Photographing the Holiday Garden

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I recently took a class at Denver Botanic Gardens with their official photographer, Scott Dressel-Martin, that focused (heh) on capturing images of their Blossoms of Light holiday landscape lighting presentation. I have very little experience with low-light or night-time photography, so I was open to any and all ideas that I could glean in a 3 hour, hands-on setting.  My goal was to learn a few tricks that would let me take the best photos possible without making fiddly adjustments to my camera.  In other words, stick with my usual grab-and-go, mode settings.  Scott was a fun and informative teacher and was able to emphasize the main points that apply universally while also including some more detailed specifics for the advanced photographers in the group (not me!).
Note: The photos you see here have not been photo-shopped, other than to reduce their size a bit for use here on the blog...

Here are a few pointers that I gleaned from the class:
#1 You must use a tripod. In low light situations the shutter speed is very slow, and it's impossible to hold a camera completely still.  Although I've owned a nice tripod for many years, I never use it (just too darn lazy).  This was the most awkward thing for me to adjust to, but it does make a huge difference in the clarity of the photos.  A hands-off shutter release is also helpful (make mine a remote, please, Santa?) in preventing wobbles.

#2 The best light is during deep dusk — after sunset but before it's totally dark. At this time of year that's between 4:45 and 5:30 (with only about 10 minutes of perfection!).  At this point there is still color in the sky. That color and light create depth of field — a foreground, middle ground, and background —  for a much more engaging image.  Interestingly, the sky looks dark to our eyes much sooner than it does to the camera lens.  Scott had us set up our cameras at 4:45 PM and continue taking the same shot (looking north-northeast) every few minutes to monitor how the light looked via the camera's screen:
4:50 PM MST
5:00 PM MST
5:07 PM MST
The lesson here is to stake out and compose your "perfect" shot a bit early, then take multiple images as the light changes until you see the perfect amount of contrast between the lights, the landscape, and the sky.

5:40 PM MST, looking west
By 5:40 PM the color was gone from the sky, but there was still enough light to distinguish the trees in the background.  Ten minutes later it was full-on dark, and the landscape — particularly without any snow — was transformed into pinpoints of colored lights. (Scott gave us some tips on controlling colors and light via ISOs and white balancing, but that's something I'll have to practice more on my own time.)
5:51 PM MST
#3 Reflective elements such as snow, water, or even wet pavement can really improve the WOW! power of your photograph.
5:15 PM MST looking south
5:17 PM MST looking north

#4 Have fun.  Even a blurry photo may have use as a background image...
original image
super cropped image
I hope my wing-it results will inspire you to get outdoors with your camera this winter to capture the beauty of the lights.

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