Our photogenic Christmas tree

We have a tradition in our house; the Christmas tree is always decorated on the 21st of November, so as to give us plenty of time to enjoy it until Christmas. This year I decided to try and capture some of this festive feeling the Christmas tree gives us and share it with you. We particularly enjoy turning off all of the lights in the room and looking at the tree glowing in the semidarkness with the help of the (literally) hundreds of little LEDs that hang all around it.

The ambience and the lights are what counts on a Christmas tree. Cinemagraph with Nikon D7100 at f/3.5 ISO 3200. Processed to reduce noise.

The ambience and the lights are what counts on a Christmas tree.
Cinemagraph with Nikon D7100 at f/3.5 ISO 3200. Processed to reduce noise.
— Click on it to open it in a new window and wait until it loads (1.6Mb) —

I used a normal zoom lens and not a macro lens because a. I don’t have a macro lens and b. I didn’t really need so much detail. I would probably get sharper images with a macro lens and I might find some interesting details to photograph had I one, but I don’t so the lens decision was quite easy: “use the only one you have”. To capture this mood I decided to photograph using only the light coming from the tree itself without an external light source. So I set up my camera and tripod, turned off all of the other lights and went to work (figuratively speaking). The first thing I did after turning off all the lights in the room was to turn them on again. The light coming from the LEDs was neither strong enough for me to set up the shot nor to make sure that the camera had focused correctly (it hadn’t; in most cases I had to focus manually).

This is my favorite Christmas ball. You will see it a lot in this post. Nikon D7100 at f/18. ISO 3200.

This is my favorite Christmas ball. You will see it a lot in this post.
Nikon D7100 at f/18. ISO 3200.

So the process was:

  1. Turn on lights
  2. Set up composition (this did include on occasion rearranging the tree decoration)
  3. Focus
  4. Turn off lights
  5. Metering and decision regarding exposure times
  6. Take shot(s).

The next mistake I did was not to check the ISO setting, which I had forgotten at 3200 from the other day. So the first few shots were nice as compositions go, but noisy at close inspection. Anyway … Corrected the ISO and went on.

Blending of 3 exposures. I corrected the ISO for this one.  Nikon D7100 at f/18, ISO 100.

Blending of 3 exposures. I corrected the ISO for this one.
Nikon D7100 at f/18, ISO 100.

After a few more shots I figured out that the blinking LEDs didn’t really help. So I set them to continuous on mode hoping that they would not overheat and burn out before I was done (which would have caused me endless grief with the tree master i.e. the wife). As I wrote earlier, I was going for a dark look. My camera however was going for a normal look. Hence it tended to overexpose. I ended up bracketing every shot and then merging to HDR. Exposure times varied from 6-8 seconds to 2 minutes. I am pretty certain that in most cases one shot might do the trick, but I like having the option to select from a wide range of lighting values during post processing.

This one a bit lighter. Took  a lot of effort to darken and increase the contrast in the lower part of the image.  HDR with Nikon D7100 at f/18, ISO 100.

This one a bit lighter. Took a lot of effort to darken and increase the contrast in the lower part of the image.
HDR with Nikon D7100 at f/18, ISO 100.

Then the wife came into the kitchen (next to the living room and hence the tree) and turned on one of the lights. After she left leaving the light on, I thought that maybe I should turn that light off again. But then I thought that maybe a soft glow is not that bad after all, as “it illuminates the scene”. So I left the kitchen light on. Big mistake! This is the kind of mistake that separates me from a pro (aside from the fact that a pro has a macro lens and makes some money from photography. Ok, there are probably other differences too.).  The soft light from the kitchen really did “illuminate the scene” and left a horrible light halo on the bottom part of every shot from that point onward. It took considerable time to ameliorate the effects of this light during post processing, not always with 100% success.

I could see both my reflection and my fingerprints on the golden ball in the original photo. HDR blend, Nikon D7100 at f/18, ISO 100.

I could see both my reflection and my fingerprints on the golden ball in the original photo.
HDR blend, Nikon D7100 at f/18, ISO 100.

For the post processing, in most cases I merged several exposures to HDR, then did some tone mapping and in some cases increased vibrance or saturation a touch. I couldn’t decided whether I should give them a soft glow or to increase sharpness to accentuate details on the balls. In most cases I chose sharpness. I only gave this next photo a more stylised look using a preset filter.

Take me to the moon ... Nikon D7100 at f/18, ISO 100. Don't remember which filter I used for the final look.

Take me to the moon …
Nikon D7100 at f/18, ISO 100. I don’t remember which filter I used for the final look. If someone is interested I can check.

Some last pointers to those that want to photograph their Christmas balls:

  1. Whatever you do, make sure you remove your fingerprints from the balls with a piece of cloth after you position them for the photo. I did think that I am leaving fingerprints on the balls that might show in the photo. Then I dismissed the idea that fingerprints would be visible under such low light. Well, yes they were! And it took time to remove them later.
  2. Be mindful of your reflection on the shiny balls. I couldn’t see the reflections while taking the photos, but when I went to the computer, there they were!
  3. You will need a tripod that can place the camera as low as necessary. In some cases the camera was around 5-10cm from the floor looking diagonally upwards.

Finaly I made the cinemagraph you see at the beginning of this post. To see it properly you have to click on it and then wait until it downloads completely (1.6Mb shouldn’t take too long). The whole ambience of the Christmas tree is given to it by the blinking Christmas lights. So this is my attempt to capture this ambience. This was the first time I was attempting to photograph our Christmas decorations in such low light. Although I would do several things in a different way if I repeated this exercise I can positively say that I am happy with the result. Hope you like it too.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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