Christmas at Colonial Williamsburg

Visiting Williamsburg

Growing up 20 minutes from Valley Forge, PA, frequent trips into the historic parts of Philadelphia, both my wife and I developed a pension for our colonial history in America. We’re a good 10 + hours from PA now, but have our fill of cobblestone streets and tri-cornered hats in the historic village of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

When we visited in the summer, we asked an employee her favorite time of the year to visit the village. “Christmas”. She replied, without hesitation. So with much anticipation, we made our plans and hit the road just after Christmas.

Williamsburg is, as we expected, beautiful at Christmas. While there are no lit trees and no Christmas trees (as these would be introduced from German immigrants some time after the Revolution) there are wreaths adorned creatively with dried fruit and an assortment of greens and other natural things.

We did our usual tour of the Governor’s Mansion, the capitol building, the carpenter’s shop, stores, shops, and squeezed (literally) into the Cheese Shop in Merchant’s Square for lunch. Get reservations at The King’s Arms Tavern, Chownings, or Christiana Campbell’s in the village for dinner, but by all means get into the Cheese Shop for lunch. It’s well worth the crowds and the wait.

The highlight of our visit was undoubtedly the tour/program titled “Christmastide at Home“. Actors and actresses depicted scenes from colonial times through World War II as they may have been throughout the town. This was held at night and thus the town was lit by open fires and candlelight. Needless to say, it was beautiful and nostalgic.

Photographing Williamsburg

Photographing Williamsburg at Christmas was a lot of fun. The wreaths and greens were extras tacked on to the beautiful period architecture, brickwork, and horse-drawn carriages. The weather was overcast most of the time and I used this to my advantage. (cloud cover provides soft light while bright sun casts sharp shadows.) I purposefully looked for times when crowds dissipated or for areas that were less occupied and found some beautiful shots. The green in front of the Governor’s Mansion is a prime shot. I took a few on more busy (not rainy) days but got my favorite shot just before it rained. Crowds were down, mist covered the expanse between the road and the mansion, providing a foggy, moody look.

Architecture is always somewhat of a challenge for me, so I used the opportunity to practice. The houses in Williamsburg are fairly close together so getting an angular shot wasn’t always going to work. Plus the sidewalks were filled with tourists so taking head-on shots allowed me to minimize the amount of sidewalk in the shot, thus allowing me 1-2 second gaps without people.

For the mansion shot and for the gnarled looking tree behind the fence, I used a slightly higher aperture (f/4.5) to achieve a wider depth of field, thus keeping more of the land/subjects in focus. I took lots of shots of wreaths, but my favorites were those that I could put in the foreground and give some depth behind. I used a wider (lower numbered) aperture to decrease the depth of field which blurred the background.

Using One Lens

One of the reasons I enjoy shooting with a DSLR (I use a pretty basic, Canon t4i*) is that I can use different lenses for different scenarios. I brought along a couple different lenses, but decided to limit myself to just one. I did this for a couple reasons. First, since I was traveling with my family, I wanted family pictures. My ultrawide 10-20mm lens does not work well with people. Its excellent for landscapes and architecture but makes people look a bit odd. My Tamron 28-75 f/2.8* would have worked fine, but I decided on my Sigma 30mm f/1.4*. You don’t hear too much about this lens or focal length but I absolutely love it. I had to move my feet to “zoom” but it was wide enough for houses, but was tight enough for nice family/kid shots. The wide aperture also works nicely in low-light (using a wider aperture lets more light into the camera sensor allowing a faster shutter speed – good for active busy kids!). I liked the limitation. It caused me to think a little differently since I didn’t have zoom feature to rely on. I also only had to carry my camera around. No worries about switching lenses, no lugging around extras. It was a good experience.

I hope you’ll make the trek to southern Virginia to experience Williamsburg sometime. Its a beautiful look into American colonial history. If you have the time, visit Jamestown National Park, the Jamestown Settlement and the Yorktown Battlefield while you’re at it.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the gallery!

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The Historic St. James Santee Episcopal Chapel of Ease: A quick look at Architectural Composition

McClellanville, SC

The historic St. James Santee Episcopal Chapel of Ease 18mm, ISO 400, F/5, 1/60

The historic St. James Santee Episcopal Chapel of Ease ISO 400, 18mm, F/5, 1/60Nothing like a good name for your church. Who wouldn’t want to attend a chapel of ease? On a drive back from Charleston, SC, my father-in-law and I pulled in to the historic fishing village of McClellanville. (On a side note, if you want local shrimp, this is where to get it!) At the last census, the town registered just under 500 for its residency. It’s a small town, but not without its charm. The coastal highway 17 holds ages of history; communities and villages that still exist today. It is always a beautiful corridor to explore.

The St. James Episcopal church was constructed in 1890 to accommodate the growing population of the village (hence, the Chapel of Ease moniker). You can read more about it here.

The chapel sits in the shade of a few Live Oaks. I struggle with architectural photographs. In this composition there are a couple things to consider: how much of that beautiful tree in the front to include; how to frame the church; how to balance the exposure so the church isn’t too bright and the tree to dark and vice versa; and making sure your “horizon” is straight.

I shoot in a file format called RAW, as opposed to JPEG. While the RAW file is pretty big (about 25 MB) it allows me to correct some exposures and colors in editing. Much like a photographic dark room, you can “burn” in some lighter areas and “dodge” darker areas to achieve balance. I took my exposure for the church since this was the focal point of the shot.  Fortunately the tree wasn’t too much darker than the church so I was able to draw out some details later.

I took this shot at 18mm which is a wide-angle shot. While this fits more of the subject into the frame, it also distorts the way somethings look (read: the church looks crooked). I chose to make sure the tree was aligned correctly with nature (the trunk is 90 degrees to the ground) and allow the church to take on a moving-like quality. The front looks very large and the rear shrinks away because of depth perception. We generally don’t think about this when viewing something in real life, but in a photograph it becomes more apparent. My goal was to achieve motion in the photo: making your eyes move from the tree to the front of the church to it’s rear; or drawing your attention to the middle of the photograph.

Hopefully that makes sense. Feel free to share this on your social media of choice or drop me a line in the comments below with your thoughts!