By Brendan Keenan, Penn Camera Tysons Corner
Photographing holiday lights is no different than most low light photography. This means your best friend will be a tripod. You don't need anything large, just something that will keep the camera steady. This is especially important because for most outdoor photographs you will be shooting without a flash, and the camera will need a slow shutter speed to expose properly. This makes keeping the camera stationary critical. Another way to improve low light performance is to raise the ISO on your camera, though be careful, go too high and your pictures will get noisy(grainy), and lose quality. It is something you can fix with software later, but the lower the ISO, the better the quality. Aim for a slow shutter speed instead. If you have a camera that allows you to use faster lenses, or a point and shoot with a fast lens, like f1.8, you should try to shoot with the aperture wide open as well to help expose properly. If you are feeling really creative, you can try to move the camera slightly during the exposure, to purposely create a light blurring effect. Sometimes blur is a good thing, and done correctly you can create a colorful, abstract masterpiece.
You don't need a DSLR to make the necessary adjustments, most current point and shoot cameras have a dedicated low light mode, and it is easy to disable the flash, and even adjust the ISO if necessary. The important thing is observing the low light rules, not what kind of camera you are using. What about using flash? When should it be used? Usually flash use should be reserved for shooting indoors. For example, a Christmas tree. If you shoot the tree with the proper mix of flash and ambient light the result will be a clear photo of the decorations. Shoot without flash, and you risk getting lots of shadows, and a much lower level of detail. Detail is the key with smaller displays. Unless it is already lit almost perfectly, your best bet in this situation is to use a flash.
As far as composition goes, obviously that can be subjective. I like to use as wide an angle as I can get when shooting outdoor displays, even a little distortion can be so worth it for a single shot of a huge display. For shooting indoors, just use the space around you as best you can. That great "star" effect around lights can also be achieved by using a smaller f-stop. This is nice if you want to create that effect without a filter, but remember, you'll need a tripod and a long exposure outdoors, and a fill flash at least indoors. I also like to try to get my photographs scouted out before sunset, and I like to shoot during twilight, when the light is soft in the sky, and it is not completely dark yet. This will let you experiment more with exposures, and you can still create a nighttime look, without losing all the sky light.
Like everything in photography, practice makes perfect, and if you aren't very familiar with low light photography don't let a few blurry pictures discourage you. Keep shooting, and remember the simple rules I mentioned above. You'll end up with wonderful holiday pictures you can enjoy year round. Visit our Classes website for information about the upcoming holiday classes and special holiday photo safaris. Happy Holidays!