Christmas is around the corner, and that means streets and trees and houses twinkling with varicolored lights and Yuletide stars. And you don’t have to believe in Christmas, either, to photograph this annual light show.

Outdoor Christmas light photography, it goes without saying, falls under the category of night photography. That means you start with a basic knowledge of the quality and intensity of outdoor city lights, and factor in the additional illumination from Christmas decorative lights.

Want to capture the season’s greetings on film/sensor? First, learn the ground rules by heart:

a. Don’t go out into the night alone. The more, the merrier, but don’t get rowdy. If you can’t find photographer buddies to shoot with, get non- photographers to go with you.

b. When you are set up for a shoot, always keep your bag in sight. If possible, keep it slung over your shoulder at all times.

c. Don’t tempt fate by going into dark places or behind large structures and trees.

d. On cold nights, dress warm.

e. Bring cigarettes and candy with which to befriend security guards and policemen. Having these uniforms around while you’re shooting can help keep away malevolent denizens.

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Next, a list of necessities besides your camera and shooting buddies:

1. Extra camera batteries. Forget the flash batteries, because night photography precludes using flash (light painting is a different story).

2. Lightweight but sturdy tripod. You can make it sturdier by hanging your camera bag from the tripod head.

3. Flashlight with fresh batteries. You not only need to see where you’re setting up, but also your camera controls, watch or timer, and inside your bag.

4. A watch that counts seconds.

5. A cable release (electronic or threaded—whichever your camera takes) to lock the shutter during a B (Bulb) time exposure. The cable release also serves to prevent shaking the camera when you trip the shutter. (Most modern cameras take only dedicated remote releases.) If you don’t have any of these types of remote releases, use the self timer to avoid directly touching the camera at the moment of exposure.

6. A crib sheet of exposure suggestions such as from Table 1.

With today’s digital cameras, night photography is a bit easier because you can see your shots right there and then and compensate for under- or overexposure. Digital or film, your camera meter is basically useless except when reading brightly lit store frontages. This is why you need a crib sheet (item 6 above).

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To gain greater depth of field choose apertures around f/8 but not smaller than f/11. Lens sharpness begins to drop at f/11 or smaller, obviating any gains from an increased depth of field. This is particularly obvious when photographing pinpoints of light such as Christmas flickering series.

If you find yourself on an elevation with a panoramic view of city buildings (cityscape) you will need longer exposures to compensate for the increased distance between you and the city lights. You can try increasing your ISO rating to shorten exposure times; but do not delude yourself into thinking you can handhold your camera at these exposure times. Those tiny pinpoints of light will easily become small orbs with the minutest camera shake.

Photography is the art of capturing light on film/sensor, but shooting in the dark is even more exciting and just as rewarding!

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Table 1. Night Exposures

Use these exposures as starting point and bracket one or two stops each way. Note that whole seconds are halved and doubled the same way (1, 2, , 8 seconds). Be aware that increased distance from the subject (e.g., floodlit monuments) entail additional exposure.

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