How to take a portrait of a Christmas tree

| December 4, 2011
christmas tree photograph

Portrait of a Christmas Tree

I thought I would spread a little holiday cheer today by sharing a portrait of our Christmas tree and giving some detail on how I took the picture. Donna loves decorating for Christmas so I decided to honor her by taking a photo of her work. My goal for the photo was to capture the warmth of the room and show how it is transformed for the holidays by our brilliantly lit tree.

The permanent lights in the room provide a good baseline of light for the portrait but it is not enough to make the photo and subject come alive. To do that, I needed the help of my Canon Speedlite strobes. As you can see from the diagram below, I used three strobes to complete the lighting for the scene.

christmas tree photography

Christmas tree lighting setup

The main light

The main light, which is the diffused beauty dish in the lower right, was there to light the tree. “The tree is already lit,” you say? Well it is and it isn’t. Although the tree is covered with a ton if bright little white lights, I did not want them to overpower the tree and render the non-lit areas into a dark shadow. In essence, I wanted the green of the tree branches to be light enough to be seen when balanced visually against the bright white lights. Think of the beauty dish as a fill light that lights the actual tree before the small white string lights are “burned” into the photograph during the exposure.

The background light

In much the same way a portrait is taken, I used a light to separate the subject (tree) from the background. On this strobe, I used a Honl Speed Grid to focus the light on the background curtain. The grid helped me to keep the strobe light from spilling onto the entire wall, which would create unwanted and distracting shadows. It also helped me direct the light exactly where I wanted it, which was to the left of the tree. I think this light creates some nice depth in the photograph and serves to reinforce the tree as the focal point of the scene.

The stair rail light

To keep the left of the photo from becoming a black hole, I used another strobe to throw some light on the stair rail and garland. I literally held this strobe with my hand as I snapped the picture.

Strobe color temperature

To make the strobe light color balance with the room lighting, I put 1/2 “CTO” gels on all of them. A “CTO” gel, which is orange, converts a daylight-balanced strobe light to tungsten (or incandescent) colored light. This means that we can turn our strobe into a normal light bulb as far as light color is concerned so it harmonizes with the permanent lighting in the room. Pretty cool, huh?

Camera settings

This is where it comes together and gets fun! In order to get all of the lights to work together, I needed to get the camera’s exposure settings dialed in. The aperture, or opening in the lens, primarily impacts the contribution from the strobe lighting. The shutter speed, or length of time the camera’s sensor is exposed to light, impacts the contribution from the ambient lighting. The ambient lighting includes the permanent room lighting and lights on the tree itself.

Let’s start with aperture. I used an aperture setting of f/8.0 at 50mm, which was the focal length of my prime lens. A setting of f/8.0 provided enough depth of field to allow the entire tree to remain in focus while allowing enough light in from the strobes when they flashed to illuminate the tree, stair rail, and background.

Keep in mind that when after a strobe flashes, it is done contributing to the exposure. They quickly go on and quickly go off. In an extreme example, if you flash strobes in a completely dark room, you can keep the camera’s shutter open for a long time without over exposing the photograph. That’s because the strobe would have flashed and lit the scene and then went off — leaving a completely dark room. The shutter could stay open without the photo getting any brighter. Get it?

So, in our scene, the longer I kept the shutter open after the strobes flashed, the more ambient light I allowed in to increase the brightness of room. I was rather nonscientific about this. Having set the aperture to f/8.0, I just experimented with progressively slower shutter speeds until I got the balance I was looking for.

In the end, I settled on 1.3 seconds. So, when I clicked the shutter, the strobes flashed first to provide my effect lighting, and then the shutter stayed open a little while longer so the camera’s sensor could soak up the ambient room lighting.

There are many ways to accomplish results in photography and the best way to advance your skills is to learn through experimentation. There are a bunch of reasonably priced small strobes on the market that you can use to learn strobe photography. It is a lot of fun to study lighting for photography and even more fun to try it. In the end, you may be taking your own family portraits at home!

Category: Photography, Tutorials

Comments (5)

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  1. LeavesOfCrimson says:

    Your beautiful tree just highlights that gorgeous room with its beautiful ceilings.

  2. Beautiful shot and incredible write up!

  3. Great tutorial Lee – and beautiful tree!

  4. A.Barlow says:

    very nice post man. You broke this down in such a details way it amazes me.

  5. Lee says:

    Thanks for visiting! I hope the write up helps!