My family and I wish you a very Merry Christmas! As always, we hope that your Christmas season is filled with great meaning, great memories, and of course, great images.
Our Christmas tree represents a huge amount of work (primarily for my girls), and the results of their effort deserve preserving in a high quality image. After photographing the annual Christmas tree in the same location for 25 years, I have a few go-to shots dialed in.
An ultra-wide-angle focal length usually gets the selection. In addition to fitting the tree and surrounding space in the frame, this angle of view makes the room appear big, creating a more dramatic look.
There seems to be an outstanding ultra-wide angle lens choice introduced each year, and I seldom capture the tree photo with a lens previously used for that task. The Sony FE 12-24mm f/2.8 GM Lens captured the Christmas 2020 tree, the Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8 L IS USM Lens captured the 2019 tree, and, going a bit narrower for a different look, the Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM Lens took in the 2018 tree.
Which lens got the call for 2021? The impressive Sony FE 14mm f/1.8 GM Lens.
At this time of the year, I know that I need to take pictures bracketing 5:15 PM by a few minutes to have deep blue sky color showing through the windows with the exposure balanced for the Christmas lights inside. No, I can't remember this time from year to year, but a calendar item reminds me (and EXIF information from the prior year's photos can be referenced).
F/16 images from any current digital camera, and especially from cameras with ultra-high pixel density, show a slight softness due to diffraction. However, I like the starburst effect that narrow apertures, such as f/16, create from point light sources, such as the candles in the windows.
Yes, compositing pictures taken with different apertures, f/8 and f/22 for example, could provide larger starbursts and sharper images, with still adequate depth of field. However, the points on the star rotate as the aperture is changed. This means that each entire starburst must be carefully contained to only one of the images during compositing in order to avoid misalignment.
Getting technical: if in-camera focus shift correction is combining with focus breathing, one image may be slightly magnified relative to the other, further complicating the compositing process.
Using f/16 with a little extra sharpening keeps the process simple — and the results are still very nice.
With only the tree and other decorative lights on, the exposure needs to be long — 30 seconds at ISO 160. The exposure duration means that only a few images can be captured during the perfect deep blue sky time.
Long exposures also mean that the tree ornaments must be still to avoid motion blur, and the floor vibrates when walked on, making the ornaments swing. One person walking across the room at the wrong time could eliminate one or two exposures from that short period. Thus, the photo day is (usually) selected for when I am home alone at 5:15 PM.
Setup starts about 30 minutes prior to the optimal shooting time. Due to lack of space for this composition, some furniture was moved out of the camera position. The LED thermostat light is blocked with sticky notes, oOttoman wheel tracks in the carpet are pressed out, etc.
The vertical lines in the windows (or sometimes a wall unit) on the right side of the frame look best when running parallel to the edge of the frame. Thus, a camera position leveled for both tilt and roll is usually selected. In this case, the Sony FE 14mm f/1.8 GM Lens especially impresses with its lack of geometric distortion (no correction was applied to this image), rendering the window frame straight.
I am fortunate to have a range of tripods to work with, and holding the Sony Alpha a7R IV and FE 14mm f/1.8 GM Lens combination steady indoors is not a support challenge. However, when shooting on carpet, I prefer a tripod with some weight (or spikes) to press into the carpet fibers, decreasing movement. The Really Right Stuff TVC-34L Mk2 Tripod and BH-55 Ball Head handled this job nicely.
With that, another Christmas tree photo is in the archives.