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Tips on Photographing Holiday Lights - Dec 14, 2012

by Guest Blogger, Kathleen Caylor of Kathleen Caylor Photography

These tips are primarily for people who can use their camera without using a fully automatic setting (like Auto or “P”), and have some understanding of what f/stops and shutter speeds are. 

f2 - bokeh effect

When photographing Holiday lights, I almost always use a tripod to keep my camera from shaking. Even with today’s image stabilizer lenses, I don’t like to hand-hold a camera at shutter speeds slower than 1/160 of a second. And, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to use a shutter speed faster than that in the dark. Sometimes my shutter speeds are several seconds long; there is no way you can hand-hold a camera for that length of time. If you don’t own a tripod, you can set your camera on a bench to stabilize it. Turn your camera’s image-stabilizer feature off when you camera is on a tripod. 

The second tip in keeping your camera perfectly still is to use a cable-release to trip your shutter instead of pushing the shutter button with your finger. Just touching the camera with your finger can be enough to make it shake. Don’t have a cable-release? Use your camera’s built-in timer, the tool that you’d normally use to allow yourself time to run in front of your lens for a self-portrait. That way the camera can take the photo 2-10 seconds after your stop touching it. 

Smaller f stop, almost everything in focus.

Third, if you have an SLR camera, consider finding your mirror-lock-up control and turn it on. When you take a picture with an SLR camera, there is a small mirror that allows you to see through the viewfinder exactly what your lens will see.  This mirror must flip up and out of the way every time to take a picture; it’s the reason your viewfinder goes black at the precise moment that you snap the shutter. However, this internal camera movement can also cause camera shake.  When using the mirror-lock-up feature, you’ll need to press the shutter button twice for each picture. The first “click” will move the mirror up and out of the way, and your viewfinder will go black. The second “click” will actually take the picture, and your viewfinder will return to normal. (However, if you’re not already using a tripod and a cable-release, this tip won’t help you.) 

Fourth, a note about your aperture or f/stop…  When using a tripod, you’ll be able to use small apertures like f/8 or smaller. This does make it easier for you to get something in focus, as your depth of field is larger. However, for variety, try a very wide aperture like f/2 for a close-up of lights with other lights in the background. The background lights will go so far out of focus that you’ll start to see what is called the “bokeh” effect; the points of light in the background will turn into large circles of light. Take a look at the photos (featured right), both of the same scene, to see the difference. 

Finally, nothing beats an unusual and dynamic composition. Everyone photographs from their own eye level most of the time. Therefore, eye-level photos tend to have less impact on a viewer, because we’ve already seen things from that point of view. Try getting low, getting close, getting an angle that the average person won’t make the effort to do. If the only way to get a shot is to hand-hold the camera (like if you’re lying on your back in the snow), give it a try!

Practicing at WPS Garden of Lights? Feel free to post your "experiments" on our Facebook page. We'd love to see them!

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