Each year people look forward to the billions of twinkling lights that fill stores, streets, porches and homes. Most people who enjoy looking at all of these displays have usually tried to record them with a camera too, but their end results are far from breathtaking. What do they do wrong? Usually it all boils down to just a few simple issues that can “make or break” Christmas tree photographs. Generally it has to do with camera settings, ambient light, and perspective.
Let’s tackle the easiest issue first – the camera’s settings. When you are trying to record the glories of an outdoor or indoor Christmas tree what are you photographing? Light! However light can cause a camera’s meter to adjust settings to a level that is totally opposite of the desire results. For example, look at a Christmas tree all done up in tinsel and gorgeous white lights. A camera meter is going to view this light as very intense highlights and crank things down accordingly. What you might get is a remarkably dim image because the automatic settings have shortened the exposure time dramatically and set the aperture to a higher (narrower) number.
The first step would be to learn how to either meter off a darker area of the scene, or to simply input the settings you think would work best. Either way it is going to mean that a tripod will be necessary to reduce the chances for camera shake blurring your image, and it is also going to mean understanding how the different settings will impact your image.
Let’s first look at the aperture (or f/stop) which can be described thus: the higher the number, the smaller the opening inside of the lens. This means that less light strikes the camera’s sensor, which in turn requires a longer exposure or slower shutter speed. A small aperture also means that the focal length of the image is long, and this means that you can photograph “deeper” into the scene while retaining a clear focus on foreground, mid-ground, and background.
The next consideration is the light in the scene. Christmas trees both indoors and outdoors shed a lot of light and create a warm glow. This can be photographed if the photographer is willing to spend a few minutes assessing the camera’s needs. Let’s say the tree is indoors in a living room area that contains reflective surfaces such as light colors and mirrors. The photographer in this instance will be able to position the camera in the way they desire and use a mid-level aperture and a somewhat slow shutter speed without needing any sort of additional light (like a flash unit) to capture the elements of the setting.
The last thing to consider with Christmas trees is the actual perspective used for the image. Some photographers stand at a distance and take the entire tree, while others go into a macro setting and get the details of a single ornament and the needles of the branch. Whatever the perspective, it is the existing light and the camera settings that will make the shot.