Jay P Morgan: Photographing Christmas Lights

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To help get into the holiday spirit, Jay P Morgan and the Slanted Lens crew set out to photograph Christmas lights, as well as a Christmas portrait series. This post, the first of two, focuses on photographing the Christmas lights alone. The next post will illustrate how Jay P incorporates a portrait into the shot.

There are a few basic things that will allow you to take great photographs of Christmas lights this holiday season:

1. Time of Day. The best time to photograph outdoor Christmas lights is at dusk while there is still a little daylight. When the sun is going down and there is still some ambient light, the lights will look great. If you shoot in total darkness, the lights will be too stark and there will be little detail and not enough separation from the sky. To solve this, you need to use the ambient light at dusk as a fill light on the house. This way you will get great color and depth in the sky.

2. The sky can be the best part. Wait until the ambient light and the sky are dark enough to match your Christmas lights. There is a very short window when these two will be the same exposure. You can keep lengthening the shutter to bring the sky into a correct exposure but the lights will eventually become too bright.



3. Use a tripod. Don’t be crazy, use a tripod for crisp sharp images or lean on something like a car. You can also use the timer setting for a long exposure, which allows you to trigger the shutter without having to touch the camera body.

4. Don’t use an on camera flash. It won’t do much of anything, depending on how far away from the house you are, and it won't add to the lighting at all. On the contrary, you risk detracting from the light by using it. To be safe, turn it off.

5. Camera settings are critical.

  • White Balance – Set your white balance to either Tungsten or Daylight. Tungsten will make the sky more blue and the lights more neutral or properly colored. Daylight will make the sky less blue and the lights warmer. Both can look great, so be sure to test both settings.
  • Shoot Raw – I shoot in raw format because if I later want to change the color temperature from Daylight to Tungsten, I'll be able to do it in post without any compromise to the image quality. This is not an option when shooting in JPG format.
  • ISO – The lower the ISO, the cleaner the image. However, if you're shooting with a modern DSLR, like the Canon 5D Mark III that I was using, you can bump up the ISO somewhat without any discernible differernce in image quality. For this shoot, I started at 620 ISO.
  • Aperture & Shutter Speed – Start with and aperture setting of f/5.0 and adjust your shutter speed until the exposure of the Chritmas lights is good. Don't worry if the sky or ambient light is too bright; that just means you're a little early for the money shot. Be ready to shoot, though, as the ambient light drops, as it's a pretty small window.

Eventually, the ambient light will get too dark to serve as a good fill on the house:

We hope you have a great holiday season and are able to take some dynamic photos!

Jay P's next post will be about combining strobes with these ambient settings to create portraits with great holiday bokeh. Stay tuned!

To see more of Jay P Morgan's work, visit his Pro Showcase page.

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