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Top tips for shooting beautiful photographs of holiday light displays

While I realize Jean Hodges recently provided us with a solid list of cliche phrasing to avoid when writing about the winter season, I also realize I’ve been listening to the Pop Christmas playlist on Spotify since before Halloween. 

I’m not saying I can’t get through this without letting a “’tis the season” slip, I’m just saying it won’t be easy.

The holidays: a time for celebrating the year gone by, sharing a cup of climate-appropriate-temperature cider with friends, queuing up the fireplace channel on your TV and pulling out the large plastic bin of decorations that you’ve have hidden away in your attic/basement for the past 11-12 months.

Your bin could be stuffed with kinaras, menorahs or Christmas tree ornaments, but chances are, no matter the holiday you’re celebrating, underneath it all you probably have the same knotted coil of tiny lights on a string as everyone — the Rubik’s Cube of holiday decorations.

While storing and untangling them might be a pain, the end result of an artfully set up light display can be magical, which is why I reached out to photography pros from across GateHouse Media newsrooms to ask them for their best tips and tricks for shooting stunning images of holiday light displays.

Lola Gomez, Daytona Beach News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida

• Having a tripod is a must.
ISO, aperture and speed settings always depend on the quantity and quality of light at the scene. There’s not a fixed formula, and you have to adjust them accordantly.
Patience. This kind of photography takes time between adjustments to get the shot you want.
Lens: 200mm (70-200mm); Speed: 1/80; Aperture: f/2.8; ISO: 1600. Christmas lights display at the Twi-Light II Motel in Holly Hills on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. News-Journal/Lola Gomez
Lens: 200mm (70-200mm); Speed: 1/80; Aperture: f/2.8; ISO: 1600. Christmas lights display at the Twi-Light II Motel in Holly Hills on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. News-Journal/Lola Gomez

To get big dots of Christmas lights in your photo, you set up your tripod and camera with a telephoto lens to focus on your subject in the path of them, which should be far from you. Then you open the lens, in this case to f/2.8.

Lens: 16mm (16-35mm); Speed: 0.6sec; Aperture: f/2.8; ISO: 100. Christmas lights display at the Twi-Light II Motel in Holly Hills on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. News-Journal/Lola Gomez
Lens: 16mm (16-35mm); Speed: 0.6sec; Aperture: f/2.8; ISO: 100. Christmas lights display at the Twi-Light II Motel in Holly Hills on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. News-Journal/Lola Gomez

Since the photo is about the overall scene, you can set up your lens at f/2.8 with low ISO and leave the lens open for almost a second so you can capture the whole scene and brighter lights.

Lens: 16mm (16-35mm); Speed: 0.6 sec; Aperture: f/2.8; ISO: 100. Christmas lights display at the Twi-Light II Motel in Holly Hills on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. News-Journal/Lola Gomez
Lens: 16mm (16-35mm); Speed: 0.6 sec; Aperture: f/2.8; ISO: 100. Christmas lights display at the Twi-Light II Motel in Holly Hills on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. News-Journal/Lola Gomez

To focus only on one subject in a scene (like this fox), you open the lens. In this case to f/2.8.

Lens: 14mm; Speed: 20 sec; Aperture: f/14; ISO: 200. A Christmas Village at 111 Pine Creek Court in Ormond Beach on Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. News-Journal/Lola Gomez.
Lens: 14mm; Speed: 20 sec; Aperture: f/14; ISO: 200. A Christmas Village at 111 Pine Creek Court in Ormond Beach on Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. News-Journal/Lola Gomez.

To have the focus of the photo be throughout the scene, keep the lens closed. In this case, f14. Also, to have brighter lights, you use low ISO and leave the lens open like in this case ISO 200, speed 20 sec.

Fred Zwicky, Journal Star, Peoria, Illinois

Shoot during the ‘Winter Magic Hour.’ 
  • Most people wait until it is night to shoot holiday lights. That is way too late! Shoot when the day is heading toward dusk. Keep shooting as the sky gets darker and at some point, the mix between the twilight sky and the holiday lights will blend wonderfully. It’s usually much brighter outside for this shot than you would think.
If using auto-exposure, dial the exposure compensation dial to -1 or -2. Doing this makes the picture look like the night scene it is.
Put your camera on a tripod and stop down to F16 or F22. That will create star sparkles around every point-light source in your shot.
•  If the holiday lights are tungsten, try changing your white balance to tungsten to make for a more intense blue sky.
Christmas lights shine up into the twilight sky in a prayer garden adjoining Sacred Heart Catholic Church at 504 Fulton St. in Peoria as the Christmas holiday arrives in central Illinois. The church, originally dedicated at in 1906 as a German-speaking Catholic parish, celebrated it's 100th anniversary in 2006 with a $3.2 million renovation. Fred Zwicky/Journal Star
Christmas lights shine up into the twilight sky in a prayer garden adjoining Sacred Heart Catholic Church at 504 Fulton St. in Peoria as the Christmas holiday arrives in central Illinois. The church, originally dedicated at in 1906 as a German-speaking Catholic parish, celebrated it’s 100th anniversary in 2006 with a $3.2 million renovation. Fred Zwicky/Journal Star
Cedric the Dragon, a sculpture created by artist Nita Sunderland, lights up the evening sky at the corner of Fulton Street and Jefferson Avenue, bedazzled by the decorators for PNC Winterfest. The outdoor public ice rink will stay open through Jan. 18, 2017. Fred Zwicky/Journal Star
Cedric the Dragon, a sculpture created by artist Nita Sunderland, lights up the evening sky at the corner of Fulton Street and Jefferson Avenue, bedazzled by the decorators for PNC Winterfest. The outdoor public ice rink will stay open through Jan. 18, 2017. Fred Zwicky/Journal Star
Gary Boyer pilots a lighted dirigible as festive lighted floats illuminate the night as they travel three miles through downtown East Peoria Saturday night for the East Peoria Festival of Lights parade. This is the 32nd running of the festival. The dirigible was only the second new float since 2011. Fred Zwicky/Journal Star
Gary Boyer pilots a lighted dirigible as festive lighted floats illuminate the night as they travel three miles through downtown East Peoria Saturday night for the East Peoria Festival of Lights parade. This is the 32nd running of the festival. The dirigible was only the second new float since 2011. Fred Zwicky/Journal Star
Mike Valeri, The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Massachusetts
• Try taking your photos around dusk when there is still some available, ambient light. This will give you faster shutter speeds to prevent blurring and also will give your shots a sense of location and separation from the totally dark sky.
• Keep your camera steady to prevent “blurring” and to keep sharpness.
  • Try using a tripod, monopod, or simply brace yourself against a wall or pole. If you want a blurred effect, then experiment with hand holding the camera during a long exposure.
Check your camera’s settings. Usually, your model camera will have lots of options available to you to meet the various conditions you might be faced with. Some are high ISO settings, exposure compensation, white balances and image stabilization.
• Lastly, Experiment. Take chances, take notes, record your results. This is the best way to match what you did with the results that you attained.
Christmas lights and decorations adorn the grounds of the Acushnet Fire and EMS Department. Mike Valeri, The Standard-Times
Christmas lights and decorations adorn the grounds of the Acushnet Fire and EMS Department. Mike Valeri, The Standard-Times
Christmas lights on a Lake Street home in Acushnet are reflected in the New Bedford Reservoir. Mike Valeri/The Standard-Times
Christmas lights on a Lake Street home in Acushnet are reflected in the New Bedford Reservoir. Mike Valeri/The Standard-Times

Jim Quigg, Daily Press, Victorville, California

Choose something to be the central figure of the shot. Don’t try to shoot “everything and wind up with a picture of nothing.
•  Use a secure placement of the camera. Preferably a tripod, but anything will be better than hand holding, use the hood of your car, a fence post, a table.
Figure out how your camera adapts to low light. Smartphones allow you to tap on the area you want to make sure is correctly lit. If you’re using a higher-end camera read the manual on how the meter works. Some cameras even have settings for fireworks and Christmas light displays. And practice first “One good test is worth 1,000 expert opinions” – Wernher Von Braun

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