Matt -balancing the lights in a holiday photo

by Matt

Hi. Thanks very much for allowing me to ask questions. My cousin wants me to shoot some Christmas pictures of their one yr old son for Christmas cards etc. What settings would you suggest to get a good exposure with flash and still have the Christmas lights exposed well and not washed out? I have Nikon D-7000 and several Nikon speed lights along with some Alien Bee studio strobes... My frustration is not knowing how to set everything up for a nice balanced picture that includes flash, whether it be speed lights or Alien Bees. Seems there are hundreds of ways and hundreds of settings to choose, which I understand is all about the effect one is looking for... How would you set up for some nice Christmas shots of a child around the tree and with some lights.

Thanks very much.


Hi Matt, Thanks for your question to the Digital Photo Tips web site.

There are too many variables for me to give you one set answer, but I'll try to share some ideas on getting the exposure right. The big plus for you is you get to see the results right away with digital photography and can make adjustments early on in your photo shoot.

I used to do face this same situation with film cameras many years ago, so I would have to have both meter my strobes with a flash meter and also take a reflected light reading of the background and balance the two different light sources.

Rather than give you a formula, I'd suggest you take photos of a doll or stuffed animal with clothing ahead of time before you go live with a one year old.

You will likely "drag" the shutter a bit, meaning slow it down to the 1/15 to 1/60th of a second range to get the tiny Christmas tree lights to show up.

Secondly, you'll need to have the ability to shoot at lower flash outputs so that they don't overpower the dimly lit bulbs.

With the D7000, you can also shoot at higher ISO settings and use some other continuous light source, such as daylight from a large window, a reflector, or incandescent lights.

I've been shooting location portraits around the holidays for almost 30 years and I can tell you that every situation is different.

Variables include the distance between the lights and your subject, your subject and the background, the strength of the bulbs on the tree, brightness of your other light source, your shutter speed and f-stops.

If your one-year old subject sits still enough, you could easily shoot at 1/30th second with a tripod and get sharp results.

If you have any experience in photo editing, you could also shoot images exposed well for the Christmas lights and other images exposed well for your subject and combine them in a variety of ways in Photoshop or similar software.

A tripod is certainly a must in either case.
I've even done portraits where Christmas tree lights are the light source by spreading them around the child in addition to behind him or her on the tree. High ISO is needed

I love digital because of the high ISO availability, evaluating the image on the LCD screen and all of the retouching options after capture.

Good luck and make it a fun experience for your one year old and the smiles will be the most important aspect of the photo.

Click here to read or post comments

Join in and write your own page! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Ask me a question.