It’s that time of year again, bring out the egg nog, tree, lights and cards, yes, it’s the holidays. Lately, I have been getting emails and calls about how to take photos of Christmas lights. This would seem a simple task, point the camera in the right direction and press the button, right? This is usually, when the pop up flash rears its ugly head and tries to “help” you out. You are standing there, looking at the back of the camera and you see some little points of light with a big nuclear hot spot in the front, perfect. Not to mention if you have someone standing in the frame, the poor soul looks that they have been casted to play in a ghost movie. Just the kind of photo that everyone wants for their Christmas card. So where did all this go wrong? Isn’t the camera supposed to be smarter than we are and just take a “perfect” photo? This is why I love it when non-photographers say, “How hard can that medium be, all you have to do is press the button!” That is the point where I feel a rather firm slap coming their way. I digress…..
I have written a couple posts on this very thing before, here are the links if you would like to read these: Draggin’ The Christmas Tree and Fisherman’s Village Christmas – Punta Gorda, Florida. So let’s just step back a second and do a quick recap of those posts and how to get a proper exposure for your beautiful lights, especially if you decorated your home like Clark Griswald!
The little lights that we see, don’t put that much light out. In order for the sensor in the camera to even see it, that means we are going to need either a long shutter speed or high ISO. If the lights aren’t moving (this may sound strange, but stick with me for a minute) then I would use a sturdy tripod and a low ISO. This will make sure that there isn’t any noise in the final photo. Also, I would use manual mode, that would be the big “M” on your camera dial, this might be a stranger to some of you, but don’t worry, your camera won’t bite back if it doesn’t work out. I would start with ISO 100, f/5.6 at 2” (this is seconds). If you want a brighter photo, then increase the shutter speed from 2 seconds to something longer like 4, 8 or even 10 seconds. Again, who cares how long it takes, the lights aren’t moving.
OK, now for he moving lights, some of you might be wondering what kind of house would be moving in the middle of the night where this would be in issue. Here in Southwest Florida it’s all the rage to decorate your boat and show them off in a contest at night. Now the lights are moving. A tripod may help, depending on how fast the boat is going. If it’s moving at idle speed then tripod isn’t an issue, if it’s wide open, then you’re going to have a problem. This is where you need to stop action at night. Depending on what kind of camera you have and lenses, this can be a real challenge. However, I would still work with the big M for this, however we are going to have to change our settings. In this case, you might have to increase your ISO to say 3200, f/5.6 at 1/30ish of a second. If your fortunate enough to have a lens that goes down to f/2.8 or even better f/1.4 then this is where the lens will pay you back as you can get your shutter speed up without putting your ISO to the moon.
So, there you have it, how to take a very nice photo of lights, but….who said that the camera has to be stationary during the exposure? Let me explain, after you take about six photos, this is going to get dull really fast, in my opinion. I was fortunate enough to have a photography class at night at one of my venues and it’s the holiday season so most places are decorated. This lends itself to a prime opportunity to show folks just what can be done, if you’re not wrapped too tight. Let me set the stage for you….
All four of us go into Fisherman’s Village in Punta Gorda, Florida. It’s been decorated top to bottom, there are multicolored trees and garland everywhere. The first time we walked through we took the “normal” photos that one would expect to take. After about thirty minutes, I got the look in my eye as I knew some of these folks were like me and were open to experimentation, no matter what we looked like doing it. Sometimes you have to be willing to do things that look a little strange to get the shot, ahem….
This type of photo I have demonstrated before, but since the bulb had writing on it, I figured it was worth another shot, and I wanted to show these folks what could be done. This works great if you have a tripod, but this location frowns on tripods so we had to go at it handheld. This was shot in manual mode as well. This was shot at ISO 800, f/5.6 at 1/8. That is what gave me the “proper” exposure. But what about that crazy blur? As I was exposing for the photo, I took the lens barrel and moved the lens from close in to wide angle. This created the effect in the camera. It took a couple of tries to get in the groove of things, but once we got going, we were creating some interesting effects.
OK, now that the folks that I was with could see where we were going with this, I decided to roll up my sleeves and see how far we could take this. There was an open spot where some lights were strung in rows. I started as before, I came up with an exposure for the lights and then moved the camera. In this photo, I moved my body in a snake shape to get the lights to follow. (For those of you who have seen me in the past, I’ll let that image sink in, all I was missing was the tutu!) As we were trying this, we moved the camera in different patterns to get different shapes. We had other people who were walking by stopping and staring at us. We must have looked like we escaped out of a mental institution. Someone even asked, “What are you shooting” I simply said, “The lights.” They had that look on their face and walked away. Don’t worry, it gets better as the post goes on!
Now that we were all limbered up from doing the yoga pose “downward dog christmas light” it was time for another effect. We came upon a christmas tree that was green, gold, red with white lights. Same set up before, only this time we moved the camera from top to bottom, creating this streaking pattern. What’s neat about this is that every photo is going to be different, no two are alike.
As we were making our way back, we came upon a disco ball that was hung with strings of lights coming off of it. Now it was time to see who was really willing to look silly. I looked at my fellow escapees from the mental ward and told them, “Its time to spin.” I got this strange look. “OK, I’ll go first.” Sure , let the tall fat one go first to see if security shows up. I stood straight under the disco ball and put the camera up to my eye and started spinning in a circle with the camera not moving right or left, but the camera was the center axis of the circle. I did this a couple of times and had to sit down, before I new it I apparently had made myself drunk by going in circles. At first the others were a little hesitant to try it, until they saw the photos that I was getting. It wasn’t but a few moments later and I looked up and they were all twirling as if it was a rendition of Swan Lake. At this point the folks who were walking by were really getting nervous about “those people with cameras”. To play to their distress, I made an announcement to my class, ”Did everyone take ALL the pills in the cup at med time?”
Realizing that we may really actually get security on us, it was time to wrap things up. On our way out, we passed the same string of lights from the “S” Shape and I thought to myself what would happen if I “pumped” the lens? I set up as before with the exposure, then as the camera was taking the photo, I zoomed the lens in and out. I was surprised that this created kind of a 3D effect.
There you have it, a different way to take photos of lights. Moving the camera with long exposures can give you some interesting effects. Would I put these in a gallery? Probably not. Am I nuts enough to try it and see what happens? You bet. Who cares what people think about you when you are trying to get a shot that might be your shot of a lifetime. Go for it, as long as your safe and not endangering anyone around you. At the end of the day, would I have gotten these without a little embarrassing twirling around like the Pillsbury doughboy high on doughnuts? Nope. Don’t ever be afraid to try new things and see what happens, no matter what your art medium is.
Until next time…
Keep Your Glass Clean