December 12, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

When we go out to see holiday lights, it is usually already very dark. This isn't a problem for our eyes but the camera sensor has limitations in these situations. The best time to go out and shoot holiday lights is dusk - that small window of time after the sun has set and before total darkness has set in. The 2 types of ambience that we are trying to balance are the holiday lights and the slowly disappearing evening light. During this time, it is possible to expose for both, and, if you set your camera’s white balance to Tungsten, you will make the already blue sky even bluer. Keeping this in mind, it will take some scouting to find a good composition. Once you have found your place and subject to shoot, you can maximize your time getting the shot right. This could be a fun way to get out of the house and stroll around the neighborhood during the Christmas season. Here is a link to some of San Diego’s hotspots for Christmas lights.

Bokeh is the quality of the portion of a photograph that is not in sharp focus. Ever wanted to know how you can capture those beautiful Bokeh shots? It can be achieved by adjusting depth-of-field and choosing the right lens. To get beautiful bokeh in an image, you need to use a fast lens - the faster the better! You’ll want to use a lens with at least an f/2.8 aperture, with faster apertures of f/1.8 or f/1.4 being ideal. The first thing we need to do is get close to the subject, set your camera up on a tripod, and then open your lens all the way. 

The wider open, the better! To increase the likelihood of visible bokeh in your photographs, increase the distance between your subject and the background. You can do this by positioning your main subject very close to your camera. The more shallow the depth-of-field or further away the background is, the more out-of-focus it will be. You can also use shapes and change the look of your aperture which can be quite fun to experiment with. You can buy filters that attach to the front of your lens or you can make some yourself with stencils.


To keep this very basic and simple, follow these steps. Your camera should allow you to control at least the shutter speed. Then find moving lights or an object that is moving while illuminated. Try to visualize how it all plays out in the final image. A street scene with holiday  decorations during dusk and some moving lights (like cars) could produce an interesting scene. Think about how the trails will interact with the rest of your composition. I just recently saw a great shot of a spinning Christmas tree. It caught my attention because I really liked the look, and I also knew that it took some effort to spin the tree with all the lights attached to it :-)

To shoot a long exposure set your camera on a tripod or a steady surface, use an aperture of at least f/8 keep the ISO low and then determine the shutter speed the longer the better! Try to have at least 10-20 sec. but keep experimenting with different intervals. Shorter exposures will produce shorter trails. Longer exposures will give you smooth continuous trails. Use your histogram to check that the highlights are not totally blown out. Shoot RAW if you can, this will give you more options in post processing, you can also use your camera’s BULB mode and a remote control to utilize shutter speeds that go past 30sec. but in an urban setting you can get by without that extra exposure time.


Tell the story of your holiday experience with just a few pieces of the whole puzzle. Zoom in on some decorations in the house or elsewhere - such as close ups of food, gifts, activities like decorating the tree - use a shallow depth of field by opening your lens up a little more, maybe include some bokeh from background lights. I recommend using a tripod when shooting static subjects. If you use a tripod, you can use slower shutter speeds and lower ISO’s than you would handheld. If you photograph activites handheld, this would be a good time to increase your ISO. Experiment with this! 


This can be really fun and create some interesting and unique photographs! Find lights in an interesting setting - a street scene, a lit up Christmas tree, or any sort of light involving Christmas decoration. Then set your camera on a tripod and use a zoom lens. Now get your exposure figured out and, during the exposure, you will zoom in and out. This will create streaks of light that can be super fun and produce unique photographs. This is very experimental, so keep on trying with different subjects and surroundings!


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