During the month of December, millions of people across the country have an evergreen tree sitting in their living rooms, bedecked with colorful lights and ornaments befitting the holiday season.
First, a few basic pointers: Don’t use the on-camera flash! Nothing will ruin the scene like those harsh shadows and the flash bouncing off the ornaments, while the entire background goes coal-mine black. Way to ruin the holidays.
Instead, turn your on-camera flash off, or if you have a shoe-mount flash and a DSLR or system compact, make sure the flash head bounces off a large white surface, like a ceiling. This will give the scene a lot of pleasing, natural-looking, nondirectional light.
Second, use a tripod. Your exposure is likely to be long because you’re shooting indoors. Use the stability to get a sharp shot.
Third, think optically. Those lights hanging from the tree will look different out of focus, and you can use this transformation as an element in your compositions.
Let’s look at some samples of how you can creatively capture that tree in the living room!
Before the décor: It may be too late for this year, but be sure to photograph your tree in its natural splendor, before you spruce it up. Look for nice, even light, outside in open shade or on a bright overcast day, perhaps with the tree not yet unbundled. In fact, consider documenting the entire process of selecting the tree, showing various family members bringing it home and setting it up! Photo © yanishka/istockphoto.com
Get up close: Move up close and use a macro lens to capture the tree ornaments in their exquisite, colorful detail. Choose a wide aperture to throw the background out of focus, put your camera on a tripod, and keep the background simple. For a bit of added light to punch up the scene, bounce on-camera flash off a white surface, such as the ceiling or a bounce card. Photo © Liliboas/istockphoto.com
Merry Bokeh: You can create a scene with spectacular spectral highlights by setting your camera to Aperture-Priority (Av) and choosing a wide-open aperture, limiting depth of field. For instance, you may have a wall of bright lights at one end of the room and your tree at the other. Illuminate the tree with bounced flash, and leave plenty of room in the frame to show off the effect of the lights. Photo © Liliboas/istockphoto.com
Just Blur It: Or, you can throw literalism out the window entirely, and go completely abstract. To get this kind of effect, turn off all lights except for the lights on the tree. Place your camera on a tripod for stability and select Aperture-Priority (Av). Choose the widest aperture for round spectral highlights as shown here. Disable autofocus, and focus manually. Watch the transformation that happens as you move the image further out of focus. Photo © JamesBrey/istockphoto.com
HDRXmas: Another option is to choose hyper-realism, which is easier than ever if you have either High Dynamic Range (HDR) software or a camera with built-in HDR. HDR combines multiple images at different exposures to capture the widest possible range of shadow and highlight detail in a scene. The result can be realistic—closer to how the human eyes see, as in this shot—or can by amped up to introduce intense details that are a bit unreal, but can be fun. Photo © morgani/istockphoto.com