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Photographing Indoor Christmas Lights

Getting great indoor Christmas light photographs is simply learning how to balance your flash with ambient light. I have heard many people say that once they turned off the flash, their Christmas light photos came out much nicer and they are correct. Metering only on ambient light will greatly improve the photo however, what if you want to capture the unlit ornaments on the tree as well or what if you have a person in front of the tree? Now you need some extra lighting. You can turn on the room lights or you can turn on your flash. But if you use flash, you must know how to control it.

Step 1
Now let's take some really great Christmas Tree photos using flash. Here we have a lovely Christmas photo of Carole. What do you think?

Yea, not my best work huh? Oh wait, I found the problem. My camera was set to AUTO. That's my first big mistake. The camera just fired off my flash at full intensity without any consideration for ambient light.

Lets set the camera to (P)rogram mode and try again.

Photo #1
Camera mode: AUTO
Shutter: 1/60s
Aperture: f4.0
Flash EV: 0
ISO: 200












Step 2
In program mode I am able to set the flash mode. Here I decided to turn the flash off completely but in program mode the camera is still selecting the shutter speed and aperture automatically. The bright lights on the tree confused the light meter in the camera and made the image too dark.

Photo #2
Camera mode: Program
Shutter: 1/8s
Aperture: f3.5
Flash: off
ISO: 200























Step 3
But if you read my metering tutorial you will learn that you can use spot metering to choose a specific point in the photo to meter on. I decided to spot meter right on Carole so she will be exposed properly. But what happened now? Carole is exposed properly but the tree lights are way over exposed. We need to find a way to expose the tree lights properly and get some light on Carole. We can try turning on the room lights but sometimes this isn't practical. So we need to find a way to use flash. Let's turn it on again and adjust some of the flash's advanced settings.

Photo #3
Camera mode: Program
Shutter: 1.3s
Aperture: f4.0
Flash: off
ISO: 200
Meter: Spot















Step 4
If you check your camera's flash settings you will find a setting for flash compensation. Flash compensation is a way to control the intensity of the flash. You can make your flash 'dimmer'. Actually what you are doing is reducing your flash's pulse width which simply means that your flash is turned on for a shorter amount of time. Read the slow-sync-flash tutorial for more information on how the flash pulse works. By turning down the flash compensation you'll find that the flash is not quite over-powering as in the first image.

Photo #4
Camera mode: Manual
Shutter: 1/8s
Aperture: f3.5
Flash EV: -2
ISO: 200





















Step 5
Our Christmas photo is getting better but it still isn't quite there yet. Now that we turned flash down it is dark. We need to bring up the ambient light exposure. We want the camera to expose the ambient light from the Christmas tree separate from the flash exposure. We need to use slow-sync mode to do this. The best way to use slow-sync flash is to place the camera in full (M)anual mode. But if we are in full manual, what settings should we use? That's easy. Remember the photo we took back in step 2 but it came out dark? Start with those settings. Take a photo in Program mode without the flash and record the shutter speed and aperture used. Place the camera in full manual mode and dial in those settings. Turn on flash and reduce the flash-compensation setting. If the lights on the tree are too bright or too dim, adjust the shutter speed up or down to adjust the exposure of the tree. If your subject is too light or too dark, adjust the flash compensation to adjust the exposure of the person in the shot.

Photo #5
Camera mode: Manual
Shutter: 1/4s
Aperture: f3.5
Flash EV: -1.3
On-Camera Flash
ISO: 200








Step 6
Using a bounce flash will help eliminate the ugly shadow around your subject. Zooming in a little tighter helps eliminate clutter in the photo.

Photo #6
Camera mode: Manual
Shutter: 1/2.5s
Aperture: f4.5
Flash EV: -1.3
Hot-shoe mount bounce flash
ISO: 200

























Step 7
Use diffused lighting for an even better light.



Photo #7
Camera mode: Manual
Shutter: 1/2.5s
Aperture: f4.5
Flash EV: -1.3
External umbrella flash
ISO: 200

Go, have fun. Take some great Christmas tree photos this year.