‘Tis the season for holiday lights and decorations, and the desire of photographers to capture them in all their splendor. City streets and parks, places of worship, store fronts, and maybe even your own home are adorned in a vast array of brilliant and colorful displays. For me at least (and I assume for many reading this), the allure is strong to photograph the festive atmosphere and delightful scenes. This article will explore some tips and hopefully give you some helpful ideas to create stunning images of this most wonderful time of the year.
Capturing the sights of the holidays can really be a great way to exercise your creativity. It's more than just gear and camera settings; it's also about capturing the spirit, the mood, and the atmosphere. It's about discovering interesting compositions and telling a story. The techniques that are developed and practiced now will be used year round.
Use a tripod
You're going to need a tripod. Many of the images created during this time of year are in low light or at night. You might be able to crank up the ISO and hand-hold the camera at times, but it would likely be more desirable to stabilize the camera, use a low ISO, and slow the shutter speed accordingly.
I can now hear the collective groan of those photographers who don't like using a tripod. Excuses abound, such as they are cumbersome and heavy, or they slow you down. True, using a tripod does take a little extra effort. However, you don't necessarily need the biggest and heaviest three-legged beast on the market. There are plenty of smaller and lightweight options out there, without compromising quality. Besides, taking it slow can actually be a good thing.
Any time you are going to be shooting directly into a light source, it is important to make sure your lens elements are clean. Dust, dirt, water spots, or other debris on the lens glass can become more apparent in the form of lens flares and other distractions that could ruin an image. Take a few minutes to clean your lenses before heading out to shoot. Actually, this is something that should be done periodically anyway, so might as well do it now. Start off by using a Rocket Air Blaster to remove any loose particles. For water spots or more stubborn debris, you will need to use lens wipes. These lens wipes from Zeiss work well and it's easy to carry a few spares in your camera bag in case you need them.
If you plan to head outside to brave the winter elements, it's important to remember that your camera and lenses will need to acclimate slowly when you come back in to warm up. The sudden change in temperature will cause condensation to form on the camera and lens elements, and even worse, could form on the inside of the lens. A good rule of thumb is to place all your gear into the camera bag, seal it up, and then bring the bag inside. Leave the bag closed and allow the gear to warm up slowly for at least 30 minutes. Another method is to bring along a plastic zip-lock bag to place the camera and lenses in before coming indoors. Both methods will help eliminate the formation of moisture on the outside of your gear.
There are plenty of other things to be concerned about with gear, but I'll only mention one more. Be sure the battery in the camera is fully charged and bring along a spare or two (maybe even three if you are using a mirrorless camera like me). This is particularly important to remember if you will be outside in the cold. The colder temperatures cause the chemical processes in the batteries to slow down to the point that they can no longer power the camera. Keep the extra batteries in an inside pocket to keep them warm. When replacing the battery, remove the one in the camera to the pocket so that it may recover some of its charge.
This is a great time to experiment with your lenses to see what kind of bokeh patterns they create. Bokeh is the out-of-focus areas of the image. This is caused when the lens aperture is opened to its widest setting to create a shallow depth of field. The wider the aperture (smaller the aperture number), the more out-of-focus those areas will be. Try it by setting your lens to its widest aperture, whether it be f/4, f/3.5, f/2.8, or even wider. Focus on something in the foreground with Christmas lights in the background. Each of the points of light will appear as blobs of various shapes, depending of the aperture blades of your lens. This is a fun way to create more interesting, dramatic, or even ‘dreamy' images.
It is also fun to manipulate the effect of the bokeh by placing cutouts of different shapes directly in front of the lens. There are kits that can be purchased for this, but you can also create your own with a little patience and ingenuity. With these cutouts in front of the lens, each out-of-focus point of light takes on the shape in front of the lens, which is pretty neat.
Change your Perspective
We all generally see the world from eye level. To create images that are different or have more impact, try shooting from a completely different perspective. Get way down low and shoot upward at a Christmas tree, decorations, or light and see how the change in perspective effects the image. Then try shooting from up high, by climbing stairs, a ladder, or just holding your camera on a monopod from an elevated position. A slight change in perspective can make a big difference in your images.
This is a good one to remember, and something I've been working on myself. As a landscape photographer, my modus operandi is all too often to shoot wide and capture a sweeping vista. That is great, but it's also good to focus in on more details in a scene. Whether you are using a wide angle or telephoto lens, get in close and fill the frame with some of those details. Use a wide aperture to create a shallow depth of field to really draw attention to a particular subject or to create a dramatically out-of-focus background. This type of image will often be more impactful for the viewer.
Tell a Story
This is really a tip for all types of photography, and we've all heard this many times before. Don't just take pictures. As photographers, our goal should be to make images. There is absolutely a time to just document what is happening and what is seen. However, think of this as an opportunity to do more than that. To go along with the previous tip, focusing in on more of the details can be one way of doing this. Capture not only the grand scale of things, but also the more intimate scenes that are not as noticeable to the casual observer or passersby. Use a variety of lenses and focal lengths for a different field of view and to zoom in close when needed.
Another thing to consider is that there is often more than just the dazzling lights and fancy decorations. Try to capture the things that are going on around you, such as busy city sidewalks full of last-minute shoppers, children giddy with visions of sugar plums, and other interesting characters you may see out and about.
Play with lights
There are lots of lights this time of year and plenty of opportunities to experiment with different techniques. Use your own strand of lights to create interesting backdrops or provide moody lighting for a scene. Practice light painting or even light writing techniques using Christmas lights or other light sources to create interesting images. The options are limited only by your imagination and creativity.
Shoot before dark
Head out to capture images of lights and decorations before it gets dark. The golden light of a late winter afternoon and early evening is perfect to light up a wintry scene and especially to make a few portraits. Then when the sun goes down and the lights come on, the “blue hour” is a good time to capture cityscapes. The lights will be visible and the buildings will be nicely silhouetted against the evening sky.
The star of the show
The tip about bokeh discussed opening up the aperture of your lens to get a very shallow depth of field and throw the background out of focus. Another fun thing to do is to stop the lens down to create a star effect on point light sources in the image. A lens aperture of f/13 or f/16 is usually sufficient to create this effect, but experiment with different apertures to make the effect more or less prominent. Note that by stopping the aperture down, you will be letting much less light in and will need to slow down the shutter speed considerably to compensate. That tripod will really come in handy here.
If you will be outside for any length of time, be sure to dress appropriately for the weather conditions. The more comfortable you are (i.e. not too hot or too cold), the longer you will stay out shooting. Dress in layers that can be easily adjusted as the temperature changes. If it's windy, wear an outer shell that will help ward off the chill. Perhaps the biggest challenge is keeping hands warm – or at least reasonably comfortable – in freezing temperatures. Big bulky gloves are great for keeping hands warm, but don't play well with cameras. I've been testing two of the newest Vallerret photography glove models – the Markhof Pro 2.0 and Skadi Zipper Mitt. The Markhof Pro 2.0 are for moderately cold temperatures and have slits to expose the index fingers and thumbs on each hand to control the camera. The Skadi Zipper Mitt, which is a two-part system with a think wool liner glove and outer mitten, is for colder weather conditions. The ends of the mittens can be unzipped to expose your gloved fingers to manipulate camera controls. Both gloves have worked well for me so far. Watch for a complete review article to come soon.