When I think of the Christmas season, I can’t even control the barrage of images that flood my mind. Christmas trees strung with twinkling lights, mugs of steaming cocoa with a candy cane for stirring, decorative wreaths to welcome guests to your home, snowflakes falling silently from the sky, nativity scenes carefully laid and softly glowing candlelight to illuminate the holiday memories.
Candlelight creates such a lovely ambiance, and when photographing it, you want to make sure you leave that feeling intact. That usually means leaving your flash at the door.
Case in point (taken with my iPhone at f/2.4, 320 ISO, 1/15 of a sec, automatic flash):
Oh, but without a flash how am I supposed to make sure there’s enough light to take a picture? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered! Here are some easy steps to get yourself on the right track!
How to Photograph Candlelight
Put your camera in manual mode.
I know some of you are scared silly to do this, but trust me. I’ll hold your hand. For the purposes of this tutorial you need to have full control over your camera settings (after all, did you see how my smartphone butchered the one above?)
Crank up the ISO.
No, really! Cameras are so advanced these days that you can easily set your ISO rather high without any noticeable noise. I’ve set mine at 1600 to capture these images. (Please don’t send me hate mail…it works, you’ll see)!
Introduce some extra light.
If you’ve got LOTS of candles burning (like maybe at a Christmas Eve candlelight church service) then you can skip this step, but if it’s only a few then you may want to add an additional lighting source to balance it out a bit. (I used a small lamp on the other side of the room). You still get the ambiance, but without the harsh contrast.
Set the shutter speed and aperture.
Using your camera’s internal light meter, determine your shutter speed and aperture. I prefer to shoot very wide so for the images in this tutorial I’ve used a 1.8 aperture and a shutter speed of 100 to 160. I also tend to overexpose a bit. You may need to tweak these settings to figure out the right exposure but this should be a good starting point. I don’t like to shoot under 1/100 of a second because I feel like the images get too soft.
It’s just better in such a low light situation, complete with flickering flames. Plus, even great cameras have trouble focusing when it’s dark.
This is by no means a foolproof guide, but it’s a great starting point. As an added perk, I shot these with an 85 mm lens in front of my Christmas tree so I could get that yummy bokeh. With a little practice you’ll have no trouble capturing those candlelit moments exactly as you experienced them.
Lea Hartman is a family & lifestyle photographer, proud Army wife and mother of three. She is committed to enjoying her dessert at the expense of her hips and has a soft spot for eclairs. You can visit her via her website, like her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter and Instagram (@leahartman).