Christmas Lights

WickleyCandles-4944adjLRPhotographing Christmas lights at dusk presents a technical challenge: having the lights just bright enough and the unlit part of the scene visible enough to look good. The practical challenge of photographing Christmas lights is taking the time out of your busy holiday schedule to carry off the shoot, right at dusk. This year, I had just the push I needed: a challenge from one of my photography clubs to submit a photo on the theme “through the window.”

Now, I pass on the challenge to you! (Hint: this is way easier than the ice bucket challenge!) All you have to do is make time at dusk and go outside with your camera. I’ll share a few tips that guided my shooting and processing of my house photo.

My family takes an understated approach to Christmas lights by putting simple candles in the windows of our Victorian house. For my photo, I attached my Nikon D800 to a Really Right Stuff Tripod. (Any tripod will do as long it is sturdy enough for your camera. The best camera for the job is one you can set manually.) I had an overcast evening, but snow would make the scene even nicer. With the D800, ISO 400 is pretty noise free, and I set the lens for f/16, hoping for a little star effect on the lights. I began on Aperture preferred mode for one frame, and then changed the mode to manual and bracketed the exposure higher and lower, so that I could choose later the best exposure for the house, the sky and the lights. The sun was setting in front of me on the left, which was not ideal, but didn’t cause a major issue.

When I imported the exposures into Lightroom, I chose the one-second exposure. It really wasn’t necessary to tone-map multiple exposures in Photomatix or Photoshop, because I only needed to bring the exposure of the house up a little, and the sky down a little. In Lightroom, I adjusted the shadows up, clarity up, white balance toward blue and lens correction vertically (to correct the look of the house leaning back).

Exported into Photoshop, the image was ready for some dodging and burning to lighten the white trim on the house and darken the edges of the frame. Since the image would benefit from a strong darkening of the sky, I used the multiply blend mode on a duplicate layer and a mask to isolate the sky.

One more sneaky trick you may enjoy: Three windows did not have candles in them, but I was able to clone stamp candles in them for a more complete look. Here is my final image.

If you need help making a memorable photo of your home with Christmas lights, feel free to contact me. There is no place like home in any season.

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Note: Cathy Kelly is available to shoot your house, your front door and garden in the Sewickley and greater Pittsburgh PA area. She makes notecards and tiles with those images, as well as large prints. These images make wonderful gifts!  For more information, contact Cathy at  cathykellyphotography@gmail.com

The Koru: New Beginnings

Every culture has its important symbols, and I am intrigued when I find ties between different cultures. Greece and Turkey have the Greek Key, named after the Meander River near Ephesus, which winds all over the place and seems to go on forever. The Greek Key carries the meaning: going on forever or “infinity.”  Therefore is a popular design on antique vases and in both antique and contemporary jewelry.

You will find the same design in Chichin Itza, the Mayan ruins in  Mexico where the we presume the design carries similar meaning. I thought of this iconic design that developed separately for the Mayans and Greeks when I encountered the spiral shaped “koru” design of the Maori people, native to New Zealand. I wondered, “Could this mean infinity too?”

I posed this question to a Kiwi who explained that it means “new beginning.” Later, I fully understood why the koru connotes new beginning, more than “infinite” or “without end” when I observed the koru in nature. You see this shape in the very early stage of a fern leaf. Ferns in their seemingly infinite variety are quintessential New Zealand.

Here are two images of the koru, as I observed an early fern leaf’s development along the Milford Track, one of New Zealand’s wonderful hiking tracks.

Brown Koru along Milford Track, December 2014
Brown Koru along Milford Track, December 2014

I would also like to share this image of a sculpture on top of Queenstown Hill, which adapts the koru design to the beginning as well as the end.

Koru Sculpture on Queenstown Hill, overlooking Lake Wakapitu
Koru Sculpture on Queenstown Hill, overlooking Lake Wakapitu

The Koru has poignant meaning for Christchurch, New Zealand today as the people there struggle to recover from two devastating earthquakes that occured in 2011 and 2012. There is extensive demolition, repair work and rebuilding going on there — work expected to take another ten to fifteen years. Engineers and construction workers are as ubiquitous as the orange cones and metal fences. My daughter Erin Kelly is one of those engineers, working on the Rebuild. Perhaps never before has the koru meant so much.

New York State of Mind

Just returned home from three days in Manhattan helping my daughter move into her new apartment. Unless it’s raining, New York never disappoints. There is always a new restaurant to try, a new boutique,  a new walk, a new vista and an old friend to look up. This time we enjoyed two new restaurants: The Smith on Broadway and Lincoln Center (delicious food and delightful sidewalk cafe) and the Boathouse in Central Park for dinner (fabulous food and serene view of the lake at dusk). On this trip, I was too busy unpacking boxes and making trips to Target to take many photos, but I can share with you some keepers from my April 20 trip.

In April, we enjoyed a Saturday stroll in Central Park and enjoyed seeing hundreds of New Yorkers enjoying the spring day. As one strolls in Central Park, the vistas abound. Lots of walkers, runners, bikers and dog walkers share the paths around the frequent rock outcroppings. Trees, lakes, bridges and buildings of the East and West sides provide ever-changing backdrops.

Two young entrepreneurs (one amateur comedian and one gymnast) drew themselves a stage on the sidewalk, called themselves the Powerhouse and posted a can for donations. “Obama wants change, but WE want doll-ahs!” the diminutive comedian shouted. We joined the other passersby along the rectangular outline. After loosening up with a few one liners, urging us not too look so bored and smug, we turned our attention to the gymnast as he sprinted to center stage for three remarkable flips. Notice his position in the air and shadow on the ground:

I loved this view from the top floor of the Metropolitan Club across Central Park from East 60th Street looking west toward the Time Warner towers on Columbus Circle. Want to see what a difference a lens makes? The second shot was taken from the same location, but with a fish-eye lens. In this shot, you can see the Plaza on the left side of the frame, Fifth Avenue across the bottom, the Time Warner Buildings at center and more sky and more Park. Even though the buildings show dramatic distortion, I think the image is more fun. Surely, it is more dynamic with the traffic flow and cloud dotted sky.

For my last image comparison, I’d like to share two architecture images: an Baroque residential building on West 72nd Street and Central Park West, in contrast to the brand new (not yet completed) Millennium Tower, located next to ground zero, the former World Trade Center site.  The Millennium Tower, sleek and ultra modern, is shown from the Hudson River, where we were taking an “Around Manhattan Architecture Cruise” that disembarked from Chelsea Pier — a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon. There are so many stunning vistas in Manhattan, especially in fine weather.