Photographing the Holiday Lights-Part 2
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Photographing the Holiday Lights-Part 2

The auto white balance system works great in most situations but there are two situations in which it becomes a hindrance. You want to turn it off when shooting holiday lights and when shooting fireworks.

Making holiday light pictures that pop require a solid understanding of your camera's metering systems, White Balance, and auto focus. Of the three understanding color temperature (White Balance) and knowing how to work with it will have the biggest influence on your holiday light pictures.

Back in the day when all SLR cameras were film-based cameras, we stuffed our gadget bags with pouches of color correction filters. Today, with our digital cameras, we have built in color correction. Instead of selecting the right filter to screw on the camera lens, we select the right algorithm to have the on board computer run. If you are working with an entry-level point and shoot camera, you may not have any control over color temperature (White Balance) settings. You will have a number of white-balance settings to choose from, If you have a more advance point and shoot camera. If you have a Prosumer DSLR or a Professional DSLR, you will have even more options to choose from including a custom setting which allows you to dial in a color temperature in degrees Kelvin. The custom color temperature control is best left alone unless you have a color temperature meter in your photographer's tool kit.

What Is Color Temperature

During the late 1800s, British Physicist, William Kelvin, discovered that a black cube of carbon, what became known as a "Black Body," heated to different temperatures radiated a different color, starting with a dull red. Color temperature is measured in degrees Kelvin in his honor.

As you can see from the chart at the right, different light sources have different color temperatures.

Camera White Balance Menu

If you do not know how to access the White Balance menu on your camera, read the manual that came with your camera. The following are much standard choices on all cameras.

  • Auto white balance
  • Incandescent
  • Fluorescent
  • Direct sunlight
  • Cloudy
  • Shade
  • Flash
  • PRE white balance preset

All these options are self-explanatory except for the PRE (white balance preset), which require the use of a neutral gray or white card to fine tune the white balance. This advanced feature is best left alone until you become more experienced working with color temperature.

Turn the Auto White Balance Off

There are few situations in which I tell a photographer to turn the Auto White Balance feature off because it does a great job of balancing the sensor for the predominant light source. Two situations when it becomes a handicap are when shooting holiday lights and fireworks. Leave it turned on and your shots will appear washed out. Turn it off and manually select the white balance mode that matches your light source as closely as possible. Your other option is to shoot with the white balance system turned off completely. Either choosing a lighting setting manually or shooting with it completely off will assure you of capturing the saturated colors that holiday lighting has to offer.

Auto Focus

Use the auto focus feature on your camera when shooting holiday lights. The camera's eye will do a much better job of focusing the lens under the lighting conditions then your eye ever could.


Use the camera's matrix metering mode. It is almost impossible to get a good overall light reading manually under these conditions. Once you become experienced you can look at a scene and estimate the exposure, but for now let the camera do the work for you.

In part three, we will start exploring some actual shooting scenarios.

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Comments (2)

thanks for the tutoring on cameras and photography.

Really dig your photography articles. I have some night photography to do this fall and these tips will be a big help. Thanks!