Twisting and Zooming Wild Christmas Light Abstracts

Every year, I look forward to dropping my photographic inhibitions and freely playing with Christmas lights! The abstract possibilities are endless! While lovely photos can be made via normal photography, I enjoy bending the conventional thinking, getting photos that are uniquely mine!

I’ll share a few ideas that have worked for me. For these techniques, you’ll need a Digital SLR or Digital Mirrorless camera. For the out of focus effect, you may use a prime lens or a zoom. The zoom techniques will require a zoom lens.

Photo 1: Christmas lights rendered as dreamy orbs by shooting out of focus. ISO 400, 1/200 second, f/4,2. 105mm on a full frame camera, hand held.
Photo 2:Daylight balance yields the warm glow from these out of focus incandescent bulbs. Tripod mounted crop sensor camera, 18-200mm lens at 75mm, 1/5 second, f/5, ISO 200.

Photos 1 and 2 demonstrate a simple technique, photographing lights grossly out of focus. This turns each light into an abstract glowing orb. Switch off the auto-focus, get up within a foot or two of the lights, and twist the focus ring towards infinity, or wherever suits your fancy!

You can use a sturdy tripod for repeatable results. Or you can go handheld! These are abstracts. There are no rules!

Photo 3: The window mullion, ornament, and lights are rendered sharp during the fixed portion of the exposure, while the light streaks are caused during the zooming part of the exposure. Tripod, ISO 100, 15 seconds, f/36, 18-200mm lens on an crop sensor camera.
Photo 4: Fixed and zoomed. ISO 100, 4 seconds, f/16, 28-300mm lens, full frame camera, tripod.

Another technique creates an explosion effect. Focus on a detail, and zoom during a long exposure. See photos 3 and 4. I like to shoot these at 3 or more seconds, giving me time to work. Part of that time is fixed on the detail, without zooming. Then twist the zoom ring for the rest of the exposure. For example, 3 seconds fixed, 3 seconds zooming, for a 6 second exposure. The fixed part renders the detail as recognizable. The zoom part creates the explosion effect. Only the highlights significantly record while you are zooming. Need more detail, and less “boom?” Shoot a longer time fixed, and shorter time zooming. Beware though that the longer you spend fixed, the brighter the detail will record. You may have to decrease the ISO to reduce the exposure. Similarly, for more explosion and less detail, stay fixed for less time and zoom longer. Experiment until you get results you like!

Using a tripod will yield crisper detail. But handheld can yield wild abstracts! Again, experiment!

Which way you zoom has a huge effect. I like to start at wide angle, up very close and focused on the detail. Shoot the fixed zoom part, then zoom towards telephoto for the rest of the exposure. This makes the explosive effect radiate outward… explosively! Do you want an implosion instead? Start with a long telephoto focal length, well focused. Start your exposure, then part way thru, zoom toward wide angle. The streaks will go inward to the center or the image.

Photo 5: Fixed – zoomed – fixed. The lights formed orbs both wide angle and telephoto, The big red ball is one of the lights, at telephoto length! ISO 200, 5 seconds, f/29, 28-300mm, full frame camera, on a tripod.

For a variation on the explosion effect, split the exposure three ways. Fixed – zooming – fixed. See Photo 5. For example, fixed, sharply focused at 28mm for 2 seconds, zoom towards telephoto for 2 seconds, then fixed at 300mm for two seconds. That gives a few small, sharply focused details, the explosive light streaks, and large out of focus orbs, all in one image. Vary the timing as you like.

Photo 6: A bare tree, spectacularly lit with several thousand bulbs, I held the zoom ring steady, did a fixed then zoomed exposure. Holding that zoom ring still, I rotated the camera, zooming and swirling simultaneously! ISO 50, 3 seconds, f/22, 28-300mm on a full frame camera, handheld. I threw away dozens of misses, but got this hit!

Photo 6 shows another variation. Instead of holding the camera steady and twisting the zoom ring, hold the zoom ring steady and twist the camera! This not only causes the explosion (or implosion) effect, but it also swirls the streaks of light! This technique is not possible if your camera is mounted on a tripod. Handholding is necessary. (Unless you have a lens with a tripod foot. In that case, you’ll need to twist the body and zoom ring simultaneously. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the more dexterous!) You are still using a several second exposure, part fixed focal length to record detail, part zooming to create streaks. You’ll be attempting to handhold for several seconds, so most images will be shaky. That’s ok! Keep trying, dozens of times! You just may get one that works. Show it off proudly! Throw away the mistakes! You’ll be seen as a wizard! Adjust your exposure, and the fixed/zooming split to your liking.

A 28-300mm zoom on a full frame camera, or 18-200 or 18-300 for crop sensor camera work well for these explosive effects. But, try any zoom lens you have!

How do you determine exposure? Experiment! I suggest shooting in manual mode. The same basic rules apply. ISO determines how much light is needed to give you the exposure. Shutter Speed determines the length of the exposure. And Aperture determines the range of focus – the depth of field. But why you apply these are a bit different for abstract light photography! You need have control of all three. Sharp photos with everything in focus is NOT the goal!

If you want dreamy out of focus lights, use a wide aperture. If you’re on a tripod, a low ISO will yield low noise, but longer shutter speeds. If handheld, shutter speeds in the fractions of a second are in order, needing a faster ISO. It’s a trade-off.

If you are trying to create motion, select a shutter speed that will allow you to do the physical activity such as zooming the lens during exposure. Chose your shutter speed, chose the aperture you need to achieve the depth of field you wish, and set the exposure by varying the ISO.

Observe the results on your LCD after a test shot, and check the histogram! You want the lights to appear in the middle or right of the histogram, without stacking up all the way to the right or you’ll be blowing highlights and washing out the colors.  You may brighten the photo – moving the histogram to the right, by increasing ISO, using a slower shutter speed, or using a wider (lower number) aperture. You may darken the photo – moving the histogram to the left, by decreasing the ISO, using a faster shutter speed, or using a narrower (higher number) aperture. And remember, you are shooting at night. Parts of your photo will be dark and do not need detail. It’s OK for the histogram to have area pressed all the way to the left.

I suggest setting your camera for daylight color balance. This yields the warm colors we expect from incandescent bulbs. Of course, you can experiment with this if varying color balance is part of your creative vision. There are no rules!

When you zoom during exposure, the zoom effect radiates from the center of the photo. And our eyes will be drawn to this point. Images are usually stronger if the center of interest is not in the center of the frame. We remember the “rule of thirds” that suggests that a more pleasing place for the center of interest is one of the intersections of an imaginary tic-tac-toe board in our frame. What to do? Shoot “loose” and crop to put this center of interest per the rule or thirds, or wherever you want.

Experimental photography with Christmas lights is addictive! Bundle up for the cold, and let loose your inner child. See what magic you can create!

See more of my Christmas images at: