PORTLAND, Maine – It’s that time of year again. Strings of brilliant lights are shining in the darkness, through the calendar’s longest nights. Their glimmering twinkles radiate a sense of comfort, joy and hope.
Here, in the city, three-dimensional, shining balls dangle from trees in the park and leafless branches glow, studded with thousands of gleaming points of light. A towering evergreen has sprouted in Monument Square and apartment windows are outlined in glinting, electrical colors.
Holiday lights are fun, festive and just begging to be photographed. But it can be challenging to do so. Fortunately, I can help.
Here are a few tips for getting great pictures of the dazzling displays. 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, professional camera like me – or just your phone – switch over to the manual mode. Doing that, you will be in control, rather than the computer inside your device. Learn how to get ahold of your shutter speed, aperture, white balance and flash.
Turn off your flash
From left: The moon hangs in the sky above the holiday lights in downtown Portland; Traffic streams down Congress Street in Portland on Tuesday Dec. 7, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Once you get control of your settings, turn off your flash. It won’t help you here. You want to use the light you can already see. The flash will just wash out what’s close and won’t be powerful enough to touch anything at a distance.
Work at dusk
This is probably the most powerful tip. There’s a magical time, twice every day, called the Golden Hour. It happens both at dawn and dusk. It’s when the brightness of both the lights and the sky match each other. With some remaining in the sky, you’ll get more than just complete blackness up there. You’ll also get some contextual details about the building or trees holding up 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 lightbulb icon. This will give your holiday lights a warmer, more color-saturated look and it will also make your Golden Hour skies a beautiful blue.
Slow your shutter down
In your manual controls, find the shutter speed. Shoot at a 60th of a second or slower. This will help you in a few ways. First, you’ll get more light to your sensor, which will also let you see some of the things your holiday twinkles are casting their glow upon. Second, LED lights are actually pulsing many times per second and by using a slower shutter speed, you’ll get more of those cycles when you click the button. Last, some light strings are outright blinkers and you probably want to get them when they’re all lit.
Use a tripod
Clockwise, from bottom left: Holiday lights glow amid a display of books in a downtown Portland shop window; A city bus pulls up next to the holiday tree in Portland’s Monument Square; A glowing orb of holiday lights shine above the entry to Portland’s historic Baxter Library building on Tuesday Dec. 7, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
With that slow shutter speed, you’ll need a tripod to help you stay steady. You might also get some traffic whizzing by, leaving lovely taillight and headlight trails.
Use a remote shutter release
The tripod won’t help if you’re shaking the camera when you press the shutter button. A remote release will help you keep your hands to yourself during the exposure. You could also use the cameras built-in self timer.
Don’t be timid
Clockwise, from left: Camera shake gives the holiday lights a different look; A zooming Camera lens makes holiday lights look different; Out of focus holiday lights shine in downtown Portland on Tuesday Dec. 7, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Finally, have fun and don’t be scared. This is enjoyable and it can’t hurt to try new things. Get in too close, or get way far away and capture a whole bunch of sky. Shake the camera on purpose or shoot deliberately out of focus pictures. There really are no rules when you’re creating magic.