Olympus Mentor Tom Ormerod talks us through his techniques and ideas for capturing festive lights on camera – the perfect subject to keep you and your cameras busy in the run up to the winter break…

I’m normally found down by the water edge at sunrise, messing around with shutter speeds and waves, but I do love the challenge of night-time photography. The Milky Way and the moon are my main subjects at night, but Christmas offers its own opportunities and because of the short days, it’s the perfect time of year to have a go at shooting at night. 

The number of Christmas light events that have sprung up seems to be increasing year on year. We all know that 2020 has been a little more challenging than most, but there are still many outdoor events you can take advantage of, while also keeping safe and trying a new skill or two at the same time.

What do you need?

  • A camera (obviously….) I have used the OM-D E-M10 Mark II, E-M1 Mark II & E-M1 Mark III in the past, but any camera will do!
  • Pretty much any lens, but I like to use the wider PRO lenses such as the 7-14mm F2.8 PRO or 12-40mm F2.8 PRO
  • A tripod (not always essential in towns/cities) 
  • A remote release or the OI Share app for remote shutter release (when using a tripod)

Town & Country

First and foremost, you need to find some lights. For the past few years I have visited my local National Trust (Kingston Lacy in Dorset) property to shoot their Christmas displays, but there are many other places that have seasonal light events: even some private farms are getting in on the act. A quick Google or a search on Facebook often throws up quite a few and even if you can’t find any events nearby, there are bound to be some in your local town/city – though it’s worth reading reviews if you have to travel as the quality may vary: I have seen some pretty bad ones as well as amazing ones!

The ideal conditions for Christmas light shooting are still or low-wind nights. Obviously when shooting at night you will be leaving your shutter open for longer, so any wind can often cause movement in the lights. This can be a nice effect at times, but I generally prefer a clean sharper look.

As with any sort of shooting, I always recommend looking for lines and Christmas lights are often full of them. It could be rows of fairy lights, shadows, or light beams – always study a scene before shooting it and really look for those lines.

Possibly the trickiest part of night-time shooting is balancing the brightness of lights themselves with darker areas. You probably won’t be able to avoid the centre of any light being blown out, but I really try to avoid any other area being overexposed. Use your histogram and I recommend using the Highlight/Shadow clipping function on the OM-D range – see Gavin Hoey’s excellent video about it: E-M1 MARK II: HIGHLIGHTS & SHADOWS | Olympus (getolympus.com) – if you set this up correctly and expose well then the centres of the lights will show as red dots, but nothing else will.

I always shoot in Manual mode but Aperture or Shutter priority will be fine too. A good place to start in darker country conditions is F5.6 | 2-4 seconds | ISO 200 and adjust from there. Obviously you can adjust any element of the exposure triangle (Aperture | Shutter | ISO) to get your required effect, but I generally prefer to leave my shutter open longer, keep my ISO as low as possible and adjust my aperture as required – so if not shooting in manual mode, this lends itself to Aperture priority. Remember though, when shooting at night check that your ISO isn’t set to Auto otherwise you may get unnecessary noise in your images: compensate for lower ISOs with the use of longer shutter speeds on a tripod.

If you are shooting in a town or city there will actually be a fair amount of ambient light, so a much faster shutter or narrow aperture will be required. Again, look for lines but be creative – look for reflections (puddles are great for this), get low, shoot wide angle and use a faster aperture (e.g. F2.8) compensated by a faster shutter to create a unique point of view.

Light Speed

Once you get the basics in the bag, you can move onto my favourite type of Christmas shooting: mixing still lights with light trails. With this technique you can create your own lines or accentuate ones that already exist. To shoot light trails you either need to leave your shutter open for longer (1 second and above works well by using a narrow aperture, lower ISO or even ND filters) or you can utilise the Live Composite mode (I won’t cover this here as that’s a whole topic in itself!)

In urban areas, buses and taxis make the best light trails. London has so many iconic views and when you couple them with Christmas lights and light trails, it creates a really engaging image.

To finish, I’ll talk you through the elements of one of my favourite Christmas light images, all done in camera with a single shot.

I had my OM-D EM1 Mark II, 7-14mm F2.8 PRO & a small tripod. It had been a bit damp that day and the roads were glistening. I set up low down in the middle of Regent Street, set my ISO to 200 and used Manual focus (with peaking) to pre-focus the shot: then I experimented with the shutter and aperture, ensuring I wasn’t over-exposing by utilising the in-camera highlight clipping function, and I settled on 1 second at F8 creating a nice mix of trail length, but plenty of sharpness throughout the image. I linked my camera to the OI Share app and used the remote shutter release, not Live View. Then it was a waiting game: I wanted bus trails on one side and a black cab on the other, and it didn’t take too long to get the two in sync on a busy London street.

In post processing, I cleaned the image up (there was a little drizzle) with the spot healing tool and adjusted the highlights and shadows to suit. Importantly, I cooled the image down with a white balance of 3750K.

Quick Tips For Capturing Christmas Light Displays

  • Shoot low and wide
  • Look for lines
  • Smaller apertures (F8-F16) help create light stars
  • Keep shutter speeds higher (1/60 sec and above depending on the conditions) to avoid light movement, or low to introduce it 
  • Utilise the highlight/shadow clipping features to balance your exposure
  • Use Live Comp or just a slower shutter to add trails
  • Use the High Res Modes for extra detail in your static shots 
  • Shoot in RAW and play with the white balance in post processing 

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