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Photographing people and Christmas lights

Photographing people and Christmas lights - When the Christmas lights go up you have a few weeks to get out there and use them in your photography.

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Category : Portraits and People
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As the majority of festive pictures are of parties taken on small apertures on compacts with auto flash, having a good image of the Christmas lights, particularly with people in them are relatively rare and as a result are a great subject to have a go at photographing.

At Christmas, city streets are just a cornucopia of jewelled lights from traffic, shops, and festive bulbs. Their colour and a good bit of sky detail make city locations perfect for urban Winter shoots. Dramatic clouds or the subtle gradation of twilight hues make good backgrounds for winter lights but as the light fades and your background turns black, you can turn your attention to the Bokeh effect to really make your urban work shine.
Bokeh used in an image with Christmas lights in background

"The Bokeh effect of shooting on a long lens with a wide aperture allows the multi coloured lights in the background to dance in the frame like a myriad of jewels," explained portrait photographer Chris Hanley. "If you have a wide aperture, long lens, focus on your subject from about 10feet away and everything in the background should glow."

As it's dark you'll be using a slower shutter speed so a tripod or monopod are an essential item. Applying a gentle touch to the shutter button and remembering to take your shot when you've exhaled and not while you're holding your breath will also reduce camera shake and help you produce a shake-free, perfect image. A good lens is always useful too and Chris likes to use a lens with a focal length of 70-200mm or above to ensure those backgrounds are out of focus and the lights are twinkling as we all expect Christmas lights to!
Christmas lights and portraits

Once you're set-up and your picture's framed, take a look at your white balance settings. Chris tends to go with auto white balance with the majority of his shots, but by choosing tungsten balance, any ambient daylight goes a lovely rich blue. It also helps ensure the lights in the background are glowing the colour they're meant to be.

"There is a mixture of different colour temperatures from the plethora of high street lighting so it can be a case of assessing on the back of the camera to get your look."

When out, Chris uses a video light with his clients as it illuminates them off the background, it gives him enough light to get an exposure of 1/125sec at f/4, ISO800 and the colour temp fits perfectly for the look he's trying to create. It also makes his subject feel like a celebrity as when the lamp's on them passers by stop to look at them having their photograph taken!
Advertising boards make for good backgrounds with portraits

As well as using the Christmas lights, why not use the other lights of the city to create some dynamic images? Chris is always looking out for illuminated advertising so he can use part of the display in his images – if they're advertising items linked to Christmas it's even better! Why not try looking for and shooting reflections too. Wet paving stones, wet tarmac and windows are all exciting items to hold reflections. You just have to learn to look for them and incorporate them into your images.

If you're out to shoot specifically winter/festive lights then your shoot will have been planned around a Christmas shopping trip or visit to a Christmas market. Assuming you're not driving, there are usually plenty of incentives to wrap up warm, grab a brolly and enjoy a mulled wine and the odd bag of roasted chestnuts. Chris also says using a High Street coffee shop or city bar is also a good option. Grab a window seat, order the drinks, then pop out onto the street, shoot a frame or two then back into the warmth.

"The images from Winter Urban shoots are really popular when people see them, they're a lot of fun!"

Visit Chris Hanley's website.


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