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Photographing the Tree

Martha Stewart Living, December 2000

It's too busy, it's too dark, it's too yellow, it won't twinkle. Yes, you can capture this magic on film.

It took some emergency tree surgery, but you finally managed to get the thing through the door, wrestled it upright, kept turning it until you found its best angle, disentangled the strings of lights, and spent hours in a pleasant trance draping tinsel, looping beads, and hanging every beloved ornament just so. When it was finished, everyone agreed -- as usual -- that it was the most beautiful tree ever. And, as usual, the pictures didn't do it justice.

Even professional photographers agree that shooting a Christmas tree is tricky. "There are several problems happening at once," says photographer Victor Schrager. "If you were simply to photograph the tree by the light of its own bulbs, all you would get are little points of light and a black tree and a black room. But use the flash, and any sense of sparkle and glow gets lost. So how do you do it all at once?" There's no one sure method, but here are some guidelines.

Start with the Right Film
Film, as you probably know, comes in different speeds. The higher the ASA number, the faster the film. That means it needs less time and light than slower film to register a proper exposure. There's a trade-off, though. The faster the film, the grainier the image and the less precise the details.You don't want film that's too slow, either, since it's good to use as much natural light as possible.

"Try the 400 ASA," says photographer William Abranowicz. "If you think your prints are just a little too grainy -- which they shouldn't be, unless you're going to blow up prints to poster size -- go to a slower film, like a 200 or 100 ASA, next time."

If you shoot slides, photographer Marty Hyers suggests trying tungsten film, which automatically corrects the "yellow" cast of incandescent indoor light, turning it neutral or, as photographers say, "white." The white daylight coming through a window has a distinctly bluish cast on this film, which can give a picture a pleasant wintry feel. If your camera can accommodate filters, adding a blue filter, which costs around $16, is another way of neutralizing the yellow.

Avoid Taking Indoor and Outdoor Shots on the Same Roll
Indoor light is warm and outdoor light is cool. When a drugstore or supermarket lab develops a roll of film taken in both lights, the outdoor shots will come back true to color, and the indoor shots will be bathed in a warm amber that's kinder to people, who'll look flushed and healthy, than it is to a Christmas tree, which will look dead.

If you take pictures both indoors and outdoors on one roll, let the drugstore develop it, and then, when the prints come back, choose your favorite, take the negative to a professional lab, and have a custom "color-corrected" print made. This will cost a bit more, but the print is handmade rather than machine-produced.

The photo lab will know what you mean by "color correct," but it helps to bring along the drugstore print and say, "Not like this." Always ask for glossy prints -- you'll get a sharper image.

Turn Off the Flash
Flashbulbs kill atmosphere, along with shadows, and light up the interior of a tree, which -- unless you've trimmed it right down to the trunk -- creates the impression of vast undecorated spaces. "Turn off the flash, and either use natural light from your windows or turn up any incandescent lights in the room," says Abranowicz.

"It's perfectly acceptable to take the lampshades off your lamps," says Schrager. "Or bring other lamps into the room. It doesn't all have to be techie photo equipment -- a lightbulb is a lightbulb." Still, you'll need to spend time fussing with lights -- turning them on and off, moving them around -- so it's probably not a good idea to schedule your tree portrait for Christmas Eve or morning. Keep these light sources behind your camera, and make sure they don't cast noticeable shadows.

To avoid the trial and error of shifting lamps, you might want to invest $12 or so in a clip-on painter's lamp from the hardware store. Get one with a twelve-inch rather than a six-inch reflector ("the larger the light source, the more diffuse the light," says Abranowicz), put in a 150-watt floodlight bulb, and bounce the light off a wall at about the same height as your camera. If the wall isn't white, tape up a large sheet of white paper, and aim the light at that.

If there's a lamp showing in the picture -- say, on a table next to the tree -- and you want to keep it there, remove the bulb and put in a fifteen-watt replacement. You'll get the glowing effect you want without throwing off your exposure or creating a blinding white spot. If the tree lights are coming on too strong, photographer Sang An suggests putting them on a dimmer. Easy-to-use dimmer-converter boxes are available at houseware stores.

Choose the Right Time of Day
Daylight makes your task easier. From a photographic point of view, the ideal spot for your tree is near a window in a room with good natural light. Then it's a matter of capturing the right moment.

"When I photograph my tree,"says Schrager, "I try to do it in the afternoon when there's still some light coming in, but it's also dim enough -- as it is around 3:30 or 4 in December -- so you have a sense of the tree lights' starting to glow. It's the same effect you get standing outside late on a winter afternoon, when it's still somewhat light out, but you can see the windows of houses glowing."

If you want to capture this effect with an automatic camera, you'll need to bring up the light level a bit: Experiment by turning on more lamps and taking off lampshades, or use the fill-flash setting available on many cameras.

Take Time to Compose Each Shot
If you don't have a tripod, it's worth investing in one. Besides letting you make extended exposures without shaking the camera -- and blurring the image -- it allows you to take time to peer through the lens before you snap the photo. That's when you discover that your three favorite ornaments are lined up in front of each other and one is turned backward, that there's a big gap in the tree decorations you hadn't noticed before, that a couple of tree lights are glaring like supernovas (tuck the bulbs behind a branch), and that Uncle Jeff, snoozing on the sofa, juts into the bottom of the frame. You've come this far; you might as well be fussy about the details.

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