of a scene. Shooting in Manual mode, make one exposure configured to capture the best highlight detail. Make a second exposure to capture the best shadow detail. Then combine the two exposures in Photoshop as separate Layers. Using the Eraser tool remove poorly exposed areas to reveal detail and take advantage of the best parts of each Layer/exposure. Using this technique you could extend the tonal range well beyond the possibility of any single exposure made with the same camera. Of course this requires a strong tripod to ensure both compositions match perfectly. Consider using a remote control to reduce the possibility of camera movement.
Turn Off Automatic White Balance
In many photographic situations white balance is a godsend. By automatically neutralizing extreme color casts, believable digital color is rendered without breaking a sweat. It is important to remember, not all photos require white balance. Tone down the rich, saturated colors of a sunset and you're left with nothing. Attempt to white balance a fireworks display and you end up with dull lifeless, de-saturated bursts and streaks of light. Holiday lights should be treated similarly. By turning off the auto white balance feature you are sure to capture the exaggerated colors the holidays have to offer.
Test, Test, Test
The immediacy of digital photography begs you to test your exposures to determine what works best. Take advantage of the metadata that most digital cameras embed inside every digital picture you make. Metadata can include camera make and model, exposure, flash, white balance and other important information that can help you to determine what works and what doesn't work. This means you don't even have to take notes! To access your digital image metadata, open a file in Adobe Photoshop.
Choose File > File Info.