Posts Tagged ‘lighting’
It all started as a grand experiment—perhaps even my greatest invention. But it was not to be. The Nick Kelsh Christmas Angel Lighting Unit was a disappointment. But I do think it’s worth examining why— there’s actually a valid lighting lesson here.
In my never-ending quest to solve the Christmas-morning-squirmy-kids-opening-presents-in-dim-lighting-dilemma I tried to find the perfect place to place my Wireless Lighting Unit. I wanted to re-create the beautiful glow of a Christmas tree with a portable flash. That would allow me to freeze action and facial expressions virtually every shot. And I wanted to do it all in the spirit of Christmas. As I sipped my eggnog the other night, it came to me in a flash—no pun intended. Incorporating my portable wireless flash into the Angel atop the tree could be the perfect location and solution. Some quick wings and a halo later and she was ready to go.
Sadly, the angel was too close to the ceiling. The bounced light that it produced was harsh and unattractive. (The farther a bounce light is from it’s bounce surface, the softer the shadows.) I should have known better, but in my excitement I plowed ahead. Thankfully I did some preliminary testing days before Christmas and it was clear early on that I was well-intentioned but misguided.
My recommendation for your Christmas morning photography is to stick with the Built In Flash Reflector.Leave the Christmas Angel Lighting Unit to the experts.
Perhaps the Christmas Angel Lighting Unit’s most redeeming quality is that it’s a great conversation starter. Ironically, its least attractive quality is also conversation related—it will stop any conversation in it’s tracks.
Anyway, from my family to yours, we wish you most Merry Christmas and the happiest of new years. It’s been a privilege to share whatever photographic knowledge I have with you this year.
There will be no Photo Tip tomorrow. All of our computers are going off for the whole day.
Just about anything that’s outdoors and glows looks best at dawn or dusk when there’s just a bit of light in the sky. That goes for buildings and statues and the Christmas lights on your house. Even just a little bit of light in the sky makes a huge difference over a completely black background. When you have light in the sky all of a sudden things are put into context. There’s depth to the photograph. And the possibility of getting some rich color from the sky really puts it over the top. A clear sky is better but I’ve gotten some great results with a cloudy sky, too.
I’m assuming that most of you won’t be photographing your Christmas lights just before sunrise, so the magic time to photograph your house is about 20 minutes after sunset. If you’re lucky enough to have a house that faces east—so your camera is pointing toward the still glowing sky left over from the sun going down—you can shoot some incredibly dramatic photographs. Digital cameras just go crazy (crazy in a good way) for that subtle light in the sky. It’s entirely possible that you could shoot one of those photographs that actually looks better than reality. This is really fun. (It will work if your house faces west, too. Don’t let discourage you.)
You’re going to be happier with your pictures if you use a tripod. Christmas lights look great when they’re really sharp. And this is a situation where a little bracketing of exposure can go a long way. You’re going to get different effects as the sky gets darker and darker. You’ll probably have different looking pictures and like all of them. If you do have a tripod use a nice safe f-stop like f5.6 or f8. Don’t shoot this at an extremely large aperture like f2 because you may get internal reflections in the lens and flaring in your final photograph. Points of light—like Christmas lights—seem to do better at a mid-range f-stop. And if you have a tripod, there’s no reason to turn the ISO up too high. You’ll probably end up with a shutter speed around a quarter of a second or a half a second.
I think there’s about a a 20 minute period when the Christmas lights get brighter and brighter relative to the sky. It’s a good experiment to shoot through the whole period of time until the sky becomes black. Once again, I guarantee that you will learn something about your camera and how it reacts to light if you do that.
Finally, this is one of those photographs where you simply have to be there when it’s happening—there is no substitute. So enjoy the sublime colors and time of day and glorious photograph your about to shoot.
(If you don’t have a tripod you could certainly put the Kelsh Christmas Camera Caddy on the hood of your car and it would be a perfect substitute.)
Heartfelt thanks to Tracey Dutson from my Going Manual class for letting me use her perfect example photos.
My Dear Readers, This originally ran last Valentine’s Day and I think has been the most popular, most shared tips I’ve done in the last year. The reason is simple—it works and it looks great. All you have to do is ignore the Valentine’s Day references. So here it is:
Yes, that’s right. The word is bokeh; it’s not a typo. I’ll get to it in a minute.
This is a Valentine’s Day Card idea that is sure to impress everyone—mostly you. You really can do this at home. You don’t need to hire a Hollywood special effects unit or have advanced picture editing skills.
Enter bokeh. Bokeh is simply a funny sounding optical term for how and why things go out of focus—usually backgrounds. If you follow a few simple rules bokeh let’s you turn a string of Christmas lights into dreamy out-of-focus hearts that scream Happy Valentine’s Day. And trust me, the kids will love this. Actually everybody loves this.
You DO need a single lens reflex camera. I know that leaves you point-and-shoot owners out in the cold on this one, but if you just come along for the ride I’m sure you’re going to learn something. (And I hope it’s more than just that you lust for an SLR.) I want you to know that I did try to make this work with my point-and-shoot and, well, it didn’t.
Considering how beautiful the finished product is, the how-to for this is pretty simple.
You’re going to cut a little heart-shaped hole into a piece of cardboard and tape it to the front of your lens. If you have several bright, hot spots in the background—hence the string of Christmas lights— they magically turn into hearts. That’s almost all there is to it. Almost. Here’s the specifics:
The choice of lens and aperture is important. The ideal lens is one that has a large aperture. If you have a 50mm with an aperture of f2 that’s perfect. If you have a zoom lens you need to use the largest aperture you can—that’s the smallest number—and zoom in as much as possible. (With any zoom lens, the more you zoom in the more the background goes out of focus and that’s what we’re looking for.
The best way to control the aperture would be to use manual or aperture priority exposure and get the lowest f-stop number. It’s probably something like f3.5 or f2.8.
Because you’re going to be shooting through a little hole things are going to get much dimmer in the camera; it makes sense, right? It’s a good idea to make your camera more sensitive to light by turning up your ISO. I shot this picture at ISO 800.
I cut my heart-shaped hole in an index card. Yes, you can do it the old fashioned way and fold the card in half just like in grade school. The fold in the card won’t make any difference. Lots of people use black paper for this but my experiments convinced me that wasn’t necessary.
I actually did quite a bit of expermenting with the size of the heart. In the end, the right sized heart for my lens was about the size of a dime. I had the Christmas lights on when I was experimenting and that proved to be a valuable time saver.
You certainly could make a beautiful photo out of the lights alone, but I wanted to get Alexander into the picture and that was just a bit trickier.
First of all, hang your lights against a dark background. In the picture you see here, Alexander is about five or six feet from the lights and—this is important—the camera is about 18 inches from Alexander. The closer I got to Alexader the more the background went out-of-focus resulting in the dramatic heart effect.
You will need to put some light on your subject, too. I just put a regular floor lamp next to Alexander and it worked fine. It might be worth your while to put a Teddy bear or a doll into the picture so you can experiment before you ask your squirmy kid to cooperate. It’s always nice to have the kinks worked out before you go for the real thing.
The thing that’s going to amaze you the most about this process is that you can actually take a picture through that little hole. This is one of those wonderful moments when the laws of optics can actually be your friends and you don’t have to think too much.
Every Christmas someone asks me how to take that classic shot of kids in front of a Christmas tree. And I always end up telling them exactly what they don’t want to hear. It’s more complicated than you would think.
The basic problem is that you’re asking your subjects to turn their backs on a beautiful light source. If you position them so their faces are being lit by the tree the kids look great but it can be difficult to get the tree in the background. If you use a flash the kids are blasted with bright white light. The tree light are overwhelmed and left in the darkness of the background. It’s a dilemma. The best of both worlds would be a glowing tree behind beautiful lit, glowing faces.
The solution I finally arrived at—and it took me years to figure this out—was to light the kids with another set of Christmas lights that would mimic the magic light of a Christmas tree. Enter one of my more brilliant inventions inventions; The Pizza Box Lighting Unit.
A pizza box is a natural reflector (And it’s free. It may not, however, be clean. Some maintenance may be required.) If you attach a set of Christmas tree lights to an open pizza box the foil doubles the light output. The final cherry on top for me was duct taping a coat hanger to the box so I could hang my lighting unit on a nearby chair. It’s a thing of beauty.
My wife scoffed at this idea when it was first hatched but she has since eaten a lot of crow. Several dozen people on Facebook have built their own Nick Kelsh Pizza Box Lighting Unit to great success. Sometimes I’m full of baloney and just make up stupid stuff but this was not one of those times. This thing really works and does everything I said it would—another first.
The Nick Kelsh Pizza Box Lighting Unit is available on our website for $500. (The autographed model is $3700.)
(Author’s note: I want you to know that when I shot the demonstration pictures for this piece I was forced to go to Wal-Mart and buy a fake tree. This is not our actual family tree—it’s important to Anne that you know that.)
If you don’t have your act together on the Christmas decorations yet and you’re looking for a Christmas scene at home to shoot your card photo it can be as simple as digging the lights out of the Christmas box and using them as a light source AND part of the subject.
So get some people, get some lights, throw them all in a pile on the floor, stir them up and take a picture. It screams Christmas! The light is flattering and moody and if you play your cards right it’s almost fun and nobody starts crying (like last year).
There are a few things to keep in mind.
Christmas lights are probably not as bright as you might think so you’re going to have to turn up your ISO. My exposure on the picture of Alexander and Teddy’s friends was 1/25th of a second, f4, at ISO 800.
There’s a lot of variability in the way different cameras behave in low light, but if you under-expose the picture you’re more likely to have noise problems (it’s a snarly, grainy, unappealing look). So err on the side of brighter. I realize that’s asking a lot.
Also, you don’t need to worry too much about “proper” color balance when you’re photographing Christmas lights. If there’s color tint it’s often pleasant and you don’t need to fight it. An overall warm tone can be downright beautiful.
Use all of the lights you can get your hands on. Brighter lights coming from more directions is going to make the whole thing easier.
If the lights are below the faces as in my picture you need to be careful that you don’t get too much under-the-chin-Boris-Karloff effect. Keep some of the lights out in front of the subject to fill in dark eye sockets. You could use a regular lamp in the distance to fill in the faces. That will take some experimentation. Be careful not to let it ruin the mood of the Christmas lights. If a nearby lamp is too bright you can throw a sheet over it.
I like the look of white lights but I’ve seen plenty of wonderful variations of this with colored lights. It’s just a matter of taste.
I searched the internet and found no case of anyone being electrocuted touching Christmas lights and lots of people saying you can’t be. I think it’s fairly safe. Depending on the lights, they can get a little warm. My little white ones didn’t get hot enough to burn the boys—not even close—but your big, fat colored retro-fifties string might. Don’t wrap your kids up in them without some experimentation.
And there’s room for a lot of imaginative photography with Christmas lights as props. I really got a kick out of Peggy Hogsett’s series of her grandkids as stars in some wonderful productions. I’m trying to imagine my grandmother shooting a picture like this, but I just keep flashing back on Grama Kelsh yelling at me to eat my oyster stew. Then everything goes black. Peggy is a grandmother for the 21st century and I think it’s wonderful that her grandchildren will have these special memories—and photographs.
And if you don’t have any lights, candles will provide a seasonal look that’s down right beautiful. It is, after all, the season of light.