During the festive holiday season decorative lights illuminate neighborhoods and cityscapes across the country. The lights are beautiful — sometimes breathtaking — but when you take a picture using your digital camera's AUTO mode, the results are rarely as stunning as the real thing.
Many digital shutterbugs know they can get slightly better results with the flash off. By turning your flash off in AUTO mode you will get a slower shutter speed that will allow more light to hit the camera sensor. But this method alone won't always recreate the glittering lights in a lifelike tone. What's more, if you don't have a tripod, a slow shutter speed will often produce a blurred picture. There are two basic elements to taking good holiday nighttime photos: you can either use a tripod to prevent camera movement and use slow shutter speeds, or increase the ISO sensitivity so the shutter speed will not be too slow. Take a look at these tips to get a better hold on your holiday photo opportunities.
Most Wonderful Time
Although holiday lights appear best at night, the best time to photograph them is at twilight. This is because at twilight there is enough light in the sky to be able to define tree branches, the roof line of a home or other details. It is best to start shooting about 15 minutes after sunset and then take a shot every five minutes thereafter to get an ideal balance of skylight and the holiday lights. Since many lights today use LEDs, you may find that colored LEDs may photograph as white because they may overexpose.
If you're driving around and snapping shots of holiday lights, you probably won't have a good way to stabilize the camera – so try using your camera’s Image Stabilization Mode. This allows you to hand hold the camera at lower shutter speeds. If you don't have Image Stabilization, and camera shake is still an issue, use the "Auto" ISO setting or the Candle Scene mode (available on select models). Both will automatically raise the ISO in low light situations for a faster shutter speed. The result should let you capture the holiday lights. Depending on the brightness of your holiday lights scene, you may also want to try adjusting your camera's exposure compensation.
Notice the effect of adding exposure compensation to the Candle Scene Mode.
Oh, ho, the ISO
With most point and shoot cameras, using Candle Scene Mode will result in a lower megapixel image best suited for screen or print sizes up to 8x10. With camera models that do not have Candle Scene Mode, or if you need a higher resolution image, try manually adjusting the ISO setting. With ISO sensitivities less than 400, you will need to stabilize the camera using a tripod or other method to avoid blur when taking pictures of holiday night scenes. With higher ISO sensitivities the resulting picture may have a grainy appearance.
Increasing your camera's ISO setting will enhance the sensitivity of the image sensor. But a high ISO setting can also add noise. For the highest quality shots you can get, start out by setting your ISO as low as you can. If you can seem to get a decent exposure at a low ISO setting, bump it up, and then take many shots at a variety of settings until you get a result you like.
Night Scene Mode
When you enable Night Scene Mode, a slower shutter speed is used and your results will reveal the unique details of the scene that accompany the holiday lights. However, with slower shutter speeds, camera blur is more likely to occur so try using a tripod. Or, you can even try setting the camera on a flat, steady surface and enabling the self timer to help reduce the camera shake that occurs when you press the shutter button.