Putting up the Christmas tree is a highly-anticipated annual event at our house. We visit a local tree farm, driving up into the hills to select the perfect tree. The off-road 4x4 driving with the family might be my favorite part of the entire process. That, and causing the girls to complain about the trees I suggest. They think we need the tallest tree available, although I'm not fond of driving home with an enormous tree across the back of the SUV (on a Hitch Haul), usually with the trunk barely clearing the guard rail while the top is hovering above the road's center line on the other side.
I "get" to put the finally-agreed-upon tree in the stand (twice this year – it ran out of water and needed to have the stump cut off again to eliminate the sap seal) and try to keep it upright for the season (we understand firsthand that a fully decorated tree falling over is traumatic, at least to young kids). Oh, and I also "get" to string the lights, regardless of the height. Photographing the Christmas tree is the last job and one of my favorites. Who can resist capturing all of those sparkling lights?
While I photograph the result of a lot of work every year, I don't remember if I've ever used the same lens more than once for this task. There always seems to be a new one on hand that would work great for the task. This year, the Canon RF 28-70mm f/2L USM Lens on a Canon EOS R seemed like a perfect option.
Deciding on a composition is always an early decision for this task and this year I opted for a straight-on view from a level camera position. I wanted the windows to remain vertically straight and any camera tilt would create converging or angled lines. I determined that the timing for this photo should be during the blue hour so that a touch of color would show through the windows. With windows in the frame, reflections had to be controlled and in this case that meant that I needed a dark house. So, an afternoon when the girls were going Christmas shopping seemed ideal. That way, the have the house would be empty with no one's interests being hindered (i.e. a relaxed shoot). The exposure would not have to be timed for when no one was walking on the floor, creating vibrations for both the camera and the hanging ornaments. And, no one would care that the lights were off.
After sitting at my desk all day, I needed to get some exercise, ideally in the form of a trail run, before it was dark. A late start on that task meant that an increased pace was necessary. Despite a blown out sock along the way (requiring a stop and reversal to prevent a hot spot from becoming a blister), I still managed to complete my tough 3k course in near record (for me) pace. Phew. there was just enough time to cleanse the scene and set up the camera prior to the ideal shooting time.
Experience taught that when the outdoor ambient light was ideally balanced with the indoor light, an ISO 100 exposure of 30 seconds at f/16 would be ideal. Why f/16? Do you see the stars on the candles sitting on the windows? Every light on the tree also has a similar-but-smaller star. You need a narrow aperture to make those happen. Also note that a wide max aperture lens often creates the biggest stars and the RF 28-70's stars are awesome.
While f/22 will create even larger stars, the strong softness caused by diffraction at this setting is hard to accept. While some diffraction effects are visible at f/16, this seems to be an optimal choice for balance between star size and sharpness. Using a +1 sharpness setting is a good compromise for using f/16 over the sharper f/11 setting. Nice is that the deep f/16 depth of field makes it easy to keep everything in the image sharp.
Scene prep involved moving a couple of items (couch, ottoman, ...) out of the way and smoothing the carpet. As I began setting up the camera, my oldest daughter called (from the shopping excursion) to ask questions about a Christmas gift she was putting together for her husband. I of course wanted to help her, but ... the light was fading (so much for the relaxed shoot). Her questions were answered just in time to finalize the setup and begin shooting. It is difficult to visualize when the perfect blue hour light balance is achieved, so I usually opt to shoot through the period of time that contains the ideal balance. Then, during post processing, there is again a struggle to decide which time was best because subsequent images appear quite similar.
When there was no more blue left in the windows, I knew that additional images were not going to look any different than those already captured (without choosing a new perspective) and I went to find warmer clothes (there had been no time to change out of my running clothes prior to the shoot).
Amazingly, the girls opted for a tree that I selected this year! They did a great job decorating the tree (as always) and they like the results of my final job, the formal tree picture. That is ... my final job until I get to clean up the results of the Christmas morning package destruction (and later take the tree out).
That is probably more than you wanted to know about this Christmas tree, but ... from my family to yours, we wish you a very warm Merry Christmas! And, I wish you many memory cards full of memories from the day!
A larger version of this image is available on Flickr.
Note that you are going to be hearing more about this tripod. I'm impressed.