31 Dec 2013

4 Steps to Improve your Christmas Light Photography

At this time of the year many towns have beautiful Christmas light displays and as photographers we naturally want to capture these as best we can. However, because the light is low it is not always possible to just go and shoot away on auto because the camera never gets the scene to look quite the way we really remember it at the time because human eyes are light years ahead of camera sensors and so what we see and what the camera captures is often less than satisfactory.

A lot of people will shoot bracketed shots and blend them in software to increase the range, but very often HDR images look really unnatural to me and not pleasing to the eye. There is also the problem of people walking around in the shot and causing multiple "ghosting". So what to do?

Well, the picture above was a single shot photograph and by following a few simple steps I managed to get the scene exactly the way I wanted.

1.) Be patient and wait for the light. Photography should never be rushed anyway, but it becomes even more important when we want to capture the light perfectly. I generally do not like to go out on a shoot together with anyone else because I always feel obligated and pressured to keep to a schedule when I am in a group. Photography is not a team sport! Wait until the light from the sky is balanced as closely as possible to the electric lights on the street in front of you for the best results. I normally find that I get the light I'm after about 20-30 minutes or so after sunset.

2.) Always use a tripod. As steady as you think you can handhold your camera, and as wonderful as your systems image stabilisation may be, you still cannot beat a tripod. Most folks just pump up the ISO and hand hold anyway, but even the best modern cameras will show noise of some sort or the other at even moderate settings. The best performance will always be at base ISO so why not go for the best? While you are at it you may as well get a decent sturdy tripod that will not shake in the wind.

3.) Shoot in RAW. The cameras RAW files always contain a LOT more information than shooting in jpeg and hoping for the best. Don't listen to the "internet experts" who claim that real photographers "get the settings right in camera" and therefore don't need to shoot RAW. I have news for them, real photographers do shoot RAW and for good reason. The dynamic range of light captured when using RAW is much greater than any jpeg can capture. Shoot RAW, you'll never be sorry that you did!

4.) Hone your post processing skills. In the days of film we would shoot away and then hand over our film to an expert at the processing lab who would do all the important stuff behind the scenes for us. In the digital age we have to become expert at every aspect of the photographic process unless we have the budget to hire someone to do the post processing for us. I generally recommend purchasing a decent program like DxO Optics Pro or Adobe Lightroom as they offer great options to extract the best from your RAW file and produce the kind of results that professionals the world over would be satisfied with. Then practice, practice, practice... and then practice some more. Maybe take a course, even an on-line course. Then practice some more. Decent post processing skills will take your photographs a large step further.

I hope that this short bit of advice will help you when you step out to capture all the pretty lights down town during this holiday season.

Here's wishing you great light, and a wonderful 2014!



  1. Right on all counts, my friend. I would add this though about HDR photography. Strange name, this HDR thing, when one is trying to REDUCE a dynamic range that is too great to a smaller one… anyway.

    I disagree about the "unnatural" resulting image. The fact is that most people, specially when using Photoshop's HDR Toning command, choose one of the dozen very strange algorithms proposed. I've said time and again that all one has to do is use the Exposure and Gamma algorithm to closely replicate the original image... minus its extremes of course. Quite simple in fact.

    And this explains why an iPhone can do beautiful HDR, giving very natural results.

    At night however, even with automatic bracketing, you just don't have enough light and you end up with ghosts if there are people in it. Darn. Of course you could erase the ghosts... too much work for this New Year!

    Happy New Year, friend Lanthus! :-)

    1. I agree about the hdr photography, if done right it is a wonderful tool, but it seems so many people prefer the yucky side of hdr, and I have no idea why...

      Have a great 2014 Roger!