It's beginning to look a lot...
Presented by Glenn Springer, TIF, RHCC Christmas!
All those beautiful lights. How do you capture them?

The Riverwalk bridge in Minden. Every year they put up Christmas decorations. Here, I shot just a little bit too early to make the lights jump out against the ambient light.

You know the rest of that sentence: “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”! Sorry to plant that earworm, you’ll be walking around singing that song in your head for the next week! Could be worse: I could have written “It’s a Small World After All”! Oops.

So there are all these beautiful Christmas lights and decorations out there, how do you photograph them? And how do you shoot at night anyway? There are a few secrets which I’ll share and some for you to figure out for yourself, but that’s the fun of photography!

A neighbour's house. Wait until the lights are balanced by the ambient light. This image was edited to add some special effects, but what makes it are the warm interior lights in the house.

If you shoot after dark, this is what you get. This is the same house as the shot above. Which do you find more interesting?

Secret #1: you NEED a tripod. You don’t have to spend a lot… I wrote an article on this very subject last July. You can find it by going to and clicking on “Tips”. All of these articles are there! Go ahead, I’ll wait right here until you’re back… good, now you’ve seen a bunch of long exposure shots and you’re convinced. Great.

Secret #2: you need a camera that you can put on MANUAL. Read the ‘manual’ (pardon the pun) that came with it, many cameras, even point-and-shoots, have that feature, although admittedly, those cameras are a bit limited. The reason is that the meter in the camera cannot read the light correctly, if at all. HINT: the camera moves when you push the shutter release. That’s not a good thing. So use a cable release or the self timer in the camera. And don’t be touching the camera while the shutter is open. Also turn off your autofocus. It probably won’t work right and it’ll keep hunting around for the best focus: set it and switch it off, or just focus manually to begin with.

Secret #3: wait for the right time. Lights are brighter than you think, so if you shoot after it’s really dark, all you’ll see is the lights and nothing else. You want to blend the brightness of the lights with the ambient light. Obviously you can’t shoot in full daylight, and you can’t shoot in the dead of night, so that leaves… twilight. After the sun has set and it’s starting to get dark. Besides, that’s when people put their lights on anyway.

How will you know when the light is right? I can’t tell you. You have to experiment. So dress really warmly, go out there and set up before it gets dark, and be patient. In the magical days of digital photography it doesn’t cost anything to shoot a picture, so go for it! Shoot every few minutes. Check the histogram and the image on the back of the camera. Change your exposure and shoot some more! Do some lighter, some darker… you’ll know the best ones when you look at them on the computer or on the back of the camera.

The exposure settings: the lights are warm and bright, the sky is cold and dark. That’s what you’re going for. If you need a starting point, try this: a 1-second exposure at f/8, ISO 400. Too bright? Try turning the ISO down first (if your camera will go to 100, go there). If it’s still too bright, shorten the exposure. Try ¼ second. Too dark? How about ½ second? See why you needed a tripod?

Wait for the right light! And remember I said the moon is bright? 1/1250 of a second at f/5.6, ISO 800.


You will be rewarded by some great pictures! And while you’re out there and the stars or the moon comes out? You know what to do! (By the way, the moon is VERY bright. Start at 1/125 second at f/8, ISO 200, even faster if it’s a full moon! Trust me!). Starting point for starry skies? Long exposure: High ISO! Try this – 10 seconds at f/5.6, ISO 3200. YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary)!


Composited image. Each shot was at a different exposure as the moon moved more and more into full eclipse.

Here are some more moon images for your enjoyment!



Here are a few more moon images. The one at right is called a "MoonDog" (Google it!). If you don't get out there, you won't see stuff like this!


This is a MUCH longer exposure. The stars aren't bright at all! This is 30 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 2500.
The light in the car was from a flashlight buried in a yellow windbreaker!


Wait for the right light and you'll be rewarded!

Try shooting Christmas lights OUT OF FOCUS!







The best way to learn about this stuff is to attend a workshop. The second best way is to compare notes with other photographers, and that’s what camera clubs are for! Surprise! We have a new Camera Club here in the Highlands! The very first meeting is going to be in the evening on December 11th at the Minden Public Library at 176 Bobcaygeon Road. Everyone is welcome. It’s FREE. New at photography? Experienced? Doesn’t matter, this club is for you! Check out the website at and we’ll see you there!

PS: my workshop schedule is wide open for the fall/winter. I do small groups, so you choose the date! An inexpensive way to learn how to make better pictures! Check out the workshops here.

Links to FACzen Photography:
We teach you how to become a better photographer. And we sell fine art images. Please check us out at the links below.


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