The festive season is now in full swing! It’s a busy time of year but let’s not forget to make the most of the few short weeks where Christmas lights magically transform our surroundings.
It’s never a bad thing to refresh our memories on how best to capture those twinkling lights and get creative with bokeh. So here goes…
1. PLAN AHEAD
I often like to think about possible compositions without the camera, so when you’re out Christmas shopping or wandering in the city, take a moment to think what might make for a good shot. When you have your spot in mind, arrive early to set up; you will need a tripod for longer exposures, a cable/wireless shutter release if you have one and time to work out the correct exposure settings.
Don’t make the mistake of waiting until after dark to shoot Christmas lights. Start shooting before the sun goes down and adjust your camera settings to maximise the 15–20 minute window just after sunset. During this time you need to make the most of ‘blue light’ where you can effectively balance the remaining natural light with artificial light from Christmas displays and city lights. Keep taking shots at minute intervals as the sun sets and you will see the ambient light change from sunlight to twilight and until you experience a sort of Christmas golden light. Shoot in RAW so that you can make adjustments to white balance in processing.
Use Manual settings and watch out for lost highlight detail in the lights themselves. To achieve starbursts you will need to have the camera on a tripod, high f-stop (f/16 usually works) and use a low ISO (ideally 100–200). Use a remote shutter release or self-timer on the camera to reduce camera shake and switch image stabilisation off.
If you prefer the freedom of shooting hand-held, boost ISO to 800 or more, choose a lower f-stop (try f/5.6) and faster shutter speed. Try bracing yourself against a wall or find a way to steady the camera to get sharper shots and make sure image stabilisation is on if you have it.
Using the viewfinder, use the autofocus to lock focus on any of the bright objects in your frame. Once the focus has been locked switch to Manual focus on your lens in order to avoid any re-focusing or lost focus. I use live-view to zoom in and double check sharpness.
5. ENJOY & EXPERIMENT
Don’t be afraid to experiment with alternative compositions. Experiment with strands of colour and white lights to achieve an out of focus ‘bokeh’ effect. In either aperture priority or manual exposure modes, select the fastest aperture that your lens allows and using the camera’s meter, expose correctly. With the lens focused manually, you can defocus the lights and get creative with bokeh. Make the most of the fact that people are out and about having fun in town and incorporate that into your shots. Once it is completely dark it will be harder to make impressive shots; this is the time to step back, enjoy your surroundings and grab a glass of mulled wine before you head back!
Have a great Christmas and happy shooting!