November in the Northern Hemisphere can be a bleak time of year for photographers. Daylight hours are short, temperatures drop and the leaves have fallen off the trees. Luckily, in December, cities and suburbs decorate with a blaze of holiday lights and color. Even if it’s not your usual thing, gather up a few friends for a fun photo walk to create some beautiful and colorful holiday images.
Bring a tripod or don’t – you can make do as you go along. Your goal is to have fun and to make images that capture the essence of the season. Embrace the colors, look for holiday lights, keep an eye out for seasonal blooms, capture miniature moments, and photograph the music around you. Read on for tips and ideas for making beautiful holiday images.
1. Embrace colors
Over-the-top holiday decorating is filled with color. Department stores like Macy’s use festive decorating as a way to lure customers into the store. It’s a lure for photographers too. Just look at this red lighting in Macy’s!
Inside a department store, the ambient light will be low and you probably won’t be allowed to use a tripod. The solution is to crank up your ISO. You’ll want your shutter speed as fast as possible to prevent motion blur. If you have a steady hand or if your lens has stabilization, you’ll be able to hand-hold at lower shower speeds but a high ISO – think 2000 to 4000 – should give your shutter speed the boost it needs.
Composing your images
In addition to the riot of holiday color, department stores are filled with signage, bright spotlights, and people so be creative when you compose your images. Try unusual perspectives to help you avoid distracting elements. Here at the Walnut Room in Macy’s Chicago you can photograph the tree from the ground floor, from the elevator, and from the upper gallery. The first image above was shot from a low vantage point. The result emphasizes the angled red ceiling and the word “Believe.” The second image looks down, emphasizing the size of the tree.
Sometimes it helps to zoom in when you compose. Don’t worry about fitting the entire tree into your frame. Instead, move around and find a composition with repeating elements, like the smaller tree projected on the wall.
If you don’t have an iconic location like Macy’s Walnut Room near you, head to your local shopping mall or main street shopping district. Shop owners work hard to make their storefronts look beautiful. Again, think outside the box when you compose your images. The trees in the image above caught my eye because they were pink and purple, rather than the traditional red and green. These two trees flanked an open shop door. Since the inside of the shop wasn’t very attractive, the solution was to stand to the side, get low, and focus on the sparkly pink snowflake. The tree on the opposite side of the door then fades into a lovely blur of bokeh.
2. Look for lights
Cities are great places for holiday photo walks and image making. Make sure to check out large parks and plazas that usually have lighted trees. Super large outdoor trees make great focal points. They also make great backdrops when using larger apertures because the twinkly lights blur into a beautiful bokeh.
When shooting in the city, arrive just before dusk to scout your location and find good backgrounds. A beautiful time of day to shoot the holiday lights is the hour after sunset because the sky is a lovely shade of blue. Plus, it’s still bright enough to capture images of people. You might want to use a tripod at this point or, once again, crank your ISO.
This image was supposed to be of the skaters on the rink below the promenade. But this couple looked so beautiful bathed in golden light, I couldn’t help making a picture of them.
A really fun photograph is to focus on a lighted tree branch, especially if the bulbs are unusual, like these that are faceted and made to look like cut glass crystal. To make this image, find an isolated tree branch with a clean background. Open your aperture all the way up, preferably to f/1.8 or f/1.4. The wide aperture creates a very shallow depth of field. The bulbs further away will dissolve into soft, round circles.
Scenes filled with white twinkly holiday lights are the perfect time to think about monochrome images too. For images like these, the trick is to underexpose by 1-2 stops. After you take your first shot, check your histogram. It should like sort of like this example, stacked up on the left and just reaching the right hand side, but not climbing up it. Those white twinkly lights are bright and if you expose too far to the right, they’ll look blown out in your final image, with no detail.
By underexposing and keeping your histogram stacked to the left, you do actually lose detail in the shadows. Often that’s a concern, but since the goal for this image is to capture the twinkly lights, the priority is to maintain detail there.
If you’re going for symmetry and crisp geometry, setting your camera on a tripod is the best bet. If you’re trying your hand at street photography, like in the image with the Basilica, try hand-holding but definitely crank up your ISO.
3. Holiday blooms
For macro photographers, the holidays have an exciting assortment of flowers that are forced to bloom during this special season. Experiment with these large blooms by choosing a small aperture and a larger depth of field, like in these two images below. It would also be a blast to use a Lensbaby to make dreamy selective focus images.
Your best bet for locating these sorts of blooms is a local conservatory or the greenhouses at your local botanic garden. If you have a green thumb, you can even grow them yourself.
4. Miniature moments
Miniature Norman-Rockwell-like villages crop up everywhere at the holidays. For some, they are family heirlooms and setting them up each year is an important holiday rite. If you have a friend who sets up one of these treasured villages every December, invite yourself over for cocoa and offer to photograph it for her.
You can also find exquisite miniature scenes in public places, like the Winter Wonderland Express at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
The key to successfully photographing miniature scenes is to shoot from eye level with a specific focal point, like the train in the above image. This viewpoint successfully shows the painstaking details of the scene. If you stand up and over a miniature scene, be careful with your composition so that you have a focal point in the scene.
Another fun option, if you don’t have a miniature scene available to you, is to create one using props. In the image above, the crystal orb reflects a miniature version of the holiday tree in the distance behind it.
To create this image, move the orb around, setting it on tables and shelves to see what it reflects. Once you find a great reflected scene, set your camera on the same level as the orb. Focus on the scene in the orb and let the background blur away. I found that f/16 gave me the crispest details in the orb but you can experiment and try f/4 or f/8 too. Since you’ll probably be inside with a long shutter speed – this one was 2 seconds – a tripod or firm support method is recommended to prevent motion blur from shaky hands.
5. Photograph music
Buskers and musicians abound during the holidays and hopefully you’ll be lucky enough to see a few of them on your holiday photo walk. You can make street photography style portraits of musicians, with the intent to convert to black and white.
In this first image, the background was more cluttered than I would have like but the harpist’s face was so angelic as she sang that I had to capture the moment. If you’re planning to shoot like this, you’ll probably be able to better fly under the radar hand holding your camera. But again – yep, you guessed it – you’ll need to keep your ISO high to prevent the motion blur caused by a low shutter speed. A wider aperture will help too. This is also the perfect opportunity to try a 50mm prime and experiment with wide apertures (f/1.8, f/2, f/2.8).
Another option is to embrace the motion blur and make it work for you. Think of it as seeing the music. The shot below is intentionally blurry to show the energy and enthusiasm of the brass band that was playing in the streets of Lucca.
To make your image look like this, focus on a key element like you normally would but intentionally set a slow shutter speed. Try 1/5th or 1/10th of a second first, evaluate the level of blur and then try again, adjusting your shutter speed as needed to get the right look. There is no right or wrong here so just keep experimenting till you get the look that pleases you.
Here the focus was on the girl’s face. I chose her face because I liked the triangle she made with the two musicians around her.
These five ideas are just a few of the many ways you can take advantage of the holidays to make fun and beautiful images. Don’t forget to dress warm, stop often for hot cocoa, and try out a few of these ideas during your photo walk.
Do you have more great ideas for capturing the holiday season? Share them with us in the comments!