How to Photograph Holiday Lights

By: New York Institute of Photography

'Tis the season to be jolly!" All winter holiday celebrations involve lights. This is the season of lights - from Christmas trees to Hanukkah candles to decorative house lighting. Lights...lights...lights to cheer up the long dark nights of winter. According to Chuck DeLaney, Dean of the New York Institute of Photography (NYI), the world's largest photography school, your pictures can capture the magic of this lighting if you apply just two simple professional "tricks".

"First," DeLaney points out, "you want to capture the colorful glow of the lights on a Christmas tree or other display. It's simple -- the first trick is to turn off your camera's flash! That's key. Otherwise, that handy built-in flash is likely to fire and its bright light will overwhelm the subtle tree lights in your pictures. Use fast film and perhaps turn on some room lights to compensate. That way you'll capture the glow that would otherwise be lost."

Similarly, NYI recommends that you turn off your flash whenever you want to capture any subtle light source - from Christmas trees to Menorah candles to decorative house lighting to those wonderful tree outlines produced by tiny white bulbs.

Of course, certain things follow from this: When you turn off your flash, you won't have enough light for split-second exposure. Your automatic camera will compensate by opening the shutter for a longer time - maybe a second or longer. Let your camera's built-in meter decide automatically.

But a very long exposure will become blurry if either the camera moves or the tree lights move, or both. To minimize this risk, NYI recommends two further steps. If you're using a film camera, use fast film - for example, ISO 800. This will cut down the duration of the exposure. Second, steady your camera. Handholding just won't do. Use a tripod if possible. If not, place the camera on a solid surface, such as a tabletop, or brace it against a wall.

"When you go outdoors to take pictures of the wonderful displays of lights that adorn the exterior of a decorated house, store or town square, it's time for Trick Two," explains DeLaney. "Shoot at dusk or twilight, while there's still some color in the sky, instead of waiting until the sky turns pitch black. This will keep some detail in the sky, although the viewer will think the photo was taken at night. You'll also be able to use a faster shutter speed so there's less danger of camera shake blurring your photos."

For complete details and an array of holiday photos, see the article on Holiday Lights on this month's Web site of the New York Institute of Photography at

Reprinted with permission from the New York Institute of Photography website at

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