A Viewfinder Darkly

Photography tips and tutorials

Carols by Candlelight

December 17 2007

by Phil Northeast

In cities, all around Australia people gather at outdoor venues to share in the Christmas spirit by singing Carols led by well-known entertainers. The tradition started in Australia in 1937 in Melbourne and soon spread around the country.

Santa dancing

Santa doing the Reindeer dance

Most people in the crowd have their own candles, making sea of lights once the summer sun sets. This is Australia where the seasons are the opposite to the northern part of the planet.

The outdoor stages are professionally lit and with the advent of big screens there is more than enough light for photographers to capture the on stage action.

In Australia’s most southern city, Hobart, the long summer twilight means that the event starts with some daylight and ends in complete darkness. This provides arrange of lighting conditions for the photographer, requiring different settings and techniques during the evening.

The Hobart event is a well-organized affair put on by the local entertainers’ charity, Variety Tasmania .  With many of the services and performance donated, the event helps raise money for less fortunate children.

Performers on Stage

Jo Palmer is the compere of this show

Television news anchor Jo Palmer is the compere of this show

With all the specialist stage lighting, shutter speed and ISO settings are not a problem. If you can get close to the stage, it is the same as daylight shooting except for the color temperature.

The colored spotlights add atmosphere and produce interesting effects. While a digital camera’s white balance system should cope reasonably well, shooting in RAW format allows for easy correction of any unwanted or excessive color cast due the lights.

People and Candles

The twilight allows reasonable photographs of the crowd without using a flash. This gives a sense of evening time, while emphasizing the light from candles. Using a flash would destroy that evening atmosphere by overpower the glow from the candles.

A number of media and professional photographers covered this event and none used a flash.

A persistent breeze down the adjacent Derwent River meant that people kept their candles sheltered, so the possible shot of a sea of candles never full eventuated.

Clouds Ruin Transition time.

The best time for night shots is in that short period just before complete darkness when the sky has a deep dark blue color. This provides a background for the lights and emphasizes the dark silhouettes of structures and buildings.

Cloud cover severely limited the opportunities for these shots at this year’s Hobart Carols.

A Candle in the Wind

candles with wind protectors

Keeping the candles lit

As the effect of the night became more dominant, crowd shots required different techniques while opening up creative opportunities.

Now the light from the candles in the crowd were the main source of light. The warm glow of candlelight and the half shadows on faces offer marvelous photographic potential.


For this shoot a Pentax *istDS DSLR camera with a selection of prime lenses, 28mm, 50, mm and 135mm and a lightweight tripod.

The prime lenses all have wide maximum apertures for easier focusing in low light conditions.

A normal zoom could have been used for photographing the on stage action, as the lighting was much brighter than expected.

Working with tripods in crowded areas can be problem. In this particular venue, there was plenty of room around the sides of the crowd to set the tripod without getting in people’s way. The longer focal length135mm lens still allowed close up shots of candle light faces in the crowd.

The lightweight and compact nature of the tripod made it convenient to carry around in the first part of the evening before it became necessary to use it. However, it is awkward to use and at full height is not stable enough to prevent camera movement. Using it only partly extended helps with the disadvantage that it required a lot of bending and crouching.

Crowd Behavior

crowd and stage

Candle lit crowd watching the action on the stage

Candid photography in crowds requires patience and perseverance. Firstly, waiting for potential subjects to strike just the right pose, and then for wandering spectators to get out of the way.

People usually do not get in your shot deliberately; they are just concentrating on enjoying the event. Once they see a photographer, they will mostly quickly apologize and move out of the shot without any prompting.

originally published on suite101.com


Share this article on Pinterest  



Comments are closed.