PORTLAND, Maine – It’s that time of year again. Strings of brilliant lights shine in the dark, through the longest nights of the calendar. Their twinkling shimmers exude a sense of comfort, joy and hope.
Here in the city, three-dimensional glowing balls hang from the trees in the park, and leafless branches glow, dotted with thousands of sparkling points of light. Towering evergreen has grown over Monument Square, and apartment windows are highlighted in shimmering electric colors.
Holiday lights are fun, festive and just begging to be photographed. But it can be difficult to do so. Fortunately, I can help.
Here are some tips for getting great photos from dazzling screens. Don’t forget to bundle up and maybe wear a safety vest if you’re going to be near the road.
Whether you’re using a fancy pro camera like me – or just your phone – switch to manual mode. By doing so, you will have control, rather than the computer inside your device. Learn to control shutter speed, aperture, white balance and flash.
Turn off your flash
Left to right: The moon hangs in the sky above the Christmas lights of downtown Portland; Traffic flows down Congress Street in Portland on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN
Once you’ve mastered your settings, turn off your flash. It won’t help you here. You want to use light that you can already see. The flash will only wash out what’s near and won’t be powerful enough to hit anything at a distance.
Work at dusk
This is probably the most powerful trick. There is a magic moment, twice a day, called the golden hour. This happens both at dawn and dusk. This is when the brightness of the lights and the sky match. With a few remaining in the sky, you’ll get more than complete darkness up there. You’ll also get contextual details about the building or trees holding the lights. But beware, at this time of year, the Golden Hour really only lasts about 10 minutes.
Change your white balance
Set your white balance to incandescent, which is usually represented on your screen by a light bulb icon. This will give your holiday lights a warmer, more color saturated look and also give your Golden Hour skies a nice blue.
Slow down your shutter
In your manual controls, find the shutter speed. Shoot to 60ths of a second or less. It will help you in several ways. First, you’ll get more light on your sensor, which will also allow you to see some of the things your holiday sparkles are casting their glow on. Second, LED lights actually pulse multiple times per second and by using a slower shutter speed you will get more of these cycles when you click the button. Finally, some string lights are downright flashing and you’ll probably want to get them when they’re all on.
Use a tripod
Clockwise from bottom left: Holiday lights shine amidst a display of books in a downtown Portland storefront; A city bus stops next to the Monument Square Christmas tree in Portland; A glowing orb of Christmas lights shines above the entrance to the historic Baxter Library building in Portland on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN
With that slow shutter speed, you’ll need a tripod to help keep you steady. You might also get some traffic, leaving some nice taillight and headlight trails.
Use a remote trigger
The tripod won’t help you if you shake the camera when you press the shutter button. A remote trigger will help you keep your hands to yourself during the exposure. You can also use the camera’s built-in self-timer.
Do not be shy
Clockwise from left: Camera shake makes Christmas lights look different; A zoom camera lens makes Christmas lights different; Blurry Christmas lights shine in downtown Portland on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN
Finally, have fun and don’t be afraid. It’s fun and it can’t hurt to try new things. Get too close or move away and capture a whole bunch of sky. Shake the camera intentionally or deliberately take blurry pictures. There really are no rules when creating magic.