Two thousand years ago, when Chinese Emperor Ming noticed lanterns being hung in Buddhist temples, he liked them so much he ordered all homes, temples, and his palace to light lanterns as part of a yearly celebration—the beginning, as the story goes, of the Chinese Lantern Festival.
Fortunately for photographers, this tradition is still carried on today, albeit on a far grander scale. Simple paper lanterns illuminated by candles have been replaced by steel structures, covered with all hues of silk, rayon, and other materials, illuminated with bright electric bulbs. These modern day lanterns are set aglow in public gardens, arboretums, fairgrounds, and other venues every year.
If you are lucky enough to visit one of these extraordinary displays, be sure to bring your camera. You will have opportunities to take some of the most colorful images you have ever captured.
Below are pro tips for photographing these spectacles of culture, artistry, and magnificent light.
The best equipment for photographing lantern festivals includes a handful of lenses, a tripod, and a remote trigger.
Wide angle lenses are the most useful optics for capturing these fabulous displays. Whether it’s 100’-long serpent-like dragons, rotating towers of silk, flowers, mushrooms, sharks, or fairies, you’ll want to capture it all. Wide angle primes can do just that. Great choices include three super-fast Sigma primes: 14mm, 20mm, and 24mm. To frame precisely, zooms can be useful. I carry one or more of the following: 10-20mm, 12-24mm, 14-24mm, 18-35mm, or 24-35mm.
Once you have captured the spectacle, you will want to include details of the lanterns. Standard and telephoto lenses, as well as various zooms, will help with this. Good choices are the super-fast 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 135mm primes, as well as these zooms: 24-70mm, 24-105, 18-300, 100-400, 160-600. Such lenses will allow you to focus on parts of the scene or even parts of individual lanterns. After capturing an entire bamboo forest scene, you can pull out one individual Panda from scene.
While some zooms are not fast f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2, or f/2.8 optics, shooting at the festivals with variable aperture glass will work if you bring a tripod. As with any nighttime shooting, a tripod is all but a necessity. (Make sure to check on regulations at the festival that you attend.) While most of the lanterns are built on solid steel frames—so the subjects likely won’t be moving much—hand-holding is impossible for the 1, 2, 4, or 8 second exposures that you will likely need when the sun sets.
Finally, make sure to bring along a remote trigger. I prefer the simplicity of a wired remote, but a wireless remote will work well, too. If you have neither, set your self timer for 2 or 5 seconds to avoid shaking the camera. Whatever you do, try to activate the mirror lock-up if you are using a D-SLR. For those shooting mirrorless cameras or those shooting in Live View mode, no mirror needs to be locked up. Lastly, don’t forget to turn off Optical Stabilization (OS) on lenses so equipped.
You may be headed out to shoot the lantern festival in the dark. To this end, it may be best to choose your camera settings before you are on-location.
For maximum control over the exposure, white balance, contrast, and noise reduction, shoot in RAW. These files will allow you to change exposures over a 4 to 6 stop range, fine-tune white balance, add or subtract contrast, and dial in noise reduction if you happened to use high ISOs.
Setting the white balance is a tricky proposition. Most festival lanterns are illuminated with LEDs. These can be manufactured at any number of color temperatures. You might try setting your camera on Daylight (5600°K) and then adjusting the color temperature a bit during your RAW conversion. I often locate a white area in my subjects—such as the face of a panda or the body of a swan—and use the eyedropper tool to click on what should be pure white to set the balance. Sometimes moving through the different presets results in one setting that looks better than the others.
While you might be inclined to bump the ISO up for nighttime photography, bringing a tripod and shooting at your camera’s base ISO will provide superior results. High ISOs bring with them noise, which, if too bad, can render a picture unusable. A tripod will also allow you to shoot at smaller apertures, providing greater depth-of-field.
Finally, the light intensities in each lantern can vary greatly. Set your camera to bracket your shots. A 5- or 7-stop range is ideal. You can process the single best exposure or use several files to create an HDR image. (More on that later.)
IN THE FIELD
The key to photographing lantern festivals is finding the right perspectives. Many festivals take place in gardens, fair grounds, and other public spaces. Trees, walkways, trash cans, and, of course, people can provide challenges.
I recommend arriving to the festival site during daylight hours, perhaps an hour or two before sunset. This allows you to photograph the lanterns unlit. While the lanterns look better lit internally, they are also designed to look attractive during the day. When you put together a slide show after-the-fact, it is fun to see the same sculpture illuminated by the sun and then at night, lit from within.
As you walk around during the day, start planning your end-of-day shots. Specifically, the magical time for lanterns is at dusk. With a clear sky, the waxing night sky reveals a royal blue color can create dramatic backgrounds for brightly colored lanterns. With partial clouds, you might catch a sunset with your lanterns.
Plan on shooting from a tripod. As the light drops, shoot at f/5.6, f/8, or f/11 to provide strong depth-of-field. The steel structures tend to keep the lanterns quite steady, so exposures of 4 or 8 seconds will provide sharp results. Keep the ISOs low and shoot long exposures from a sturdy tripod.
More extravagant lanterns may have moving parts—spinning tops, dancing animals, bursts of steam, or plumes of fire. For these special situations, dial the ISO up to 400 or 800 (perhaps even 1600 or higher if you have a full-frame imager) and mount a super-fast optic. One of my favorites to shoot with is the Sigma 18-35mm F/1.8 zoom. Sharp wide open, I can stop movement in near darkness at 1/250 second with a low ISO.
When lining up your shots, look for the best angles. For some displays, especially those that have lots of small lanterns in the foreground—e.g., flowers and grasses before a large animal—shooting from higher is better. The elevated perspective provides viewers with foreground, middle ground, and background elements to move through during viewing.
Other subjects benefit from more novel points of view. Giant dragons look even larger and more foreboding when shot from down low. Use super-wide angle lenses in close to subjects. Telephoto lenses help compress shapes and textures into graphic elements.
Festivals can be crowded. Try to pick a non-peak time, perhaps a weekday, and arrive early. If the grounds are filling up, set up your tripod and wait for people to pass. When you get a break, start shooting. Of course, people can also be incorporated into your shots to provide scale or interesting silhouettes.
Keep an eye on other distractions. Look for poles, towers, buildings, and security lights buildings that may detract from your photo. Also try to avoid one lantern overlapping another, especially one in the foreground overlapping another display in the background.
Some lanterns change colors continuously. Keep shooting. If a flower lantern is set to cycle through blue, red, and then purple, shoot each of the colors. While the changing colors may look good while experiencing the festival, during image review, you will quickly see that certain colors, frozen in your still images, go together much better than others.
Lastly, make sure to change focal lengths. As you build a portfolio of lantern images, shooting different types of lenses will help keep your collection interesting. If every shot is take with a 24mm lens in portrait mode from 50 to 100 feet away, your album will begin to look stale quickly.
You have shot in RAW and bracketed your shots. Process the matching shots at the same time, applying the same settings.
Begin with white balance. If you can find a white spot in the image—such as a cloud or a flower or a dove—click there to determine the white point. If you don’t have a good white subject, try each of the white balance presets in your converter. Likely you will find one that looks either true to your experience or particularly good for the scene.
Then adjust exposure. Find the best shot and fine tune its exposure. Better yet in many cases, use the multiple shots taken at different exposure to create a High Dynamic Range (HDR) images.
A good HDR app—I prefer Photomatix Pro—will allow you to choose varying methods of processing. I generally prefer Exposure Fusion settings over other HDR options. I think enfused images look more natural, more photographic, less painterly, and less grungy.
After processing, don’t forget to do some cropping. Even if you shot with fast glass, it’s still hard to see all the distractions when shooting in the dark. Crop in tightly to eliminate non-essential lanterns in the distance, building and other structures, and, of course, people.
FINDING A FESTIVAL
Several Chinese companies create lantern festivals across the US and around the world. A quick online search for lantern festivals will hopefully turn up a show near you or in one of your favorite travel destinations. Then prepare your photo gear, head out early, and be prepared to be amazed!