Photos in Christmas Lights: Overcoming the Challenges Presented by the Cold and Dark of Winter
I was a fool for ever turning my nose up at the great value that a Facebook community can offer simply because of its platform. In recent months, I have found immense value and knowledge, and joy in interacting with photographers of all kinds and from all over in such a group. I reached out to my group before shooting this special, Christmas-time proposal for tips and advice (as I was surprised and sad to see that guides of this specific photoshoot type did not exist or were readily available.)
With their help and some self-study, I prepared for the night and fell in love with the results. After sharing the final photos with my group, many people expressed an interest in hearing what all it took. Since the whats, whens, hows, and whys are simply too long for a Facebook post or comment, I present to you the steps I took to capture Jolie & Cole's special night under the stars and the lights:
When I was approached about photographing this sweet and cozy proposal, I was equally thrilled and terrified. Shooting things like weddings and proposals bring their own rush of adrenaline -- moments and emotions that, if you miss them, that's it. There's no opportunity to try the shot a different way to do it over. The moment's gone. This is no problem for somebody who is trained and practiced and prepared, of course. However, this proposal was taking place at the Festival of Lights and Kansas City's stunning botanical gardens, Powell Gardens.
This means two additional challenges: dark and cold. A combination so sinister to photographers that it ought to send a shiver down your spine. If you're dramatic like me, anyway. Otherwise, it truly is an exceptionally challenging situation. Thankfully, I don't mind a challenge, and I love love, so away we went breaking down how to make capturing this "Will you marry me?" in a way that captured the feeling of the evening.
I saw this challenge in two parts: mechanical/camera (considering the physical limitations of my camera gear) and digital/photo (making sure I still got quality images despite the low-light setting.)
1. AUTO-FOCUS FAILS IN COLD WEATHER
For many, photographing with outdoor Christmas lights means photographing in the cold. And whereas many of us may happily welcome the refreshing briskness of the low 40s (4-7° C), auto-focusing camera motors disagree. Even in sunny, well-lit conditions, a camera lens that has gotten too cold will churn and struggle to focus on a subject right in front of it, so I decided to shoot in manual focus exclusively. Not ideal, but certainly doable.
Prior to the proposal, I staked out my spot behind the Christmas light-adorned gazebo (the "illuminated passage," to be exact) and glued my feet to that spot. I knew I would not be moved from that position until after the question was popped. From there, I gave myself plenty of time to dial in my focus through my viewfinder and took some practice shots before the couple arrived. I was set and ready to go.
(Side note: If you are new to photographing proposals and weddings, be prepared to be a "proposer coach" and a "bride coach" and a great number of types of coaches. For most people proposing, this is their first time asking someone to marry them -- they will need your guidance! You want to make sure that the person proposing knows where to kneel so that nobody's back it toward you, allowing you to photograph both persons' facial expressions, for example. I've even sent photos of the proposal location with stick-figure drawings to the groom-to-be of how he and his love need to be facing ahead of time. For this shoot, without autofocus to rely on, I emphasized the importance that he propose in the center of the gazebo and to stick to that agreed-upon location.)
2. COLD BATTERIES STRUGGLE TO HOLD A CHARGE
Just like your car battery on a frigid day, camera batteries will struggle to function normally as they cool down. Essentially, the cold slows down the chemical processes that allow your battery to do its job, draining it of its power faster than usual. The colder the environment, the more dramatic this effect becomes.
Thankfully, the solution is just as simple: apply heat! For this proposal, I took my extra camera and flash batteries out of my camera bag and into my coat pocket with a couple of self-heated hand warmers to make sure they did not succumb to the winter air and would be ready to swap out quickly. The HotHands did their job nicely.
(Pictured above: my friend, Zoe, attempting to warm up her freezing camera battery with her body as we learned this fact the hard way in the midst of a snow day photoshoot in high school many years ago.)
3. PREVENTING CONDENSATION ON YOUR CAMERA
The metal and plastic body of your camera and lenses will adjust to the temperature of the air they're exposed to. Unfortunately, this spells danger when going from cold to warm too quickly as condensation can form and cling to even your camera's internal components.
To prevent this, I put my camera bag in the truck of my car instead of in the main cabin with me which was going to be blasted with hot air and my car-powered electric blanket to warm up my freezing extremities. I did not want my camera to warm up on the way home.
Once parked, I returned to my trunk. Where my camera and gallon-sized Ziploc baggies awaited. (Think of this like changing the water in a fish's tank. You want to have them adjust slowly to the new temperature in their own little bag of water.) My hands, having the feeling returned to them, went to work quickly to fit my camera and lenses into the freezer bags, locking them in with the cool, dry air of the outdoors. Once inside, I placed my gear in a cooler part of my home, allowing them to slowly come back to the ambient temperature without any of the additional moisture having access inside the bags. Safe and sound!
Now that you know your camera won't die and the photos will be in focus, it's time to think about how to get the rest of the details in place.
1. YOU NEED A FLASH. PERIOD.
You can get gorgeous, vivid photos of Christmas lights with a solid tripod and long exposure times. However, I knew I would not be able to employ this method as my subjects will be reacting and moving quickly! To be prepared to properly light my subjects, I used my on-camera Speedlight flash. Since I wasn't sure exactly how I'd want the final images to look, I set my flash to be slightly underexposed (about -1.2 to -1.5) to give myself some wiggle room and details to recover in editing.
2. CAMERA SETTINGS
For my "further away" shots like the one above, I was using my 70-200mm zoom lens. However, the majority of questions I received about this shoot seemed to be about the mini-engagement session we had after I revealed and introduced myself, so I want to focus on those. Here's what I used and why:
Lens: EF 50mm (f/1.4)
Flash: Mentioned above, with a diffuser to make the lighting less harsh on the couple and still allow the gorgeous Christmas lights behind them to dazzle.
ISO: 400 -- Pilots have personal minimums that they always hold themselves to. If visibility is too low, if the wind is too dicey, etc., then it's a no-fly day, period. In my world, 400 is my personal minimum for ISO. If I can't shoot my subject with an ISO of 400 or below, then I need to reassess the situation and bring in additional light somehow. Crisp, detailed photos are something I cannot compromise on.
Aperture: f/2.8 -- Even though my lens is capable of letting in more light all the way up to f/1.4, I did not want to run the risk of losing details in the couple's faces as f/1.4 is just too narrow of a field for two people in this setting. F/2.8 seemed to be the sweet spot of light and detail, though, admittedly, I wish I would have gone up to an f/3.0 or higher to have kept Jolie's shiny, new diamond ring in focus in a greater number of their shots.
Shutter Speed: 1/125 -- This is another personal minimum for me in low-light settings, unless I'm trying to take a dreamy, blurry motion shot, of course! But for crisp portrait images, I park my shutter at 1/125 to make sure I can grab all the detail I need.
3. EDITING & DONE
The first photo seen above (left) is the Raw (.CR2) photo straight of out the camera. Overall, I'm quite pleased with the photo! As I adjusted my flash, of course, it is a little under-exposed.
In Lightroom, I brought light to the under-exposed couple (wanting to leave the high contrast of the Christmas lights in the background), warmed up the image some, tweaked clarity and distortion, and that was that!
A garden full of twinkling lights is a stunning place to ask someone you love such an important question, and my hope is that this breakdown is able to help another photographer at any level navigate the tedious challenges brought up by the cold and dark that defines the winter months while still capturing the joy and beauty of the holidays and the love that fills them.
xoxo Sam | STINGRAY Photo Co.