All kinds of light.

Xmas and the festive season with its mulled wine, roasted chestnuts and peace on earth and goodwill to all men !

From a photographer’s point of view though, it’s generally all about dark early evenings, a myriad of different lights, and colour in all its glory, and because of this, no other time of year offers such good opportunities to go out and practice taking photos of light in such a varied and spectacular manner.

Xmas lighting displays adorn every town and city center, there are Xmas markets and fairs to be found everywhere, and so with a little knowledge and preparation it’s possible to make the most of this time of year.


Taking shots of lighting displays can be rather tricky, as it’s best not to wait until the background ambient light has all but disappeared, because it becomes increasing difficult to balance the two types of light present in the shot, because the camera can usually only be set so that either the background or the artificial display lighting is properly exposed, but rarely both.

The picture will look far better if there’s a good balance between the two, so don’t start too late when it has already become too dark.


Bokeh, meaning the aesthetic quality of the “blur” or “haze” present in the out of focus parts of a composition, is primarily the product of the type of lens being used.

In a photograph, the area in front and behind the subject which is acceptably in focus is known as the DoF, depth of field and and everything outside of this band of focus is rendered as a blur, and it is the quality of this blur that is referred to as either “good” bokeh, or “bad” bokeh.

The depth of field is a physical effect of light passing through the aperture, a large aperture will produce a very narrow depth of field whereby only the subject remains in focus, everything else quickly blurring out, whereas a very small aperture will produce a very large depth of field, whereby almost everything from the foreground to the background remains in focus, thus producing no bokeh, good or bad.

Although it’s easiest to manipulate the depth of field using a fast prime lens with a very wide aperture of less than f/2.8, it’s luckily still possible to do with apertures of up to f/8.0 by simply decreasing the distance between the camera and the subject, or increasing the distance between the subject and the background, preferably both.

The camera is best set to A-mode, aperture priority.

Light trails

Light trails done well can look spectacular, so you need to plan the shot if you want it to look right.

You want big light trails, so get up close, take the shot from below to exaggerate the size of the subject, use a wide angle to emphasise the effect still further.

Think about where the light will move within the frame and how that will affect the overall final composition.

If you are unsure of using the camera in fully manual mode, set the camera to S-mode, shutter priority and experiment around with different timings, from 5-30 seconds.

Off-camera flash

Evening portraits are often better taken using a flash, but an on-camera flash results in harsh background shadows around the subject and an over-bleached look, so think about using a flash off camera instead for better light modelling.

Filling the frame

Get up close to the subject, don’t let it get lost against an overwhelming background or end up looking rather forlorn in a sea of black.

Tips for when on location

  • Photography is all about capturing light, and depending on your goal there’s no right or wrong way to do that, and so with that in mind Xmas is a rare opportunity to just go out and experiment.
  • Use a tripod for those long exposures.
  • Arrive early enough to get a good balance between the early evening ambient light and the artificial Xmas lighting, don’t wait until it’s too dark.

© Andrew James Kirkwood – 2017

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