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Tips and techniques

FIELD TECHNIQUE: Capturing the Holiday Spirit

By November 21, 2015No Comments

Story and Photographs by F.M. Kearney

Photographing outdoor holiday decorations is fun. It’s even better if you don’t have to deal with hordes of tourists tripping over your tripod. Probably best of all is when the decorations are in a natural setting that most tourists (and residents) don’t know about.

In addition to the annual, world-famous lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York, there’s also the lighting of a slightly smaller display in Central Park. Each year, a flotilla of 13 trees is launched on a tiny “island” in the less-visited, northern section of the park. When I first saw it years ago, I actually thought it was a real island. I shot it at night and used the usual combo for best quality, i.e., low ISO and small aperture. As you may suspect, the results were less than successful. Although I didn’t detect it at the time, the subtle but constant movement of the artificial island ruined every shot due to the long exposures.

ISO 400, f/8

ISO 400, f/8

That was in the days of film when you were locked into a single ISO setting for all the pictures on the roll. Thankfully, today’s digital cameras are much more versatile. Not only can you change the ISO at will, but the resulting noise at the higher settings is much less than what you would have gotten with film. Additionally, more detail can be pulled out of the highlights and shadows due to their greater dynamic range capabilities. If the contrast is too strong, however, you may need to turn to HDR software.

I shot this photo right after sundown, just as a fairly heavy cloud cover broke apart to reveal a colorful and vibrant sky. This is an HDR compilation of five images with varying exposures, processed in Photomatix. This technique sometimes gets a bad rap due to the cartoonish ways in which it can transform a photo. Although I don’t particularly object to this look for some images, you can just as easily use the technique to create realistic effects. The photo closely represents what I saw at the time of the shoot.

ISO 1600, f/6.7, 1/3 sec

ISO 1600, f/6.7, 1/3 sec

Later that evening, as it got darker, I took this photo from the same perspective. It kind of reminds me of the old Corona Christmas commercial of the lone, illuminated palm tree. In order to freeze movement, I had to bump the ISO up to 1600—giving me a relatively short exposure of 1/3 second. It was the first time I had ever really tested the high-ISO capabilities of my camera. The noise was negligible and easily eliminated in Camera Raw and Photoshop.

Holiday decorations are practically everywhere you look at this time of year, and most of them tend to look best in low-light conditions. With all of the tools we now have at our disposal to handle these situations, it shouldn’t be too hard to capture that perfect holiday moment.


F.M. Kearney is a fine-art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. To see more of his work, visit

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