During the festive holiday season decorative lights illuminate neighborhoods and cityscapes across the country. The lights are beautiful — sometimes breathtaking — but when you take a picture using your digital camera’s AUTO mode, the results are rarely as stunning as the real thing. Take a look at these tips to get a better hold on your holiday photo opportunities.
The most wonderful time for photos
Although holiday lights appear best at night, the best time to photograph them is at twilight. This is because at twilight there is enough light in the sky to be able to define tree branches, the roof line of a home or other details. It is best to start shooting about 15 minutes after sunset and then take a shot every five minutes thereafter to get an ideal balance of skylight and the holiday lights. Since many lights today use LEDs, you may find that colored LEDs may photograph as white because they may be overexposed.
Check out this pre-dawn image from Olympus Visionary, Mike Boening. Mike used the OM-D E-M1 Mark II’s Live Composite mode at a .6 sec interval for about 1 minute to capture light trails without overexposing the Christmas lights in the shot. Inspired? Mike’s recommendation – “Use features like Live Composite either at night or just before sunrise during the ‘blue hour.’ Christmas lights make a great stable feature in Live Composite images – you have the vivid Christmas lights mixed in with the light streaks from the cars going by. Just make sure you are careful and stay out of the way of traffic! If you have a chance to get down low, give it a try. You’ll be surprised how a change in perspective changes the whole shot.”
If you’re driving around and snapping shots of holiday lights, you probably won’t have a good way to stabilize the camera – so try using your camera’s [or lens’s—ed.] Image Stabilization Mode. This allows you to hand hold the camera at lower shutter speeds. If you don’t have Image Stabilization, and camera shake is still an issue, use the “Auto” ISO setting or the Candle Scene mode (available on select models). Both will automatically raise the ISO in low light situations for a faster shutter speed. The result should let you capture the holiday lights. Depending on the brightness of your holiday lights scene, you may also need to adjust your camera’s exposure compensation. Colored LEDs in particular may photograph white if they are overexposed.
Using a tripod?
If you’re using a tripod, Olympus Visionary Larry Price suggests turning off your camera’s IS.
“Tripod stability can actually confuse your camera’s stabilization sensor. As the sensor ‘hunts’ to stabilize your camera, the micro vibrations imparted to the image plane can actually reduce resolution. While you’re at it, go ahead an set your camera to anti-shock mode. This will further enhance image resolution by reducing the vibration imparted when you press the shutter button.”
Larry also suggests weighing down your tripod. “Sometimes even the most stable tripod needs extra support. Wind is often the culprit and it’s important to take extra steps to insure your rig is rock solid. Most quality tripods have a hook that will extend from the bottom of the center shaft.”
Oh, ho, the ISO
With most point and shoot cameras, using Candle Scene Mode will result in a lower megapixel image best suited for screen or print sizes up to 8×10. With camera models that do not have Candle Scene Mode, or if you need a higher resolution image, try manually adjusting the ISO setting. When using lower ISOs, you may need to stabilize the camera using a tripod or other method to avoid blur when taking pictures of holiday night scenes. With higher ISO sensitivities the resulting picture may have a grainy appearance.
For the highest quality shots you can get, start out by setting your ISO as low as you can. If you can’t get a decent shot at a low ISO setting, bump it up, and try again. Take many shots at a variety of settings until you get a result you like.
If your camera supports it, Olympus Visionary Alex McClure suggests shooting holiday lights using Manual Mode (M on the dial). “You will need a tripod to get a sharp image; it will let you shoot at a lower ISO and allow you to make a longer exposure. First, set your aperture to around f/8 to widen your depth of field, this will allow more of the image to be in focus. Second, keep your ISO to 400 for the best image quality. Third, since you are using a tripod, please deactivate the IS (Image Stabilization). Last, I suggest using the self-timer option or a remote to minimize camera movement during shooting.” If you have an OI.Share compatible camera, the OI.Share app makes a great remote.
If you’re shooting without a tripod, Alex advises using Hand-Held Starlight* in Scene Mode (SCN on your dial). “This is your best bet if you don’t have a tripod with you; it will adjust all your settings to help capture a sharp night-time Christmas light image. Just make sure to hold your camera very still by putting your arms on a bench or wall, or leaning up on something (like a building).”
*Hand-Held Starlight is a scene mode found on newer PEN, OM-D and Tough cameras.
Night scene mode
If you are unable to manually adjust your settings and your camera doesn’t feature Hand Held Starlight mode, try using Night Scene Mode for better quality images. In Night Scene Mode. a slower shutter speed is used and your results will reveal the unique details of the scene that accompany the holiday lights. Again, with slower shutter speeds, camera blur is more likely to occur. Use a tripod or set your camera on a flat, steady surface and enable the self timer to help reduce the camera shake that occurs when you press the shutter button. Compare the results of various capture methods below.