Christmas Lights & Night Photography

Christmas Lights & Night Photography

As we head into the final stretch of the Holidays, I plan on presenting several night pictures of Christmas lights. In my comments, many of my readers are asking about how to take night photos, so here is some tips and techniques for you on how to do this.

Night Photography

Taking pictures at night is about managing very little light. The big three variables that deal with the quantity of light are ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

ISO (pronounced eye-so, it’s not an acronym) determines the sensor sensitivity. A higher ISO allows for low light conditions, but at a high price. High ISO images have increased noise, which appears as grainy patterns on the image. Since most outdoor night shots have big black skies, the noise can be really obvious, so stay down to low ISOs, like 100.

Aperture is your creative variable. The bigger the aperture, the narrower the depth of field. The number of the aperture is the denominator in a fraction, so the smaller the number the bigger the aperture it represents. With a big aperture of 2.8 or 3.5 you can focus on something close and have the background out of focus like this, or this. With a small aperture, you can keep lots of things in focus. Today’s picture above was taken at a smaller aperture (f 11) to keep lots of subjects in focus. With tighter aperture, there is less light coming in, but it’s all in focus. Play around with this, you can get neat effects at wide apertures, but f 8 and higher help keep all the lights in focus.

So now that I have told you to set the first two variables at the most light-demanding settings, we come to shutter speed. It’s going to take a long exposure to make this work, and I mean a second or more. Some of my pics that you have seen are ten seconds (holidazzle pics) or even 20 seconds. These long exposures can also give you fun effects like car light lines, but be careful, trees moving in the wind will blur. How do I work with a long exposure?

Get a good tripod. Those light weight cheap tripods are easy to carry, but my favorite is big heavy Manfrotto. Not only is it heavy and stable, it makes for a good weapon, so I feel better skulking around at night in the big city. Your camera has to remain perfectly still for the whole time the shutter is open — big tripod, good footing. Then you have to be careful while pushing the shutter. I place my hand on top of the camera and gently push the trigger then leave my hand on the camera, play around, find whatever way you can do it without shaking the camera works for you. How about a cable release? Yes, that’s a good idea, but every camera I bought needs a different one and they can cost $50 or more. I had one a month ago, but I was using it when it was 25 degrees out (not cold here) and it broke! Since then I’ve found with a gentile technique and a good tripod, I don’t need it.

The amount of ambient light can vary a lot in the winter, if it’s humid, the light can scatter in the sky and light everything like a cloudy day. This will give you a lot more light than you realize. For the first few times, take a lot of pictures and shoot brackets (several pictures in a row with different settings i.e. different shutter speeds). It takes a while to get a feel for it, but you learn a lot. If your camera has a histogram, use it to see how the exposure is going. Judging the exposure by looking at the LCD is difficult at night, the LCD is so relatively bright at night that you might think it’s a good shot only to come home and find it way under exposed.

White balance is very tricky at night. It depends on what lights are around. This one ended up at around 2800K. So if you can, shoot in RAW and determine the white balance later. I can talk about RAW at a later time, this post is getting way to long.

There’s a pretty good explanation of night photography, I didn’t realize how much I was doing until I wrote this. It becomes intuitive after a while. The problem is that when it’s 3 degrees out, it’s hard to relax and think out a shot and then wait 10 seconds for an exposure. My hands were seriously hurting by the time I stopped shooting these pictures.

Oh yeah, one more thing, this was shot with the Tamron 11-18mm Ultra-Wide.

15 replies
  1. Jackie
    Jackie says:

    These are serious lights you have there! Great pictures – I’m asking Santa for a small tripod for Christmas, my night photos generally rely on a handy wall and a very long deep breath to avoid the camera shake!

  2. Rob
    Rob says:

    Very good information and perfect examples, thank you! You are right about the cold weather and frostbit hands. Ouch. Many of us have what I call the Easy Take Camera, (non DSLR), where 10 to 15 seconds is max for shutter open. I use the self timer feature to release the shutter. Works great and hands free.

    One other thing that just popped into my head, what about exposure compensation? Have you tried adjusting the values during night shoots? I have not; ore than likely will not get a chance until the following weeks.

    Merry Christmas, and wishing you a happy New Year!

  3. Jilly
    Jilly says:

    I found you via Kate’s Minneapolis blog and your comments on night photography. What you’ve written here is so helpful. Thankyou so much.

    Happy New Year!


    Menton Daily Photo and Monte Carlo Daily Photo

  4. Kim
    Kim says:

    The above picture is beautiful. I just had a friend email me requesting a family portrait for their holiday card this year. I am new to photography. Can you recommend some good places to do outdoor/holiday type photographs? Thank you

    JONI BALONEY says:

    Thank you so much for this post… I went out tonight to see the neighborhood mega-lights with my 85mm 1.8 lens :)… Hooray! Your help allowed me to have the maximum ‘camera fun’ time!! Thanks. Happy HOlidays!


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Dec 18 – Rice Park and Night Photography – another cold moment, it was near zero and I forgot the good gloves. I had fun playing with the Christmas lights and ended up writing an extensive article about night photography. I’m trying to carve a niche as the photo blogger with photo tips; this was the post that inspired me to create a category for Photo Techniques. […]

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