December is a great month to photograph bright, festive decorations. One of the most eye-catching decorations is also the most challenging: holiday lights. There are many different tricks and techniques detailed below to capture the beguiling colors, glitters, and twinkles – pick the one(s) that work best for you and your equipment, and make the most of this beautiful holiday season!
Most of the time, when photographing subjects such as lights or candles, you are in a low-light setting. However, this is one time when a flash is generally not a good option; so the first tip is to turn off your built-in flash. Your choice of Exposure Mode, on the Mode Dial, plays a major part in this. Any of the following shooting modes will prevent the built-in flash from automatically trying to pop-up and fire every time you press the shutter button half-way down in a low-light situation:
- Any "Creative Zone" mode – P, Tv, Av, or M
- Flash Off mode (available on most recent EOS cameras)
- Creative Auto (CA) modes, which allow manually turning Flash Firing to "Off"
- Sports mode
- Hand-held Night Scene mode, available in many recent Canon EOS models, as a separate icon on Mode Dial, or within the SCN (Special Scene Modes) settings.
There are three basic exposure tools to capture a great image: ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture – various combinations of these settings will optimize your camera to best capture this tricky low-light/bright-subject shot:
High ISO: ISO is a setting that tells your camera how sensitive it should be to light. Higher settings such as 800, 1000, 1600, 3200, etc. result in greater sensitivity – the higher the ISO, the less light you need to record an image. However, the trade-off is that higher ISOs show greater levels of 'noise' (that pastel speckling visible throughout some images, most noticeable in shadow and mid-tone areas).
However, recent digital SLRs have amazing low-light performance, due in part to improvements in CMOS sensors, as well as an important Custom Function offered in most of our recent EOS cameras: High ISO Noise Reduction (you can read more about High ISO Noise Reduction here). Critical users shooting in a "Creative Zone" exposure mode (P, Tv, Av, or M) can go into either the camera's Custom Function or Shooting Menu, and vary the level of High ISO Noise Reduction to suit their preferences. The factory-default "Standard" level, however, is usually fine for most purposes.
Something to keep in mind: Interchangeable lens cameras, with larger imaging sensors, show much lower noise levels at the same ISO than digital point-and-shoots, so be cautious when choosing your exposure settings. With a compact digital camera like a Canon PowerShot, you may want to opt for an ISO no higher than 400 in combination with a slow shutter speed and/or wide aperture. However, with an EOS camera, you can use an ISO of 1600, 3200 or even as high as ISO 25,600 with some EOS models, and feel confident that you will get a very usable image.
- Long Exposures: Almost without exception, holiday lights will be at their best when the surrounding environment is dark, whether indoors, or outdoors at dusk or at night. And, these lights are almost always fairly modest in their output as well. So we're usually talking low-light situations any time we're photographing holiday lights. Modern digital SLRs can handle most low-light situations easily, but there are a few things you can do to insure great pictures in these situations:
- Shoot at higher ISO settings. EOS cameras set to "Auto" ISO will naturally tend to pick higher ISOs in these types of low-light scenes. But if you're working in the P, Tv, Av, or M shooting modes, you can set ISO yourself to settings like 1600, 3200, or even higher if the holiday lights you're shooting and their surroundings are not super-bright. You'll be shooting at faster shutter speeds, all else being equal, if you use higher ISOs – and that means less chance of blurs from any motion blur.
Use a tripod. A tripod is the best way to stabilize your camera. If you don't have a tripod, see if you can lean the camera against a nearby lamp post, park bench, or other solid surface. If there is nothing to brace the camera on, make sure you are holding it as steadily as possible: Hold the camera firmly with both hands. Use your optical viewfinder (rather than the LCD) if you have one, so you can rest the camera against your face. Keep your elbows bent, and tucked into your chest, and keep your knees slightly bent for improved balance; basically, you want to turn yourself into a tripod.
Even if your camera is on a tripod, consider using a cable release. If you don't have one, use the camera's self-timer function (because with very slow exposure times, even the slight movement of pushing the shutter button can sometimes result in a blurry image). Many recent EOS and PowerShot cameras have built-in Wi-Fi capability. If your camera offers this, you can connect to a compatible smartphone or tablet with Canon's free Camera Connect App installed, and then use your device as a remote controller to fire your camera.
- If your lens has Image Stabilization, use it. Many of Canon's EF and EF-S lenses, as well as select PowerShot models, have built-in Optical Image Stabilization (you can read more about that here). Image Stabilization effectively reduces blur caused by camera movement, and allows sharper pictures at slower shutter speeds when you're hand-holding the camera.
- Use a wide-angle lens. Wider focal lengths, such as 16mm, 18mm, 24mm, etc. are much more 'forgiving,' showing little-to-no blur from camera movement, even at slower shutter speeds. Consider stepping closer to those lights, and zooming the lens to a wider focal length, to minimize blurs and camera shake.