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Tips for night portraits in front of christmas lights

juicegoosejuicegoose Member
edited November 2013 in technique & style & stuff
Recently our neighborhod has decorated a large tree with christmas lights. It would be a great christmas photo but I'm a little unsure how to light my wife and son in it.
I was thinking I need to expose for the background possibly underexposing some and the use a off camera flash mounted on a stand with a shoot through umbrella to get the light on her and him.
Am I right in my theory?


  • You don’t have to worry about under exposing the tree if the photo is taken outside at night and your family is far enough from the tree so the flash will not affect the exposure of the tree. If you are using TTL you can adjust the flash exposure with flash exposure compensation. If you are photographing during the day or inside you may want to underexpose the background. With the camera set to manual I would do it how you described.
  • This has been a toughie for me.

    In indoors, yes, you do want to underexpose the ambient to bring out the christmas lights. But as soon as the flash goes off, the tree and the lights get all washed out. Is there a fix? I think I have to somehow limit the flash lighting to my family and keep it from reaching the tree. Time to try the Black Fomie Thing?
  • You expose for the tree lights and use flash to balance the exposure for the people. You can use an umbrella but you will have some spill light to deal with-Soft box is better.

    Angle the softbox or umbrella so that there is less light hitting the tree. Feather it towards the side instead or use a long telephotos lens at the long end so that the lights are pulled in via compression. This allows you to place the people farther away from the tree.
  • TrevTrev Moderator
    edited November 2013
    What Rudy [travlintrevor] said I concur, that would be my methodology.

    Normally indoors you would maybe bounce, etc. but in wanting to retain the lights to stand out, I'd expose ambient pretty much for them, then light via softbox on the subject/s using as long a focal length you can in the space allowable.

    Remember, exposing for the lights is the key, not a general 'ambient' exposure as that would kill the lights as they are brighter. ie: pretty much the general ambient would be probably 1-2 stops under to get correct for lights.

    Best way is to simply see on back of LCD.

    Hint: Try to get a reasonably high shutter speed, that way you could control the background more by dropping the shutter speed to let more ambient in, or go higher to shut it out more. Tweak to taste.
  • I hate to use bad examples but this is all I have for an indoor photos as you mentioned.
    Mettered for lights on the tree (1/60, f2.8 ISO 1250)... all other lights in the rooms were off.

    Softbox to my right, angled so that no light from softbox hits the tree. Mode was ETT-L just because my kids do not sit still for pictures anymore. Note position of softbox.

    Wish I had used a softbox grid to control the light falling on her hand but I don't own one....yet. This as taken in a very small space and it did not allow for much creativity...hope it gets the point across.

  • Travelintrevor, that's beautiful! It looks like a studio shot! I'll give it a try this Christmas.
  • For people without an off-camera setup, would a modifier like snoot or grid be able to keep the light from falling on the tree, if the tree is not in the same line of light with the subject?
  • Yes, it would but you would have a very tight cone of light pointed at your subject. That could be fine with only one or two people. Unless the flash is further away then you have loss of power to deal with. If you have an umbrella, cover the half facing the tree to block the light in that direction. You can even use a black garbage bag if you have to...lol don't ask... basically flag the light, to block it from hitting the tree.
  • Thanks Rick,

    I liked it enough to share as an example but there is much I would change if I could do it again. Good luck!

  • Neil vNNeil vN Administrator
    Still, that photo looks very good, and you did a great job controlling light spill on the background.
  • Yes, that is a really nice photo. What lens was that?
  • Great shot Trevor! Love it as it is...
  • great to hear the compliments...I do suffer from a love-hate relationship with my photos. I love to hate them:)

    This was taken with a really cheap full frame lens that I was testing-the Tamron 28-75 f/2.8. It is a great lens for the full frame shooter on a budget that needs a faster lens than a kit lens. I has extreme chromatic aberrations even when stopped down. I did some landscape work with it and the CA was noticeable in the prints. Corners are also very soft no matter what f stop is used and this makes it a deal breaker for ANY landscape work.

    I have the Tamron 17-50 f2.8 non-VC for my 7D and that lens is amazing and hoped that this one would also deliver the goods but it did not. I do not own a full frame zoom and rent them when needed. The Canon 24-70 MK II is superb but out of my price range so I rent it from BL or locally when needed.

    As far as the spill light control-the soft box was placed exactly as in the diagram and only the extreme right portion of light was hitting her-hence no spill light in the back, it was all in the front of here and not visible because of the framing.

    The goal was to do the same for the lower half but there was a bed right above the softbox. This is why there was too much light on her hands/arms for my liking. I think this is why I don't really like the photo that much...I could not control/feather the light the way I wanted due to the bed being there and did not know what a softbox grid was at the time. Her hand and arm exposure were lowered in CS6 with layer adjustment.

  • My eyes get sucked right to her face so it's a go for me! The wife just put the tree up so guess what I'm going to be doing later!
  • Rudy,

    What lens did you use, and how far away was your subject from tree? Bokeh on the background is quite appealing.
  • penndragonn2001 said: What lens did you use, and how far away was your subject from tree? Bokeh on the background is quite appealing
    travelintrevor said: testing-the Tamron 28-75 f/2.8.
    but a 85mm (or longer if you have space) would do even better here.

    Distance to tree was about 6 feet/2 meters.


  • Rudy,

    How did I miss that?? Thanks for pointing it out. I have an Older Nikon 60mm F2.8D Af Micro Nikkor lens. With the 1.5 crop of my D7000, I should get quite a similar effect given the same circumstances.
  • The 60mm will be great. Just play around with the distance of subject to the lights till you like what you see.

    Post the results!

  • Great photo Rudy! Hey, you're not the same Travelintrevor who's talking about giving up his fledgling photography career are you? I hope not.
  • Skipperlange said: Great photo Rudy! Hey, you're not the same Travelintrevor who's talking about giving up his fledgling photography career are you?
    thanks...and yes, that would be me. I am focusing on charity work and personal projects.

  • How would you do it, if there were three persons sitting in front of the tree? Would one softbox 24x24 (EZY) be enough?

    Are the lights in the room turned off or can be on?

  • sasko1 said: Are the lights in the room turned off or can be on?
    light should be off if you want the tree lights to register
    sasko1 said: How would you do it, if there were three persons sitting in front of the tree? Would one softbox 24x24 (EZY) be enough?
    That softbox will work fine but be careful that you don't have a lot of light from the softbox hitting the tree.

  • Thanks travelintrevor. I have the session today and we will see what happens. Hope it turns out well. :)
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