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Tips For Photographing Holiday Lights From A Photojournalist

by Topher Kelly
photo & video


Recently, I asked award-winning photographer Rick Friedman if he would be willing to shoot a few photos of Boston during the holidays to demonstrate photographing lights and long exposures. His first response was, “Topher, it’s literally 2 degrees outside,” but in the end, he’s just too nice of a guy — and a photographer devoted to his craft — so he decided to help me out. Not only that, Rick provided a few tips on how you can best capture the holiday spirit from behind the lens, no matter the weather.

People often underestimate how difficult it can be to get the perfect shot in the wintertime. Like any shoot, you should plan shoots in advance, but it’s even more crucial in the winter months. “In a northern town like Boston, the golden hour lasts about 20 minutes and so does the blue hour or the time after the sun sets… so this time a year, it’s all about moving fast,” says Rick. It’s also crucial to have the right equipment, especially if you are attempting to shoot holiday lights during the blue hour or later, when a long exposure is essential. According to Rick, anyone who is looking to capture holiday lights needs a tripod, a camera release and also needs to use “mirror-up setting” to ensure a stable, quality shot. It’s also smart carry extra batteries as long exposures have a tendency to take a lot of out them.

The most important element of a great wintertime shot is also the most obvious — if you are freezing, you’ll focus more on your icy hands and the state of your gear instead of capturing a great shot. “Make sure to have your gear accessible and your settings where you want them so you don’t spend your time taking your gloves on and off and playing with your gear,” says Rick. Instead, organize your gear and bring extra layers. Without this extra step of preparation, you’ll end up an icicle without any good photos to show for your efforts.

Boston Christmas

Massachusetts State House

To set up for this particular shot, Rick stepped out of the warmth of the mayor’s holiday party, walked across the street, set up his Gitzo tripod and secured his Nikon D800 with a 17-35 mm lens on top. “I noticed the ambient light on the tree and the state house matched up well,” says Rick. Measuring the light is as simple as using your built-in meter to measure each spot. Rick also set his ISO to 800, used an F/18, and played around with this shutter speed until he felt it was right. This particular exposure wasn’t very long — around 3 seconds. If Rick were to have brought the ISO down, it would have narrowed his depth of field and made the flag entirely too blurry. To finalize the image, Rick did very little work in post production. “I brought up the clarity just a bit, opened the shadows with Lightroom and added a little saturation, maybe 10 points in total.”


George Washington Statue

Incorporating street and car lights into your holiday lighting shot will make for a vibrant, energetic shot. In the image above shot in The Boston Public Garden, Rick considered several lighting variables including the tree lights, moon, street lights, car lights and of course, the remaining soft blue sky of the “blue hour.” He used a shorter exposure of around 10 seconds to freeze the car lights and still keep the tree lights sharp and bright. “In a shot like this, it’s all about timing,” Says Rick. “What I did here was wait for the light to change and the cars to pass which froze the man across the street (he’s waiting for the light) and gave me the steady line of light from the cars that you see in the photo.” The F/20 was crucial to capturing the blue sky, “If I would have stopped down 1 or 2, the moon may have been brighter, but I would have lost the blue which is what really brings this shot together.”


The Boston Public Garden Lagoon 

The same lagoon during summer

The same lagoon during summer

In the summertime, this pond is a beehive of activity as you can see in Rick’s photo above. In the winter, it becomes one solid sheet of ice and at night, a place to go to get some peace and quiet. “The key to this shot was a shorter exposure time given the lamps and other lighting sources,” says Rick. The exposure time was about 15 seconds and his ISO 200 with an f-stop of 14. Similar to the photo of State House above, Rick captured this image with the basic gear – a  tripod, the D800, 17-35mm lens and a cable release.

Below, you’ll find several other images taken by Rick in the last few weeks. 



Little Rock bridge lighting

Little Rock bridge lighting

More About Rick: 

Rick teaches dynamic, intensive, interactive “Location Lighting Workshops™” designed for portrait photographers, photojournalists, corporate and event photographers, wedding photographers, and serious amateurs who want to improve their knowledge of lighting. Rick taught his “Location Lighting Workshops™” on CreativeLive this past June. He will be teaching his workshops at The Societies Photographic Convention in London, January 18th & 19th, followed by 10 other workshops across the U.S. and 1 in the Caribbean. To see his schedule of events and participate in one visit

Follow Rick on Facebook and Google+.


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Topher Kelly

Topher Kelly is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and editor at CreativeLive. Follow Topher on Twitter@Topher_LIVE.