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Who's for a Christmas shoot in Europe?

Posted by SiteAdmin , 21 November 2007 · 2114 views

Travel Photography: Christmas In Europe
Who's for a Christmas shoot in Europe?

It was a bit cold on the road in Europe this Christmas. Usually around 1-5 °C and that doesn't take the wind chill factor into account – I certainly needed the Glühwein we found in every Christmas market to keep me warm!

Our assignment over Christmas and New Year was to find out what it was like to travel and shoot around Europe in the winter off-season for our Travel Signposts website. Christmas markets ("Weihnachtsmarkt" in Germany) are a traditional feature of many Northern European towns, especially in German-speaking countries, and these colourful festivals have quickly been incorporated into holiday tours by the travel industry. They've also been adopted and grown in importance in other countries: there's a huge one in Lincoln in England these days, worth checking out if you're in the vicinity.

Starting from London, over 15 days we visited Amsterdam, Cologne, Heidelberg, Innsbruck, Verona, Venice, Rome, Florence, Lucerne and Paris, throwing in Neuschwanstein and Oberammergau on the way. No major dramas on the roads, thank goodness, and no rain, but not so much sun either – par for the course at this time of year.

Will someone switch on the light?

Although I was born in England, most of my life has been spent abroad in Africa, the Far East and Australia. Consequently it came as a bit of a shock (though the memories quickly came flooding back) to experience the drastically reduced daylight hours and weak light in Europe during winter. This is something to bear in mind when you're planning your shooting schedule. It didn't really get light until 9 am each morning, and from 3:30 – 4:00 pm the light was quickly fading.

We did have some blue skies, and when the cloud ceiling was high the light level markedly increased, but usually a grey cumulus layer was the order of the day. Of course, if you can get above the clouds, such as when you ride the cable car up Mount Pilatus above Lucerne, the situation is totally different. Brilliant alpine light once you get up there, so take your sunglasses.

But in general, be prepared for some slow exposures, and keep an eye on your shutter speed if you're shooting on automatic. Your eyes will accustom themselves to the lower light levels better than your camera, and it's easy to rip off a few quick-fire shots that would cause you no problems in summer, only to discover they're unsharp afterwards. Consider increasing your ISO speed unless your camera does this automatically, and choose shutter priority if you have the option. I frequently found that even when I bumped it up to 400 ASA I was still shooting 1/25 at f2.8, and at that speed you have to be careful about movement close to the camera. Shivering and frozen hands don't help, either.

No harsh light, but watch the shadows

When the sun does break through, at least you won't have to worry about the harsh light of noon. During the winter in Europe, especially in the north, the sun keeps relatively low in the sky and never gets anywhere near directly overhead. This results in some beautifully filtered lighting, but also means that narrow European streetscapes are usually deep in shadow for the whole day, unless aligned with the sun's rays. And often you'll have contrast problems, with the upper sections of buildings often brightly lit when there's only gloom at ground level.

As the light is always coming from more or less the same quarter, you have to be flexible and find new angles if the light's not right – this can be a useful creative discipline. Personally I tend to follow the light and then see what I can shoot, rather than simply start from the usual angles on a famous subject. Of course, I have to cover the standard approaches too as that's important for my target market: one of our claims on Travel Signposts is that we show you what places are really like, in good and bad conditions!

Frost and snow can blow your exposures

One of the usual aims of anyone taking a winter vacation in Europe is to see snow. Especially if, like my wife Helen, you're originally from the Far East and haven't experienced it before. However, snow and frosted landscapes can have a disastrous effect on your photos if you don't make an allowance for them in your exposure. This is because your camera is set up to expose for "normal" situations, which in practical terms means an average over the frame of 18% grey. With so many of us using automatic exposure, this can result in gross underexposure of shots with a lot of white snow in them as the camera tries to compensate.

Nowadays, with digital photos, we can often fix this later in our imaging programs, but it's best to test with a few initial exposures to see how your own camera reacts to the situation. If you don't want to switch to manual, and don't have an exposure compensation adjustment on your camera, a quick and dirty fix is to compose a shot including enough dark subjects to average things out then lock the exposure (usually by half-depressing the shutter button) and change to the composition you actually want. Make sure you don't lock the focus on a subject that's at a different distance to the one you're shooting!

Disasters can happen

I now shoot stills on 2 GB compact flash cards, downloading each night to my Flashtrax portable storage. Unfortunately for me, a couple of days into the trip the little screen on the Flashtrax went dark, a symptom of the backlight failing or a blown resistor. This threatened to derail my back-up routine in a big way, but I can now tell you that by shining a powerful torch (an LED one is good) at the correct angle and looking at the screen from off-centre, you can just make out words, although not images except in outline. This was a lifesaver for me, so is worth remembering just in case it happens to you (I once had a laptop go in a similar fashion).

Europe in a different light

All in all, our time in Europe was successful. Fewer tourists, enjoyable, colourful Christmas markets with great taste treats, some beautiful frozen landscapes and interesting although challenging image-making opportunities. Take some warm clothes (I'm not kidding, polar fleece 3 rating is good) and see - and capture - Europe in a different light. It's a novel experience and a great chance to widen your photographic repertoire!

Tony Page

Tony Page is a professional photographer, writer and web designer now living in Sydney, Australia. His commercial clients are currently distracting him from his latest venture, the "Travel Signposts" website (http://www.travelsignposts.com) which contains information, resource links and over 12,000 photos of European and Mediterranean tourist destinations to help plan a European tour or river cruise. And the shots of the Christmas trip.

From my article in Better Photography magazine, 2007.

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