How To Photograph Candlelight

It is possible to take good pictures of candle flickers. The secret here.

*Originally published December 2011.

From now until the New Year, candles will be a big part of holiday celebrations. Hanukkah started Tuesday night and Kwanzaa begins Dec. 26. Both observances include a candle lighting ritual — a perfect opportunity to snap a memorable photograph.

The trick to capturing candlelight is getting enough illumination for a good image without destroying the effect of the candle. Relying on the camera’s automatic mode won’t do. The flash is triggered and the result is a flat, lifeless photo. I made one so you can see just what I’m talking about.

So don’t depend on a spontaneous snapshot; construct a quick-and-dirty setup and you’ll take a photo you’ll treasure.

Here’s what you need.

  1. A tripod
  2. A small lamp with a cool, low-watt bulb. I used a gooseneck desk lamp, but you can use a flashlight
  3. A couple of pieces of white fabric
  4. A table for your menorah, kinara or candleholder.

Here are the steps.

  1. Cover the table with the fabric. It’s going to act as a reflector for the light from the candles and the lamp.
  2. Carefully set up the candles. For safety’s sake, don’t light them until you’re ready to take the photograph.
  3. Use the white fabric to cover the front of the lamp. The aim is to diffuse the light so it won’t cast harsh shadows. Place the light below the table with the candleholder and off to one side. I’ve included a photo showing my set up. As you can see, I propped the lamp on some books. (I turned off the main room lamp when I took the photo of the candles.)
  4. Place the camera on the tripod and frame the photo. Play with the arrangement of the light until it’s to your liking. Again, you’re trying to add just enough light for the camera to get a good photo without destroying the effect of the candles. You’ll want to turn off or dim any room lights during this step.
  5. Once you’ve got your setup, change your camera settings if you can. You’ll need a high ISO, at least 800, to get the photo. Even with that, you’ll still need a low shutter speed and a large aperture.
  6. Now light the candles, cut off the room lights and set the white balance. I used automatic white balance, but you can try other settings for a more artistic effect.
  7. When you're satisfied, take the photo. In order to avoid camera movement, I used the time-release mode, so the shutter would close about 2 seconds after I pressed the button.

For safety’s sake, extinguish the candles and remove the white table covering after you’ve finished. If the candles are still burning, don’t leave them unattended.

By the way, I took these photos with a Canon T2i. I used the lens that came with the camera. You might have to modify the settings if you have a point-and-shoot, but the same concepts apply. Share your photos with us at Patch.

If you want to continue the conversation, post in the comments below.

Related articles:

Picture Perfect: How to Snap Photos of Holiday Lights

Picture Perfect: A DIY Holiday Portrait

Picture Perfect: Photographing a Toddler


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