This time of year homes and gardens sparkle with millions of shining lights. Maybe you go all-out decorating your home. Perhaps you make an annual pilgrimage to a favorite public holiday light display. Either way, here are nine tips and tricks for getting great photos of the lights.
- Photograph the lights at dusk rather than waiting until it is completely dark outside. Even if it’s a dreary rainy northwest winter day there will be a bit of light and color in the sky at dusk. That little bit of light helps to illuminate the structure on which the lights are hanging so you don’t end up with nothing but a bunch of colored dots in your photo.
- Use a tripod. It’s dark out, so supporting your camera keeps everything sharp during long exposures.
- Adjust your exposure so the lights retain their color. With my SLR I’ll spot meter the lights and then open up about a stop and a half. With my pocket camera I’ll make a test exposure and then adjust the exposure compensation so I’m not clipping (washing out) the highlights.
- The white balance setting makes a big difference. Set it for daylight to get warm (yellowish) colors, particularly from white mini-lights. Set it for tungsten and the lights will be closer to white but the surrounding area and any sky in your photo will be blue.
- Don’t use flash unless you want to add just a hint of fill light to the shadow areas. In that case set your flash exposure compensation to about –1.5 or –2 stops.
- Experiment with out-of-focus images. Big soft blobs of color can make an interesting effect. Pull out your LensBaby if you’ve got one.
- Experiment with zooming or panning during exposure so give a sense of motion to your still photos. The trick here is to press the shutter, wait a beat, then begin the move, ending a beat before the shutter closes. Don’t try to move too far or too fast. This definitely takes practice and you’ll have some experiments that didn’t work that you’ll want to throw away.
- If you’re blessed with snow while the lights are out be sure to go out and shoot in the snow. The look is entirely different than a rainy night.
- Speaking of rain, look for reflections of the lights in puddles or on wet sidewalks.
The photos accompanying this article were made in two of my favorite gardens with holiday light displays. The one of the fountain at the top is from the Park & Tilford Garden in North Vancouver, British Columbia. The snow-covered tree and the blur effect are from VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver. The motion effect at the bottom is from John Hansen’s private garden at Sandy Point outside Ferndale, Washington. Another of my favorite public garden light displays is the Bellevue Botanic Garden in Bellevue, Washington.