By Carrie Sansing ~ Chicago
I'm seriously addicted to blow molds. Having collected and displayed them in my Christmas display for over 30 years, I have used or created some of the methods I set out in this pamphlet. Winters can be pretty harsh here in Chicago, subzero temps one day, and a thaw the next, ice storms, winds at 60 mph and snow can sandblast the paint right off a blow mold. Hot climates (Texas, Arizona, Florida, etc.) also take their toll on our plastic friends, creating a different environment but with the similar effects, i.e., the sun's UV rays fade the paint, molds become brittle…they crack and break, and restorations are often even more necessary. My collection of blow molds has been assembled from all over the country, Canada, and even from Hong Kong and the U.K! I have worked on the brittle ones from Texas and repaired the virtually paint free ones received from Canada and Minnesota, thus my quest to learn all I could to restore them.
In the late 1970's, I noticed that our Poloron Snowman had a severe case of paint loss. He badly needed a new paint job and being an amateur "artist" I decided to redo him and did. The result was good...certainly not great. Since that first effort, done with artist's brushes and enamels, I experimented with several methods. Stripping an entire blow mold came next, the fumes made my eyes burn and in one case, I used the wrong kind of stripper and left it on too long; it literally ate through the mold, it was ruined…lesson learned.
In 1999, I stumbled upon PlanetChristmas and lurked for several years. Much to my delight, I found out two important things. 1. There were Christmas light enthusiasts out there that were just like me; and 2. There were others who were also experimenting with and developing the art of blow mold restoration.
Over the years, I learned many valuable lessons and refined methods that were shared with me or created some of the techniques I'm presenting here…and I'm still learning, I certainly don't have all the answers…so if you find that you have a better way, please contact me and share it!
There are many members of the Christmas community who have contributed to my store of blow mold knowledge and who have helped me in so many ways…there are too many to name…but they know who they are.
DISCLAIMER: Using these methods is at your own risk. The techniques I use have worked well for me, but I do not warrant, represent, or promise that your outcome will be the one you're looking for and I take no responsibility whatsoever for any damage or injury to you, your property or your blow mold. (Now that the disclaimer has been made--enjoy!)
Stripping the Mold
Rubber or latex gloves
Natural bristle or plastic scrub brush (I don’t use a wire brush, I find that they scratch the plastic)
Old tooth brush
Eye protection (safety glasses)
Lots of clean Cotton Rags (available at Home Depot)
Mild dish detergent
Ammonia (I use lemon scented, it’s easier on the nose)
Paint stripper (I use and highly recommend 3M Easy Stripper, but you can use other brands with great results)
Shallow pie plate or bowl
Paint brushes (2 or 3 of different sizes will do)
Water and hose
To strip the entire blow mold, here are the steps I take:
Remove the light housing and any screws or light cord and put them where you can find them in a week or so.
Mix a squirt or two of detergent in a large bucket of water. Hose down the blow mold and then scrub the entire mold using your scrub brush and the soapy water to remove surface dirt. Take the time to rinse the scrub brush off of any old flaked paint that may get caught in the bristles (which you don’t want later on in the process). Put on your gloves and safety glasses (if you think you'll splash, you definitely don't want any ammonia in your eyes). Dip your scrub brush into the ammonia. Scrub down the entire blow mold and work to get any additional dirt, grease, or loose paint off that may be in the creases of the mold. Rinse the mold down and the scrub brush. Use the old tooth brush, dipped in ammonia, and scrub along each crease. Wash with detergent again and rinse the blow mold very well, particularly paying attention to the creases you scrubbed. Dry the mold as thoroughly as possible. Let it sit until you are sure it is completely dry. If you’re lucky, a lot of the old paint will now be off.
Put on your gloves if using a caustic stripper. Pour the paint stripper into a tin pie plate or metal bowl (Caution: some paint strippers are highly caustic and emit fumes--read the container directions). Using one of your brushes, dip the brush into the stripper. Run the brush across the rim of the pan or bowl so that it doesn’t drip and to remove excess. If you are NOT USING the 3M Easy Stripper, start brushing the paint stripper on an area no more than 8 inches square. (Tip: You do not need to brush on a really thick coat of stripper. Just enough to cover the paint on the mold. If you find that the process is going too slow or the stripper is not working as well as it should, go ahead and put on a thicker coat in the next area. You will develop a “feel” for how much stripper to use.) If you do a larger area than 8 square inches, you will run the risk of the stripper eating the plastic! (Trust me on this, I ruined a mold so badly I had to throw it out!) Wait about 30 seconds, you should see the paint start to crack or bubble. Now, quickly dip your scrub brush (which you took pains to clean) into the ammonia and scrub the area you just stripped. Using the rags, wipe the area down. Rinse again with the hose to stop the chemical process. The paint should all come off. Repeat this procedure, doing small areas at a time, over the entire blow mold. Use a smaller size brush (I use one with an angle tip) to get the stripper into the creases of the mold. This is the hardest part and takes a lot of time. Once the mold has been completely stripped, I wash it down one more time with ammonia and the scrub brush and rinse it very well. The mold should now be close to white. If it looks cloudy, wash it with kitchen cleanser to remove any paint or chemical residue.
If you DO use the 3M Easy Stripper, we can now shorten the process considerably. Pour the stripper into your pan as above and start brushing it on. I have found that I can work very large areas of the blow mold all at once, if not the entire mold, depending upon the overall size. As you brush it on, work at a good pace, you don't want the stripper to dry out. Work the blow mold as instructed above, making sure to get the stripper into all the creases. Once you have covered the blow mold, wait about 5 minutes. Using the rags, wipe the area down, the stripper and the paint will come off. Rinse the mold with the hose. If there is still some paint on the mold, apply stripper to the areas you missed, wait 5 minutes, and hose down again. Once the mold has been completely stripped, I wash the mold down again with mild detergent and rinse thoroughly. Let the mold dry completely before you start your paint job.
Be careful and take your time. Like any other restoration, the prep work you do now in respect to stripping the old paint, will pay you large dividends when you start to repaint your blow mold.
Painter’s blue tape and
Various sizes of masking tape and/or automotive detail tape
Newspaper (Don’t use colored comics, the ink can and will transfer!), and/or plastic bags (I use grocery bags--nice freebies)
Decide on what areas you are going to paint first. This is a very important step--so think it through!
Following are the steps I took to repaint a pair of Poloron Pinecone Candles:
As the candles were an easy project, only using two colors, the decision of what to paint first was simple... the red areas. Using masking tape, I taped off all the wax drips, the spiral, and the pinecones. I covered all the areas I wanted to remain white or that may have been in the line of fire of the spray paint. Depending upon the mold you do, I can't stress enough how important having a paint plan is. Otherwise, you will have to do a lot more masking off than you otherwise would.
If you need to cover a large expanse, use the plastic bags or newspaper to cover those areas. When you tape the paper or plastic on, press the tape down hard along the edges!
You don’t want any spray paint to seep under the edges of the tape and onto your blow mold.
When taping, the tape must be put on carefully, butting the edge of the tape up against the edge of the raised surface to be painted. Start to mask off all the areas that will NOT be painted first.
I usually paint the little annoying things first, to get them out of the way. In the case of these candles, I covered all the parts that were to remain white first, leaving all the red colored parts exposed. Be careful in this step, it will make the difference in the long run as you don’t want overspray on the white areas. Once the white areas were all covered with tape, you must make sure the tape is sealed well. If you have long fingernails (which I do), run a nail along the very edge of the tape and press firmly. If you don't have long fingernails, use the tip of a screwdriver or other tool to do this.
I then painted all the red areas. Let the paint dry thoroughly. I generally use Krylon Fusion for Plastic (“KFFP”). It will dry in 15 minutes according to the product label (but temperature and humidity does make a difference in the drying time, it can be MUCH longer). Make sure the paint is completely dry before moving on to the next area. If you need to wait until the next day, wait. Don’t rush this or your work will be ruined. Once dry, you may then apply a second coat if needed. Also, when painting with KFFP, go with light sweeping strokes of the spray paint, don’t put the paint on too heavily or it will run.
Depress the button and keep it down, don't stop, start, stop, start, use a side to side sweeping motion. CAUTION: If you have never painted with spray paint, practice with it before you decide to repaint an expensive or rare blow mold!
Once you are absolutely sure all the paint is completely dry (and you have done your second coat, if needed), cover these newly painted areas with paper and/or tape if needed, or with blue painters tape or detail tape, depending upon how many color changes you are going to do. In the case of the candles, I left the tape on the white areas and only covered the red area surrounding the pine cones. I also applied small pieces of tape to the individual red berries. I then painted the pine cones green. If you know that you will not be going near an area that is already painted and you are confident in your skill with spray paint, you can skip covering some areas. CAUTION: This is a judgment call on your part, but keep in mind that if you are outside in a breezy location, no matter how good you are, the wind is going to cause overspray. I do my painting in the garage with the door open. If you do have to do a lot of color changes, you will be doing a lot of masking and covering. The more careful and precise you are, the better the paint job will be.
Once you have repainted your blow mold, be careful when you take off the paper and tape. This part can be trickier than you’d expect. If you just pull the tape straight off, you probably will pull the newly applied paint off too. You want to peel the tape back onto itself so that it cuts through the paint.
Screw it up once and you’ll know what I’m talking about! Take your time, be careful, and your blow mold will look brand new.
Here goes with some generic basics:
Depending on the size of the ding, you can do several things to repair it. If you have a pops-a-dent (used for auto repair-they are cheap and do a good job) use it and follow the directions. But seeing as how most people don't have one (I do, works great) here is what you can do.
Use a broom stick, rod, or sturdy piece of wire (from a heavy coat hanger) and poke it into the mold through the light hole (now this is the tricky part because different blow molds have different placement of the light holes or access hole). Push the rod or whatever you're using into the ding and gently apply pressure until the ding pops out. If the ding has been there a long time, chances are once you pull the rod back out, the plastic will pop back (the plastic has a memory). If this happens, push the rod in again and push out the ding. With a helper and a hair dryer set on hot, hold the rod in place inside the mold and apply the heat of the dryer to the plastic from the outside. In my experience, the heat of the dryer will not damage the paint, it has little effect on the paint, but if you see the paint change color or start to flake-- pull hair dryer back a bit so that the warming is more gradual) This will help the plastic to learn its new correct position. You only need to hold the dryer until the plastic feels warm to the touch. Turn off the dryer and withdraw the rod. You have now repaired the ding.
If there is a crack in the ding itself, you will do basically the same procedure as above, but with a small difference. Before pushing the rod up into the blow mold, attach a piece of wadding (a nice scrap of cloth, I use a soft cotton terry washcloth) with tape to the end of the rod in order to make a smooth rounded surface (this will spread the pressure across the surface of the ding so that you don't end up breaking through the crack or making the crack larger). Do the same as before, but you will have to be much more gentle when applying pressure so that you don't create any more damage. Repeat with the hair dryer if necessary (the dryer isn't necessary in most instances).
You don't have to do a complete stripping of the mold, just clean and scrape away any flaked paint and do the job.
Liquid Nails or two part epoxy glues (get one specifically labeled that can be used on plastic) or
Hot glue gun
An awl or sharpened nail
Butter knife or other knife with a thin flexible blade
Heavy fishing line, nylon line, thin wire..anything that can be threaded into a needle
Masking tape (heavy duty)
Heaving duty long needle (I use saddler's and canvas needles)
Depending upon the size of the crack or split and assuming that no part of the plastic is missing, here are several ways to fix a crack or split.
One very common place for splits to occur is at a seam or between "shapes" on the mold. These are relatively easy to repair.
When repairing any blow mold, make sure the surface is spotlessly clean before you begin!
Using your tape, apply it as though you were going to tape the crack together, stick several pieces of tape, that will be long enough to go over the crack, to one side of the crack or split...but don't go over the crack, allow the tape to hang down, sticky side up on one side of the crack only.
Using liquid nails, the epoxy glue, or whatever adhesive you're using.. gently and carefully separate the crack using your knife (be careful when doing this, you don't want to make it larger!). You don't want to pry the crack open very much, just enough to allow the glue in.
Apply the adhesive to crack in a thin bead…don't use gobs, and if necessary, push the glue down into the crack with your finger. (Note: With many adhesives on the market, you may have to hold that crack open for several minutes to allow the adhesive to start to cure, just stick your knife into the crack and let go, it will stay there).
After waiting the recommended amount of time, pull out your knife if you used one, and push the crack together tightly with your hands. Some of the glue may ooze up onto the surface of the crack. Remove the excess carefully with a finger (don't use paper towels the paper will stick to the glue)
Hold the crack together for several minutes and apply a good amount of pressure (don't push so hard that you squeeze out all the adhesive).
Now that the glue has started to bond, carefully pull your tape strips up and over the crack to hold the repair in place.
Be patient and follow the manufacturers directions for cure time.
After the glue has set, you can carefully peel the tape off.
If there is a lot of excess glue on the mold, you can scrape this away with your knife or use a small file.
Caution! Be careful when using an awl.
This method works well when the crack is located in an area that allows your hand access to the interior of the mold (such as at a neck hole of a peep or a side seam..if you can reach inside the mold without difficulty from the light kit hole or neck, this method may be the one for you). To stitch a crack together:
1. On both sides of the crack, place a series of equally spaced marks with your Sharpie
Using the awl, carefully poke holes at the points you marked off. If the plastic is too thick or tough for you to push through with your hand, using moderate pressure (you don't want to apply too much force, you'll make the crack larger) you can use your propane torch to heat the tip of the awl and it will then melt its way through… just be very careful!
After you've poked the holes, thread your needle and make a large knot at the end.
Start sewing the crack together from the inside at the first hole you marked and pull the knot you made tight against the interior of the mold. Keeping one hand inside the mold, one out, start sewing:
After you have finished stitching, reverse direction and go back to the beginning in the same way.
Tie off the thread and knot it tightly on the inside (this is tricky...but you can do it.)
Apply a bead of epoxy glue to both knots and the stitches. Allow to harden and you're done.
Broken out pieces of plastic have been the death knell for many fine blow molds. Replacing that missing piece is a challenge and requires patience, practice, time, and care. Do Not Try these method if you aren't willing to devote a good amount of time to the project…and remember, when using the alternate propane soldering method, make sure you have a clear area where nothing can or could come into contact with the torch. This is an advanced skill, it can be dangerous (propane), and it is not recommended that you try to repair an expensive or rare blow mold without first trying this method on a few test pieces first. I take no responsibility for these methods (see the disclaimer at the beginning of this booklet) or for your results…they have worked for me after having developed the soldering method over the last two years. Trust me, do not attempt the soldering method without practicing first!
Plastic adhesive (liquid nails, hot glue, epoxy, etc.)
Plastic containers, i.e. milk jugs, cool whip containers, orange juice jugs (white ones)
Sharp scissors or Exacto type sharp craft knife
White copy paper and pencil
Flat head screw driver
Spray paint for plastic
A small hand held propane torch
Before you begin, assess the damaged area and develop your repair plan.
How large is the missing area? You will need enough replacement material to cover this area as well as additional plastic for the "solder" if using the alternate propane method.
Is there a curve to be fixed or is the broken out area flat? Flat areas are much easier than curves to repair.
What color is the broken area supposed to be? You will need paint to match and if you cannot find a matching paint, you may have to strip that color off the mold completely before beginning the repair. You will repaint the mold after the repair is complete. This is a critical decision and will ultimately affect your result.
Locate some plastic containers that are similar in weight to the plastic of the mold. You probably will not find the same exact weight or thickness, that's okay, but the closer you can come to the original plastic, the better.
Have your paper, pencil, scissors or Exacto, screw driver, adhesives, tape, and propane torch assembled on a work bench or sturdy table.
Clean the mold thoroughly, it must be completely free of any dirt, loose paint, dust, etc. it should be spotless.
If there are any pieces of plastic that are loose or hanging from the damaged area or if the area has jagged edges, cut the loose pieces off and remove any jagged edges. Try not to enlarge the damaged area, remove just enough plastic to get the hole into a more geometric shape.
Lay the mold down flat, broken area up. Tape the piece of paper over the hole and using your pencil, draw around the hole, about 1/4 inch from the edges of the hole. You want to end up with a template of the damaged area that is slightly larger than the area you are repairing. On the mold itself, select a spot as a "start point" and place a dot on the mold…you will punch through the paper to do this. Make another dot on the paper template that is directly across from the start point. These dots will help you line up the patch. Remove the template and cut it out with your scissors.
Take your template and apply it to your plastic container with tape. Transfer the template image to the plastic by tracing around the template and onto the plastic.
Cut out the shape. You now have your patch.
Prepare some strips of masking tape, have them handy and ready to use.
Test fit the patch, make sure it covers the area of damage. If there are any irregularities, trim them off, and fit the patch on again. If it looks to be a proper "fit", you're now good to go.
Using your adhesive of choice, apply a thin bead on the underside of the patch along the edge. Try to make the bead line as regular as possible. If using liquid nails cut the tube so that you will achieve the smallest possible hole that will allow the glue to flow.
Line up your start point with the dot on the patch. Apply the patch and tape it down. Parts of the patch may pop up, this happens frequently and you will have to work quickly to secure the patch over the damaged area until all edges are sealed to the mold. If the adhesive oozes out, clean it off as you go. Press those edges tightly and don't skimp on the tape.
Once the patch is in place, take a good look, is the patch sealed all the way around? If not, add some more adhesive to the area and tape it down. If it is a large area that is being patched, you may need to weight down the patch to keep those edges sealed down tight. Don't apply a weight directly to the patch, it will push the patch in and will defeat your purpose. To apply weight, place a board across the patched area and weight the board down.
Allow the adhesive to completely dry…it make take several days or several hours, it will depend upon the glue you used and the temperature and humidity. Don't rush it! Turn your back on the mold, shut the door, and leave it alone for at least as long as the manufacturer directs (I generally leave them alone for at least two days).
When you are certain the adhesive has dried, very carefully remove the tape…hold the patch in place with one hand while pulling the tape free. If any edges up come up, repeat the process on those edges only, tape, and wait until adhesive is set and dry.
Clean up any glue globs that are on the mold by scraping off with your butter knife or filing down.
Repaint as needed.
Caution! Be careful! Read through and become familiar with this process before starting.
Follow the directions above from Assessment through step 7.
Your patch is made and you're ready to go with soldering plastic.
From the same plastic material you made your patch from, cut the remaining material into numerous strips of plastic, these strips will become your "solder".
Line up your start point with the dot you made on the mold.
Tape the patch carefully into place at two or three points, just enough to hold the patch still and in place.
Light your propane torch and adjust to the lowest setting.
Pick up a strip of solder in one hand and have your torch in the other.
Being as careful as possible, gently heat a point on the outer edge of the patch. You do NOT want to set the plastic on fire or melt it, you only want to soften it. Watch carefully, once the plastic begins to soften it will become slightly transparent. This step only takes seconds and if you heat the plastic too much, you risk burning a hole or melting the patch edge and you may have to START OVER and create a new patch! So be very careful, sweep the torch slowly back and forth over the point you're heating. Once softened, you'll see the color change and that is your cue to stop.
Working quickly, hold one end of the plastic "solder" strip directly above the softened area and heat it with your torch, you do want it to melt (if it catches fire, just blow out the flames). You want plastic to drip onto the softened area below it. Put down the torch and the solder strip. Grab your flathead screw driver and press down on the soldered spot you are securing to your blow mold. Now, pucker up and blow on it, the movement of the air will solidify and harden the plastic in seconds. If you did this step correctly, the molten plastic bonds the patch to the blow mold.
Directly across from the first attach point, follow step 7 and do it again. You should have the patch secured at two places when you are done. Repeat this step, working back and forth across the patch until you have the entire patch secured to the blow mold at several points (4 or 5 should do it).
After you have the patch bonded to the mold at several points, you will continue to do the same type of thing, with one difference.
When melting the plastic solder, move your hand so that the melting plastic follows the contour of the patch edge in a line rather than a "spot". This step takes some practice..you melt the solder, put down the torch and solder, grab the screwdriver and smooth the molten plastic on the edge of the patch and mold.
Upon completion, your patch will be permanently attached to the blow mold all the way around in a water tight seal.
Paint as needed. Note: depending upon the thickness of the plastic you have used to create the repair and the area of damage, you may notice a difference in the amount of light shining through from the repaired area as contrasted with the undamaged part of the mold. There is little that can be done about this other than using identical materials… but keep in mind, from a distance, this difference is hardly discernible; people who view your display will most likely not be aware of it.
This picture shows the patches soldered on…and repainting started
Ever wonder how to secure that blow mold that doesn't want to stay where you put it? Here are a few tips:
Sand and Gravel. I use pre-filled zip lock bags, the filling can be sand or gravel. Slide the bags into the mold through the bottom access hole, the light hole or if the head is removable, right down through the top. (I personally do not recommend filling the mold directly with sand in direct opposition to some manufacturers suggestions. As condensation occurs and, depending on the mold, rain seeps in, the sand will become wet and stick to the inside of the mold. This wet sand or gravel blocks the light from shining through and creates dark spots on the mold when viewed at night. Additionally, the sand's density creates a dark shadow at the bottom of the mold where the light cannot penetrate). By using bags, the sand is contained so that the inside of the mold does not get dirty and the shadow at the bottom is minimized. The bags can also be removed, stored, and used for other holidays or to make carrying the blow molds easier.
By Thomas Steiner ~ Indiana
Photos courtesy of Gil Ramos, Florida
Here is what you need and how to build your own Blow Mold Carousel:
Plastic table top, remove all 4 legs, they just pull out
Rotating tree stand
Small 1 ¼” PVC pipe
Piece of lamp cord, SPT 2
10 female outlets, SPT 2
1 male plug, SPT 2
Plenty of 1” threaded screws to the top
You will need a plastic table top, remove all 4 legs. You can use plywood. Use a rotating tree stand. Insert a 1 ¼” PVC to join table to tree stand (fits in hole to hold tree), the turntable (tree stand) comes with two rotating outlets. The PVC pipe you will screw in, from the outside of the rotator, just like a Christmas tree. Get a piece of lamp cord and add one male plug and seven female outlets. Then drill a 1 ¼” hole in table to pull the wire out thru the top, Don’t add the female outlets until you have wire going thru the hole. The male plug is connected to the turntable, wire comes out other side of drilled hole and you add the female outlets to the wire.
What I did with blow molds to install them, first, I put all the molds on top of the table to where I like them. Then I made an outline on the table and screwed them from the bottom up. Make sure that screws that you use have threads all the way up the screw. In other words, do not use wood screws. I use 1” screws. The blow molds are the last pieces to go on. As for the wire, drill a hole near the center of the table, just barely the width of the cable, insert cable thru the table top. Add the male plug end on the side where rotator will be, all you will need on that side is about 6 to 8 inches, the other side (top) you will add the females, to as many blow molds as you will use. You may want to use silicone around blow molds for a light waterproof seal. But not recommended.
You can build one of these in less than thirty minutes. You can get the male plugs and female outlets at actionlighting.com. Action Lighting number is 1-800-248-0076. You may want to order a couple of dozen. Usually order one dozen of the males / 3 dozen of the females. When you order make sure to get SPT 2, do not order the SPT 1 wire, use the heavier SPT 2 wire. It cost about $75.00 to build the Blow Mold Carousel depending on today’s prices. Okay, there you have it, your very own Blow Mold Carousel. Simple and easy to make. Enjoy!!
By Thomas Steiner ~ Indiana
To keep molds from falling over, I use a lot of bricks, pebble stones, wooden dowel rods (hammer into ground), and sand bags. I personally do not put sand into a blow mold, if it gets wet, it sticks to the inside of the mold causing an ugly shadow. I fill zip lock bags with sand and insert those. I can remove them and reuse them as well. But I never really ever remove the sand bags from my blow molds. Bricks or pebble stones work very well too, it just depends on how large the mold is and its shape. I don't recommend using picture wire to hold your blow molds from falling over because that wire will evenually rust in time. Nor do I recommend any kind of wire to be used on your blow molds as that will cause a wire rust smudge or indent into your blow molds. And one last point, please don't use rebar as the rebar will rust and you will have rusting all over your blow molds inside the plastic. I would recommend using wood pieces instead of rebar to hold them down. I learned the hard way using rebar and wire. Not good. Following these procedures will make your blow molds display a much greater and beaufiful look and keep them from falling over.
Hello, how often have you taken you vintage window candles out year after year, and noticed how dingy they have become. Quite often, typical practice was to tape the window candle to the wooden sill, which often left marks behind on your candle bases. The materials used to make the candles varied over the years, and the tape did as well. Wooden based candles and candoliers, often were painted an off-white color, in many cases gradiant coloration was used. Cardboard tubes stood as sentinels in your windows. They collected dust and dirt over years, but fear not - they can be cleaned easily, often restoring much of the luster they once had. This same process can be used for the more current plastic varieties as well. Often with these, we wrapped the electric cords around the bases of the tubes. Little did we know the rubber, and vinyl material used would react with the plastic often "melting" cords marks into the plastic of the candles. In some cases the melting effects are severe, and can not be cleaned effectively enough for a nice display piece.
First, get a small bottle of common household ammonia, along with a clean soft cotton rag. I prefer lemon scented sudsy ammonia., over the clear type, as I have found it works better. Wear a pair of rubber cleaning gloves, so you don't risk exposure to the cleaning agent. Eye protection is also recommended to avoid irration from the ammonia fumes. Wet a small area of the rag with the ammonia, and gently start wiping the candle. For your wooden based candles, check to make sure you are not going to strip the paint by the use of ammonia......test a small area.....I have rarely ever had this happen. Proceed cleaning the base, and ever so gently wipe the cardboard tubes....you do not want to soak the piece, just wipe it with the damp cloth. You will see the results on the rag. Repeat the process with a lightly dampen rag with water, and let it dry. Now you are free to use your best furniture wax to bring the luster back to the piece, for either cardboard or plastic tubes. For the plastic variety, use the same process, however if the melting cord marks are significant, you might want to consider discarding that particular candle, and looking for a replacement. Almost all the vintage styles are available on ebay....keep watching, and find a quality piece....you can still find them at very reasonable prices.
As with any vintage electrical piece, always check to make sure the wiring is good condition. Vinyl cords can be cleaned with the ammonia as well, which makes a great time to check for any cracking of the vinyl.....or any worn bare spots. If you find any, it's always safer to replace the candle or have it rewired. Make sure the candle is unplugged before cleaning.
Feel free to ask a question - I'll be glad to answer it and share information in a future blog posting.
All the best, Paul & Brian
October is a great month to take pictures not just Halloween pictures. The humid hazy days of summer have given way to crisp cool days with clear air and bright blue skies. The perfect combination for sparkling photographs! The sun is lower in the sky, providing wonderful long shadows in early morning and late afternoon. So conditions are perfect for photographers — amateur or professional — to get out there and take great pictures.
October starts with the wonderful colors of fall and the harvest, and it ends with a bang with Halloween — one of the year's greatest photo opportunities.
Let's cut to the Main Event — Halloween — and discuss how you can make all types of dramatic and eerie Halloween photos. This is a great opportunity to use your camera. Enjoy!
Pope Gregory III started it all in 739 A.D. when he officially designated All Saints Day, but he wouldn't recognize Halloween as we celebrate it today. It's become a night of fantasy for children of all ages — a night of glowing jack-o-lanterns, spooky costumes, and kids trick-or-treating. It's a night of spooks and spirits.
Some years, it's not even confined to just one evening. If Halloween falls on a weekend, or even Monday, the festivities and parties will likely start on Friday night, carry through the weekend, and culminate with Trick or Treating on Monday. That translates into multiple opportunities to capture superb Halloween pictures! And, that's not all, in some parts of the world — for example, Mexico — November 1 is "Dia de los Muertes" (Day of the Dead), a major holiday with both comic and solemn overtones to commemorate the memory of departed ancestors. (In case you're wondering, the picture on the left is a "typical" Day-of-the-Dead party favor. Some party. Some favor!)
It's easy to turn Halloween fantasy into permanent photographic memories if you keep just two things in mind: First, NYI's three Guidelines for Better Photographs. Second, the "spirit" of Halloween.
Let's start with the NYI Guidelines. As with any picture you take any time, good Halloween photos depend upon your fulfilling NYI's Three Guidelines. Before you press the shutter, you must decide on the answer to the three questions we call our Three Guidelines: One — What is the subject of the photograph? Two: How can I focus attention on that subject? Three: How can I simplify the subject? If you're unfamiliar with these Guidelines, we suggest you first read our Photo of the Month Review analysis for a demonstration of how these Guidelines work.
For example, look at this picture of "Ms. Dracula." Here's a subject that can sink her teeth into you! All Three Guidelines are clearly met. There's no doubt as to what the photographer had in mind. Those fangs are clearly the subject here. They're right up front and stand out loud and clear. There's nothing to distract you from the intent of this picture. Ms. Dracula's eyes are staring right at you, and make it absolutely clear that you — the viewer — are about to be lunchmeat! Ouch.
But, as we've noted, the Three Guidelines are only part of the story on how to get great Halloween photos. The second key is to capture the "spirit" of Halloween. What's the "spirit" of Halloween? Fantasy. Fear. The supernatural. The eerie. The unworldly. And how can we capture this "spirit" in our Halloween photographs? One of the best Halloween photo tips is to use the right dramatic lighting. Since nighttime ghouls are so central to the holiday, this often means shooting at night or in dim light.
"Hey, shooting at night? No problem, right? Just use a flash, right? Wrong! Halloween should look dark. Using flash will give you bright lighting of scary creatures. Is that what you want? No. They look a lot more frightening when you view them in the dim light of the crypt or the glow of the moon. Lighting? Yes. Perhaps, "ghoul lighting." (We'll explain this in a moment.) Perhaps, candlelight. But flash? Usually, no!"
We divide subjects for Halloween pictures into three basic groups, and each calls for its own type of lighting: 1) Glowing Jack-O-Lanterns; 2) Kids and adults in costumes; and 3) Kids out trick-or-treating. Let's look at each category separately.
Here's one area where it's almost always better to avoid the harsh, show-all light of the flash. Let's say you've just finished carving a scary, snaggle-toothed jack-o-lantern. Let's take some pictures of it right away.
You can end up with a bunch of Halloween photos like the one on the left of the carved pumpkin where you carved it – say, on the doorstep. Problem: The setting is apparent. And the setting can distract from the subject. Here are some Halloween photo tips to get the best jack-o-lantern pictures. First, it is better to place it somewhere that is less distracting — for example, in the garden where the leaves can form a background for the jack-o-lantern — as in the picture on the right.
Better, but not perfect. Why? Because the real magic of the jack-o-lantern doesn't emerge until it's dark and you've lit a candle inside to capture that ghoulish glow.
So you wait until dark to shoot. Now, we have some new problems. If you don't override the "automatic flash" on your camera, your flash will fire and you'll end up with a picture like the one on the left, above. In this strobelight, you don't see much of the inner glow of the candles, but you see every "complexion" defect on the pumpkin's skin and a shiny highlight that screams "Flash!"
On the other hand, if you override the flash and make sure it doesn't fire, you end up with a picture like the one on the right, above — lots of candle glow, but no sense of pumpkin! This isn't exactly right either!
What to do? How can you get a combination picture that shows the glow of the candles, and also shows the pumpkin? Here are some more Halloween photo tips to help you get great images.
Call in the pyromaniacs. For cool Halloween photos we place the jack-o-lantern in the fireplace and make a small fire from a few sheets of newspaper behind it. Result? You get something like these:
How do you get these different effects? By varying the lighting. (By the way, one thing is constant. To get enough candlelight inside the pumpkin, we use three candles. Our experience is that one or two are not enough!) The picture on the top left is taken with just the three candles inside the pumpkin and the fire behind. The picture in the top right is lit the same, but we've also added strobe. Personally, we think the flash is a little too bright. So we shot the picture on the right using strobe again, only this time we put one finger in front of the flash to cut down the amount of light that hits the subject. Which of these pictures do you like best? It's a matter of choice.
Here's another photography technique for low-light Halloween photographs. Take a tip from the pros. When they want to show a scene at night, they often shoot before it's totally dark. They shoot during twilight when the sky has that rich blue/purple color shortly after sunset. Like them, you'll find that finished prints or slides make the scene look darker than it really is so that the viewer will assume it was shot at night.
When you apply this photography technique, if you're using a film camera, use fast film. Whether you use a single lens reflex (SLR) or point-and-shoot, load your camera with a film that is ISO 400 or faster. You'll be thrilled with the results. Try it!
In addition to the other Halloween photo tips, if you're using a digital camera, try boosting your camera's effective speed or ISO. While this may add a little noise to the photo, that won't be inconsistent with the subject matter.
Everybody enjoys putting on a scary Halloween costume and having fun. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that in recent years, sales of costumes for adults have outpaced costumes for kids! Whether you pose portraits of your favorite poltergeist while he or she is getting ready to haunt the neighborhood, or you "grab" candids of spooky partygoers or paraders, the steps are the same.
Let's say you want to take Halloween pictures of your little boy (or kid brother) in a "scary" costume before he goes out trick-or-treating. First, figure out what's the best part of the costume. Is it just the mask on the face? Or is it the mask and the torso too? Then get in close and fill the frame with the parts you've decided are best. A pro tip: It's usually better if you don't shoot from head to toe since shoes are often the weakest part of a costume. (One year we wanted to go to the local Halloween parade disguised as a rabid raccoon, but we just couldn't locate the right footwear.)
Here are some Halloween photo tips for composition. If you're shooting a child or a group of children, bend down low to kid's-eye level. Don't shoot from adult level down on these little ghouls — you'll trivialize them. Or if you're limber enough, bend down to below kid's-eye level or even lie down for the shot. Nothing makes a monster more imposing than looking up at the scary countenance.
If you're shooting two monsters, get them as close together as possible and, again, get close enough to fill the frame with the best parts of their costumes. People tend to drift apart when there's a camera pointed at them. You want just the opposite — no space between those monsters — like this:
Important Halloween Photography Tip: Be sure to take some Halloween pictures of your favorite creature with and without the mask. That way in future years everyone will be able to identify the little devil behind the mask, and this year you may be able to use the picture for your holiday card. After all, if all you take is a picture of your nephew dressed and masked as Spiderman or one of the Fantastic Four, viewers won't know who's under that mask.
The same Halloween photo tips go for portraits of adults in costume, only you don't have to get down so low to be at eye-level. But don't forget the possibility of bending low or even lying down to make the monster look taller and scarier.
And don't forget Fido or Cleo. Put a mask or silly hat on the family pet, and shoot — but fast. The suffering beast will probably be too embarrassed to suffer this indignity for more than a few seconds.
When you turn to groups of monsters, aim for the two elements that help any group photograph. First, show relationship by having them close together, touching one another wherever possible — you know, arm over the shoulder, etc. Second, make it casual. Try to get them to laugh and relax.
With groups of monsters — young or old — it's the same. First, pack them together, have them touch, and fill the frame with them. Second, keep it casual. Don't line them up like soldiers at attention. If you're photographing three, group them in a triangle — this arrangement usually looks best. In a larger group, like the one shown below on the left, have some kneel or crouch down in front of the others so you get an up-and-down arrangement. Regardless of the grouping, before you shoot the Halloween pictures get them to give their scariest growls and grunts and moans. In this case, it beats laughing!
Now, how should we light these posed creatures? When possible, try "ghoul lighting." We mentioned "ghoul lighting" before. What is it? Remember how, as kids, we would shine a flashlight up at our face from below the chin. This is "ghoul lighting." It's different from our everyday lighting which is almost always from overhead, whether it comes from the sun or from room lights. Ghoul lighting creates shadows on the face that are eerie, other-worldly, exotic — in a word, "ghoulish." If you're taking a closeup of a face, here's what we suggest: Don't use your flash. Rather, have the vampire hold a flashlight about six inches under his chin and point the light up onto his face. Then just bare a few fangs, and Eek! By the way, if you would like to see ghoul lighting in action, you might want to check out our Youtube Video: NYIP Project RedEye "Halloween Photo Challenge."
Candid pictures at parties and parades use pretty much the same photography techniques. While you may have to react faster, the secret is to decide on the best part of the costume before you shoot, then get in close enough to fill the frame with this part. Chances are, you'll have to use strobe to get enough light, but often you'll get a better-lit picture if you just use available light. Of course, if you plan to use available light, once again we suggest you use a fast film — ISO 400 or faster. With a digital camera, you'll probably want to use your flash.
We really have two different types of situations for Halloween photo tips here. First, Halloween photographs you take from inside your house of goblins who come trick-or-treating to your door. Second, Halloween photographs you take from outside a neighbor's door when you follow around after your own baby goblin. We made the portrait of this scary trick-or-treater using the ghoul lighting technique that we described above.
When you're taking pictures of monsters coming to trick-or-treat at your door, you have to be ready. Kids come and go mighty fast. Here's one time when flash on camera can come in handy.
It's best if you have two people in the house. One to answer the door. The other to take the picture from behind so that the photo includes both the person answering the door and that porchful of ghastly visitors. Tell the ghouls they'll have to grimace and groan before treats are dispersed — then snap the shutter while they're howling.
If you are following your own kids with your camera on their trick-or-treat rounds, try to capture their expressions of glee when candy is poured into their outstretched hands. As always, get in close. And — very important — position yourself so that the door won't swing open and block your view.
In sum, the key to great Halloween photos boils down to following the three NYI Guidelines and capturing the spirit of the occasion — ghoulish celebration and silliness. So, for all types of great Halloween photographs, know what you want the subject of each of your pictures to be, and make it important in the frame usually by making it big and up front in the frame. Then add the "mood" that captures the spirit of Halloween by the ghoulish way you light your pictures and/or the silly way you pose your subjects.
If you apply these simple Halloween photo tips, you're going to make this a Halloween you'll never forget!
To see some Halloween photography take place using some of these tips, don’t miss our tongue-and-cheek Youtube Video: NYIP Project RedEye "Halloween Photo Challenge."
First find a clear, flat area and remove the contents from the packaging. Remove the base frame from the box and place on a level surface. The frame is engineered with a tension-rod system. Assemble the frame by lifting the rods and allowing the ends to slide into the shafts. The final assembled rods will then be pointing in an upwards position. Be sure that each end is securely inserted. Carefully lift the Rotating Assembly and place it on top of the frame by inserting the poles into the provided shafts. Once the rotating assembly is securely in place, extend the wheel posts completely on one side, then do the same on the other side. Locate all six of the seats with holiday characters and insert the side rods into the provided slots on the ends of the wheel posts. Place the power cord into the cord holders, located on the post. This will secure the cord in place prior to connecting to the AC Adapter. Attach Banners to the sides of the Ferris Wheel frame using the hook and loop to secure in place. Attach the adapter to the cord and plug the UL listed adapter into a standard wall outlet or a UL-approved outdoor extension cord. This power unit is intended to be correctly oriented in vertical or floor mount position. Attach tethers to the four short tether stakes and twist Tether stakes into ground until the tethers are taut. Secure base using the four base stakes. For better nighttime visibility, set up the spotlight to illuminate your Ferris Wheel. Just place the spotlight within 3 – 5 feet of the Ferris Wheel, drive the stake into the ground, and plug it into an outlet. The bulb for the spotlight should not exceed 75 watts. To Turn on your Ferris Wheel, press the lower toggle switch to “ON”. To control the lights – blinking or steady - press the upper toggle switch. The lights will not operate if the lower toggle switch is turned off.
Remove the base frame from the box and place on a level surface. The frame is engineered with a tension-rod system. Assemble the frame by lifting the rods and allowing the ends to slide into the shafts. The final assembled rods will then be pointing in an upwards position. Be sure that each end is securely inserted.
Carefully lift the Rotating Assembly and place it on top of the frame by inserting the poles into the provided shafts.
Once the rotating assembly is securely in place, extend the wheel posts completely on one side, then do the same on the other side.
Locate all six of the seats with holiday characters and insert the side rods into the provided slots on the ends of the wheel posts.
Place the power cord into the cord holders, located on the post. This will secure the cord in place prior to connecting to the AC Adapter.
Attach Banners to the sides of the Ferris Wheel frame using the hook and loop to secure in place.
Attach the adapter to the cord and plug the UL listed adapter into a standard wall outlet or a UL-approved outdoor extension cord. This power unit is intended to be correctly oriented in vertical or floor mount position.
Attach tethers to the four short tether stakes and twist Tether stakes into ground until the tethers are taut. Secure base using the four base stakes.
For better nighttime visibility, set up the spotlight to illuminate your Ferris Wheel. Just place the spotlight within 3 – 5 feet of the Ferris Wheel, drive the stake into the ground, and plug it into an outlet. The bulb for the spotlight should not exceed 75 watts.
To Turn on your Ferris Wheel, press the lower toggle switch to “ON”. To control the lights – blinking or steady - press the upper toggle switch. The lights will not operate if the lower toggle switch is turned off.
At this time of year, many of the world's cultures and religions celebrate holidays that involve lights. While the use of lights and candles is often explained in terms of the rites of the particular culture, most scholars agree that the lights came first; the explanations followed. After all, since humans gained control of fire, light has been used to illuminate the darkness - especially, during the depths of winter - rather than curse it.
There are some photographic subjects where it makes little difference whether you use a digital camera or a film-based model to capture the image. The colors and warm glow of holiday lights is not one of them. If you're not careful, you can run into trouble with a digital camera. All photographers interested in getting great holiday photos should read this article. Pay close attention to the special digital section written by NYI's digital expert Jim Barthman. While today's auto-everything cameras can do a lot of things following the wisdom of built-in programs, taking pictures of lights and candles is one area where you'll want to exercise some control.
At this time of year, many of the world's cultures and religions celebrate holidays that involve lights. While the use of lights and candles is often explained in terms of the rites of the particular culture, most scholars agree that the lights came first; the explanations followed. After all, since humans gained control of fire, light has been used to illuminate the darkness - especially, during the depths of winter - rather than curse it.
Christians explain the candles, tree lights, and Yule log in terms of the birth of Christ and the Star of Bethlehem. The impact of these lights - if not the explanation - is so powerful that even modern-day Buddhist and Shinto Japan is ablaze with lights and decorations at "Christmas time." And, in the same dark days of the winter solstice, Hanukkah is the "Festival of Lights" celebrated by Jews around the world.
Years ago, taking great photographs of holiday lights was difficult because the films of yesteryear weren't very sensitive. They had difficulty recording an image in the low-light of a candle, for example.
No longer. Technology has solved these problems. There are great color films that offer high speed - ISO 800 and higher - with very little grain. Digital cameras include ISO 400, 800 and even higher settings.
In addition, most photographers today rely on auto-exposure with their point-and-shoots or SLRs. Unlike the light meters of old, which were often "fooled" by low-light situations, today's meters in auto-exposure cameras are able to give good readings even in low light.
This is an important point because holiday lights usually look their best when shot without added light. In fact, this is Rule One when it comes to getting good pictures of lights: Turn off your flash. Let's repeat that: For most pictures of holiday lights, turn off your flash!
Note that we said "most." There are a few occasions when you will want to add light, but usually you won't.
So this brings us to the question: When should you use your flash, and when should you avoid it? Let's look at a few examples, starting with photos taken indoors.
Look at these two photos of the same beautifully decorated Christmas tree. The picture on the left was taken using flash. We see the tree and we see the lights - but not the lighting - and ornaments on it. When this is the effect you want, use your flash.
On the right we see the same tree, only this time the flash was turned off. What we see, in effect, is the lighting of the bulbs themselves - and this lighting is bright enough to also illuminate the tree and the ornaments. The effect is totally different.
Which is better? It really depends on your objective. The first example might be better to show what a great job you - or the tree trimmer in your family - did on the tree. The second example is better in showing off how great the lighted tree looks. Each has its place.
Now, let's remember one important point if you're taking a picture without flash: You're probably going to need a slow shutter speed. This means you may need to mount your camera on a solid unmoving surface to avoid camera-shake. A tripod is best.
When else might you want to use your flash? Let's say the subject of your picture is your kids under the tree. How are you going to light their faces? On the one hand, you may find that the Christmas-tree lights are sufficient and give a very soft glow to their cherubic expressions. Or maybe it is Christmas morning, and they are lighted by window-light that is streaming into the room. In these cases, you don't need your flash. But, on the other hand, maybe you don't have enough light to really see their faces. Then you may have to use your flash. How do you know which way to go?
One approach is to shoot both ways, then select the better image. We think a better way is to plan ahead and meter your subject. Remember that Guideline One of the Three NYI Guidelines for Great Pictures is to decide on your subject before you do anything else. In this case, you've decided that the subject is the faces of the kids. Guideline Two is to draw attention to your subject. One method of drawing attention is to make sure your subject is well-exposed. So meter the light that falls on their faces from the lighted tree. Get in close and meter just the faces! If there's enough available light for a well-exposed picture, shoot it. If not, use your flash.
Now let's move outdoors. Here we see elaborate lighting and decoration on houses, stores, and streets. Again, if you want to capture the lights themselves, don't use your flash.
One other tip for outdoor lights - you'll get the best results when you shoot at twilight. That way, you'll capture some color in the sky, rather than the pitch-black tone that will be recorded on film later at night.
But what if you want to take a picture of your friend in front of a brightly lit display?
You want to capture both the bright lights and your friend. If you use flash, you get your friend, but you're in danger of minimizing the bright lights behind. On the other hand, if you don't use flash, you get better detail of the lights but your friend is reduced to a silhouette.
There's an answer. Many of today's point-and-shoot cameras both film and digital have a funny-looking setting that looks like this:
This setting tells the camera that you want the flash to fire (which will light your friend in the foreground), but that you also want the lens to stay open long enough to record the lights in the background. In fact, the symbol for this setting on many cameras is sort of a hieroglyph that tries to indicate "person at night in front of lights." Your solution to getting light on your friend's face and capturing the light display is to use this setting. The flash exposes the face. The long exposure captures the lights.
But, again, watch out here. The long exposure - typically, one-quarter of a second long - requires that you steady your camera to avoid camera shake. Once again, we advise you to use a tripod.
There's one other key area of holiday lights - candles.
This young boy's portrait was made with a point-and-shoot camera using just the light of one candle which was about two feet from the boy's face. Normally, the camera's flash would have fired, but it was turned off by the photographer.
Even at ISO 800, the exposure for this photograph was lengthy, probably about half a second. That presented two dangers - either the camera would move and blur the picture, or the boy would move. Since he wasn't using a tripod, the photographer braced his elbows on a table to minimize camera shake - not as good as a tripod, but better than nothing. Recognizing the problem, he shot several frames of film. When he examined the prints, here's what he found: One was no good because the boy moved. The second was no good because the camera moved.
But in this frame, he got what he wanted: Both the boy and camera were still enough to produce a stunning photograph. While the photo isn't razor sharp, it's sharp enough to convey the warm feeling clearly.
By the way, he relied on the exposure meter in the point-and-shoot that he used for this great picture. As we said before, old-style amateur cameras were not good at calculating proper exposure in low light. They were really designed for bright daylight. But you can usually trust the meter in today's cameras.
Mel Wolk's sensitive photo of two boys with a Menorah on the last night of Hanukkah combines light from the nine candles with some sort of overhead room lighting, or bounce from a flash (probably off the ceiling) that gives clear illumination to the boy's faces and garb. How do we know that the lighting is not just from the candles themselves? One clue is that the lighting in not as warm as the first photo we looked at. Candle light is rich in reds and oranges, which we don't see here on their faces.
Secondly, the candles are not strong enough to produce the bright white on their yarmulkes (skullcaps). Our conclusion is that there is additional light in the room, and that light is bright enough to add light to the young subjects, but not so bright that it overpowers the light of the candle flames.
One thing we are certain of, Mel did not use direct flash here! Can you imagine what effect the harsh direct light of the flash would have on this photo?
So, to take great holiday photos in this season of lights, we offer you these four tips:
* Turn off your flash unless you have a very good reason to use it.
* Use a fast ISO - we suggest ISO 800.
* Avoid camera shake.
* Use a tripod...or, at least, brace the camera. Trust your camera's built-in meter.
Special Tips for Holiday Lights with Digital Cameras by Jim Barthman
Digital cameras add some new twists to the holiday light photography challenge. In fact, some consumer-level digital models struggle in low light situations. Here's why - the cost to manufacture a CCD or CMOS chip that is super-sensitive to a wide range of tonal (light) values is expensive. You'll find these expensive chips in digital SLRs, but not in your $100 point-and-shoot model. One way to compensate for this deficiency is to use a cheaper image sensor and then process the digital signal with proprietary software. This can cause some problems. Let's look at the most important ones.
Increasing your film speed makes a lot of sense when photographing subjects in low light. However increasing the ISO setting in your digital camera isn't always the best idea. In order to improve the sensitivity of an electronic image sensor, the digital signal is "amplified". Amplifying a digital signal is like turning the volume up on your radio as loud as it will go. At the maximum volume every hiss, pop, and scratch is heard and, depending on the quality of the equipment, quality is diminished. The same thing happens in a digital camera. When the ISO setting is increased, every image artifact and defect is magnified.
To achieve the best image quality, you might try working with a slower ISO setting to start. If you are having trouble getting a good exposure, increase the ISO as needed. You might even try using the Auto ISO setting and see how the camera chooses to handle exposure.
Regardless of the ISO setting chosen, most inexpensive digital cameras produce "noise" during long exposures. Noise is caused by the small electrical disturbances that are present in every electrical system. In order to capture a weak light signal, such as a subject in low-light, longer exposures are usually needed. The longer a digital camera shutter is open, the more electrical noise is recorded as well.
So, it seems we have a double-edged sword.
Increase the ISO to achieve faster shutter speeds and you will amplify noise and other image problems.
Reduce the ISO and shutter speeds are slower. As a result, you will record inherent noise that might not be seen in a "normal" exposure.
Limited Dynamic Range
To make things worse, digital cameras have a limited dynamic range. Image sensors are only sensitive to a specific range of brightness. Anything outside of that range is recorded as pure white or pure black. This can result in an image without shadow or highlight detail.
Here are a few ways to solve these problems. Noise can be reduced with software. In fact some cameras offer in-camera noise reduction features. Proprietary software is used exclusively, yielding uneven results. Test your camera's capabilities before committing to this feature. There are many noise reduction software products on the market today, some as stand-alone applications and others which are plug-ins that work in conjunction with your favorite image editor. This means you can select a camera with noise reduction or address any problems later in the digital "darkroom."
Timing is Everything
As we noted earlier in this article, when shooting holiday lights outside, I find that the best exposures can be made at twilight. Twilight is after the sun has set but before the dark of night. This fleeting balance of light and shadow will yield the brilliance of the lights while maintaining details in the shadow. Don't underestimate shadow detail to help establish your composition. Consult your camera's manual for details on your white balance options and how to adjust them. In the finished photo the viewer will perceive the twilight photo to be taken at night.
When shooting holiday lights inside, try turning on lights in the room to increase the ambient light, rather than using a flash. Flash can produce a harsh, high-contrast quality that obliterates the brilliance of the light. A carefully positioned incandescent light can work increase the ambient light without overpowering your holiday lights.
Shoot Two Exposures
One way to extend the tonal range of a digital image is by making two exposures of a scene. Shooting in Manual mode, make one exposure configured to capture the best highlight detail. Make a second exposure to capture the best shadow detail. Then combine the two exposures in Photoshop as separate Layers. Using the Eraser tool remove poorly exposed areas to reveal detail and take advantage of the best parts of each Layer/exposure. Using this technique you could extend the tonal range well beyond the possibility of any single exposure made with the same camera. Of course this requires a strong tripod to ensure both compositions match perfectly. Consider using a remote control to reduce the possibility of camera movement.
Accomplished photographers may also create two separate images – one favoring highlights, the other shadows – from a single RAW file.
Turn Off Automatic White Balance
In many photographic situations white balance is a godsend. By automatically neutralizing extreme color casts, believable digital color is rendered without breaking a sweat. It is important to remember, not all photos require white balance. Tone down the rich, saturated colors of a sunset and you're left with nothing. Attempt to white balance a fireworks display and you end up with dull lifeless, de-saturated bursts and streaks of light. Holiday lights should be treated similarly. By turning off the auto white balance feature you are sure to capture the exaggerated colors the holidays have to offer.
You could try turning off white balance altogether or even experiment with any of the other manual settings to find a color balance that suits your visual needs. Either way is a better bet than giving the decision to the camera.
Test, Test, Test
The immediate feedback of digital photography begs you to test your exposures to determine what works best. Take advantage of the metadata that most digital cameras embed inside every digital picture you make. Metadata can include camera make and model, exposure, flash, white balance and other important information that can help you to determine what works and what doesn't work. This means you don't even have to take notes! To access your digital image metadata, open a file in Adobe Photoshop.
Choose File > File Info. The File Info dialog box appears. Select the Camera Data option on the left side of the screen.
The Camera Data screen reveals shutter speed, aperture, ISO settings, lens focal length, flash settings and even the metering modes.
Holiday lights are usually around for more than a couple of days each year, take advantage of this by shooting early in the season and then re-shooting if you have too.
Digital cameras offer some real benefits for holiday season picture taking. As look as you pay attention to the drawbacks we've mentioned, you should get great results.
Rockin' Santa Animated Prop