Once again we have come to my favorite time of the year. Time to break out the camera to photograph kids, grandkids, parents, grandparents, and just family and friends in general. It is also the time that people all over the world celebrate the holidays with lights.
The use of lights and candles are often associated with the rites of the particular culture, but since man discovered how to control fire, light has been used to illuminate the darkness and bring joy to the world. (Time to sing – Everyone; ana one ana two….)
Thanksgiving is not generally known for a lot of lights but it generally involves candles, food and giving thanks. Great opportunities for photos, videos, and laughter. Preparation for the Christmas holidays generally begin the weekend after Thanksgiving with Black Friday shopping and getting boxes of decorations from the attic. Let the lighting begin!
In days of old when knights were bold and all we had was film, 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. Film had fixed sensitivity ratings in DIN, BSI, or ASA. Not going to bore you with the definitions of these but they are basically German, British, and American standards for film sensitivity ratings. How many of you remember Kodachrome 64.
Kodachrome (besides being a Paul Simon song) was slide film with an ASA/ISO rating of 64. Very slow film and my favorite. In the seventies film ratings standardized into ISO. Though still fixed sensitivity, cameras became standard and everyone had a had a hard time understanding it all . Fixed sensitivity meant you had to shoot a whole role of film to get a couple of low light shots. This sensitivity could be “pushed” a couple of stops but you could not do it on the fly like we can today and generally caused a lot of noise and bad color renditions.
Many DSLRs today can be set to ISO 800, 1600 and even higher settings with little noise. Also, most photographers today rely on auto-exposure with their point-and-shoots or SLRs and today’s meters in auto-exposure cameras are able to give good readings even in low light and can adjust for variable 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 flash. Please repeat: For most pictures of holiday lights, turn off your flash!
So , when should you use your flash, and when should you avoid it? Remember our mantra above, for shooting lights turn off the flash. Turn on the flash when there are people or objects in the scene you want to highlight!
People in a holiday scene are usually back lit by lights in the room or on the tree. Let’s say the subject of your picture is your kids under the tree. How are you going to light their faces? You may find that the Christmas-tree lights are sufficient and give a very soft glow to their cherubic expressions at certain angles. Like looking at a particular ornament and not at the camera. 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?
One approach is to shoot both ways, then select the better image. I think a better way is to plan ahead and meter your subject. One of the key guidelines 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 your flash.
Here is a picture where I metered my grandsons face and used a flash. You will notice that the tree lights do not show well and looks a little flat. You can still see tree detail but what was your focus!
This picture I handled a little different. Here I metered the tree and set my camera for a longer exposure. I then used an off camera flash at a low setting 1/8 or 1/16 power to highlight his face. The flash was handheld at a low angle and manually fired. After hitting the release on the camera remotely, I hit the flash button. The camera recorded the tree and the flash recorded Cody. I still had to do a little dodging and burning in PS to get the final result. It will take several test shots to get one that works. This was like the eighth time and getting him to sit still wasn’t easy.
These were taken last year. I cannot wait to try again this year with all three grandkids.
One of my favorite things to shoot during the holidays in Christmas ornaments. Ornaments can be done just by using the illumination of the tree itself.
Use of star filters can give you good effects.
The star of these where caused by long exposure and give a little extra touch.
In part two of this report we will move outdoors where the fun really begins!
About The Author
John Kain is a retired Architectural Engineer with a passion for photography. As an avid gardener, he loves to photograph the flowers in his yard or any place he can find them. His roots in architecture have taken him into real-estate photography for a friend.
As a silversmith, he also designs and creates jewelry using natural stones like turquoise and agates mounted in sterling silver.