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“The best way out is always through.”

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tricky Treat: Mixing Flash and Holiday Lights with the Night Portrait Mode

The importance of Halloween (and the festive illumination to go with it) has taken on increasingly epic proportions at my house in the past few years. What started out as a few casual strands of orange lights a few years ago has now become a long (and fun) afternoon of stringing lights and decorations the week before the big day (or I should say, the big night). My girlfriend is the creative power behind it, I just supply the extension cords and the occasional rubber spider.

This year the lights looked so nice that I wanted to be sure that I had a photographic record to remember them. I shot some quick snapshots on Halloween night, but the truth is that we were so busy handing out candy (more than 100 kids showed up!) that I wasn't able to concentrate on shooting pictures. The next day though I came home from an assignment and, tired as I was, I decided to see if I could get some photos that captured the fun and color of the Halloween lights.

The problem with photographing holiday lights is that even if you shoot at twilight (which you should) while there is still some lingering daylight, if you expose for the lights, the surroundings go too dark. And, of course, if you expose for the darker areas, the lights wash out. Also, in this particular shot, I wanted to get some detail in a rubber spider that was hanging in a twig-wreath from a Japanese maple next to the front walk. I tried some existing light shots using long exposures to get the lights, but the spider just disappeared in the dark background. Then I tried some straight flash exposures using the built-in flash in the "auto" mode and the photos looked way too much like flash photos.

As an experiment, I turned to the Night Portrait exposure mode--one of several scene modes on my Nikon D90. I rarely use scene modes because I can usually find a better combination of exposure tricks on my own, but occasionally when all of my cleverness fails me I give the auto scene modes a shot. In this case the Night Portrait mode worked like a charm. The spider and wreath have just enough light so that you can see them and the colored lights look very natural.

The Night Portrait mode works best when the subject you want to hit with flash is relatively close to the camera (I was about two feet away from the wreath) and the background is dimly lit, but not black. It works great in situations like photographing friends in Times Square or on the Las Vegas Strip when you want to get good exposure on your friends' faces and still capture the mood of the ambient lights behind them. With most cameras, when you switch to this mode the flash pops up automatically (as it does with the D90) so you don't even have to remember to turn on the flash.

Whenever you're confronted with an exposure situation has you a bit baffled, give those scene modes on the exposure-mode dial a shot and see if they don't provide a simple solution. Halloween may be over, but I'll always have my rubber spider's portrait to remember it.

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