Nothing puts me in the Christmas spirit quite like seeing a well-decorated home along the road.
For some reason, seeing a home lit up like an airport runway brings the season into my heart in a way the endless run of commercials, songs and countdowns to Dec. 25 just can’t.
It brings with it one of my favorite online features on LimaOhio.com, our Christmas lights slideshow and map. Readers can share photographs of their own Christmas lights or those of neighbors, friends or anywhere else you see along your daily travels.
We can all also flip through those submitted pictures, seeing how the holiday spirit inspired someone’s decorations. It’s sort of the high-tech version of my family’s annual tradition, driving around to look at the displays.
Every year I try to kick-start this project by taking photographs of some displays I see. Just one problem: My pictures stink. Often they have little squiggles where the lights should be.
Fortunately, I work with award-winning photographer Craig Orosz, The Lima News’ photo editor. With 37 years as a photographer, including 17 years here in Lima, he has the experience to share four sure-fire tips to taking good pictures of Christmas lights. He also has the patience to explain them to a dolt like me.
• Turn off the flash. I’m guilty of being dumb on this one. It’s dark outside, so you need a flash, right?
“If in the photo you’re actually throwing a strobe, you’re ruining the natural colors and the beauty of all those lights,” Orosz said.
If you turn on the flash, you might as well be shooting them in the daytime, he said, and we all know that loses its effect.
• Use a tripod. Taking pictures of lights in the dark means your camera needs more time to process what it’s seeing. If you hold the camera, you’re going to move while your camera processes the image. That’s how I end up with those squiggles.
“Especially if you’re using automatic settings, you’ve got to let the camera do all it needs to expose the picture for as long as it needs to capture it,” Orosz said.
• Find the right mode. Most digital cameras nowadays have pre-configured settings, such as portrait, twilight, beach and fireworks. Orosz recommends the dullest sounding ones, scenic or landscape, saying it’s the one likely to give you the best results.
“With a lot of automatic digital cameras, it’s almost foolproof when you find the right combination,” he said.
If you’re comfortable geeking it up by manually changing your settings, Orosz recommends shooting at a lower ISO or ASA for better quality, as long as you realize it will take longer to expose the shot. Similarly, you should shoot with a slower shutter speed and higher F-stop to get crisp lights.
• Experiment. The beauty of modern, digital cameras is you can see whether it worked or not as soon as you finish taking the picture. If it doesn’t work, try something else.
The same holds true for how you shoot at the lights.
“Some displays look great if you shoot them straight on from the road,” he said. “Sometimes they’ll look even better if you move from side to side. Or try to get down on the ground and shoot upward. If you can do it, it’s really neat to get up pretty high and angle to shoot downward at it.”
If you’re lucky enough to have a second strobe light for your camera, he recommended connecting it to your camera with a sync cable and placing it a few inches off the ground. Then stand your family in front of a lights display, using a long exposure time. He promised you’ll have perfectly illuminated family members without washing out the stunning lights display in the background.
Most of all, have fun. And don’t forget to share a shot of your favorite displays with us on LimaOhio.com, at j.mp/limalights. For this year’s Christmas lights slideshow, we’ve upped the ante.
Just below each picture this year, you can rate the display, from 1 for poor to 5 for awesome. The Lima News offers a top prize for the highest ranking display in the region. We’ll also draw a winner from all the people who submit photographs.