Holiday Light Shows 2018: Northeast Region

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Tis the season for holiday lights, with festive displays dotting the landscape from coast to coast to brighten the waning daylight hours. From the graceful lights and majestic tree in New York’s Rockefeller Center to the whirlwind of sound, color, and lighting in a holiday theme park, such displays are a fantasy land for photographic exploration.

To aid you in capturing photogenic moments that convey the spirit of the season, we’ve developed this five-part series, profiling popular holiday lighting displays in locations throughout the United States.

Above photograph © Caryn B. Davis

Operating hours, dates, and admission costs for each venue vary widely, so please research the latest event websites for specifics before planning a visit. As for cost, many of the venues have a primary goal to raise money for local charities. In such cases, consider the admission fee as a benevolent effort to spread some holiday cheer.

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Maine

Down east in southern Maine, the holiday season is ushered in on the Saturday after Thanksgiving with the annual lighting of the Nubble lighthouse in York, one of the most photographed sites in the Pine Tree state.

Farther up the coast, the Boothbay Festival of Lights offers a celebration of signature holiday events in the seaside towns of Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor. From November 15 - December 31, the towns sparkle with thousands of lights, while hosting a wide range of festivities, including horse-drawn carriage rides, a tree lighting, caroling, a lighted boat parade, and fireworks.

The magic culminates in Gardens Aglow at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, where more than 500,000 LED lights decorate the central gardens and buildings. Beginning on November 15, the gardens offer visitors off-season evening access, Thursday - Sunday, from 4:00 - 9:00 p.m.

Photograph by Paul VanDerWerf

“Gardens Aglow is a very popular event and the attendees are very enthusiastic,” says photographer Paul VanDerWerf. “Everyone, it seemed, was taking a picture. It’s good opportunity to capture a photo for next year’s holiday letter or card.”

Working on a tripod, VanDerWerf made the image above with a Canon 5D Mark II and 28-135mm lens set at f/16, exposing for 2.5 seconds. “This event is well worth a few numb fingers for photographers,” he adds. “But be sure to have some photo gloves, and hand warmers too.”

New Hampshire

Next door, in the Granite state, speeding race cars are switched out for the warm glow of two million lights, which fuel a 2.5-mile drive-through light show at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s Gift of Lights fundraiser in Loudon, open most nights from 4:30 - 9:00 p.m., November 23 - December 31.

And in the coastal city of Portsmouth, visitors step back in time at the outdoor living history museum Strawbery Banke, with a festive Candlelight Stroll, held on Saturday and Sunday evenings from December 1 - 22. The stroll is just one of many events comprising the city-wide, month-long celebration, Vintage Christmas in Portsmouth.

Photograph by Robert Clifford

New Hampshire photographer Robert Clifford had his photography dreams come true when it began to snow upon his arrival for the stroll. “If you've ever photographed in snow at night, you'll find that street lights or holiday lights will illuminate the scene quite well, lending a very soft light captured in each tiny snow flake,” he explains.

After attaching his Canon 7D and EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM lens to a DOLICA 62" Proline aluminum-alloy tripod and ball head, Clifford zoomed his lens to the maximum setting for a 10-second exposure at f/11 and ISO 100.

“I captured a scene I had always wanted—the village busy with visitors and holiday lights aglow, with the historic North Church steeple in the distance,” he recounts. “The longer exposure with the falling snow gives the illusion of a foggy scene. Thankfully, the visitors didn’t move much during the exposure time.”

Vermont

In the Green Mountain State, holiday lights are most often associated with short-term festivities that immerse visitors in all manner of holiday spirit. In northern Vermont, A Traditional Christmas in Stowe offers tree lightings, wagon rides, a capella carolers, holiday performances, ice skating, and much more, from Friday, November 30 - Sunday, December 2. And in central Vermont, the town of Woodstock holds a Wassail Weekend, from Friday, December 7 - Sunday the 9th, filled with decorated homes, twinkling lights, and jingling sleigh bells during a special Wassail Parade.

Meanwhile, on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace pedestrian mall lights up in holiday splendor with an official tree-lighting ceremony, held the day after Thanksgiving.

Photograph by Adam Silverman

In the words of local photographer Adam Silverman, “It's one of the biggest holiday attractions in Vermont's biggest city. The Christmas tree is harvested locally every year, and large crowds gather along the length of the bricked shopping plaza to watch as Church Street is illuminated from top to bottom with twinkling lights.”

While Silverman has been photographing this light display for years, last December was the first time he pulled out his Vanguard Tripod with a GH-30 Pistol Grip Ball Head, and used a Canon remote release to capture the scene with his Canon EOS 5D Mark II and EF 70-200 f/2.8L USM telephoto lens, set at 115mm. He stopped-down to f/22 and used a long exposure of 10 seconds at ISO 100 to really accentuate the twinkling effect of the lights.

“I wanted to use a long lens to compress the four-block marketplace and make all the lights appear right on top of one another,” he says of the visual effect. “Of course, I had to wait for the season's first measurable snowfall to truly show Burlington's winter beauty. When the snow falls, there's an even brighter glow to the lights.”

Massachusetts

In the Bay State, you’ll find holiday light shows galore. The Blink! Light and Sound Show is a seasonal favorite at Boston’s Faneuil Hall & Quincy Market, wowing the crowds with six festive tunes animated by lights, from November 28 - January 1, every half hour between 4:30 - 10:00 p.m.

The Pioneer Valley city of Springfield hosts Bright Nights at Forest Park from November 21 - January 19 (closed November 26 and 27). This is reportedly New England’s largest drive-through holiday display, which you can further enhance by tuning your car radio to hear a special musical accompaniment.

North of Boston, the town of Stoneham rolls out the annual Zoolights at the Stone Zoo display. From 5:00 - 9:00 p.m. every evening, from November 23 - December 31 (except December 25), visitors are treated to a walk-through experience with illuminated tree-lined paths, and festive decor surrounding the animal exhibits.

In southern Massachusetts, near the Rhode Island border, the La Salette Christmas Festival of Lights is a celebration of 300,000 shimmering lights across more than 10 acres of this organization’s national shrine in Attleboro, open 5:00 - 9:00 p.m. nightly, from November 22 - January 6.

And just outside the city of Worcester, Boylston’s Tower Hill Botanic Garden ushers in the holiday season with Night Lights: Winter Reimagined 2018. From November 23, 2017 - December 30, visitors can marvel at glittering lights displayed throughout roughly 15 acres of formal gardens. Beginning at 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday through Sunday, the prized collection of trees and shrubs come to life in the glow of the lights, along with illuminated paths, sculptures, and fountains. Inside, two towering conservatories brim with subtropical plants and seasonal music, while guests enjoy a giant beehive, a model train village, and more.

Photograph by Brian Hale

“This event is a photographer’s dream and is all-around magical for everyone who attends,” says local photographer Brian Hale. “Every year they change it up a bit and expand a little more.”

Using his trusty Induro tripod to stabilize his Canon 6D and Rokinon 14mm 2.8 IF ED UMC lens, Hale exposed the image above for 8-seconds at ISO 100.

Rhode Island

The yachting mecca of Newport kicks off the holidays in the Ocean state on the evening of Friday, November 23, with the Newport Harbor Illuminated Boat Parade, when the assembled fleet competes for prizes in seven different categories. During the month of December, the harbor and wharves sparkle with white holiday lights for Christmas in Newport, while nearby Gilded Age mansions are decked out like the crown jewels.

Farther up the coast, the Bristol Christmas Festival features a grand illumination of the town tree on Saturday, December 1, while across Narragansett Bay, the Wickford Festival of Lights hosts a tree lighting, including caroling and hayrides, from Friday, November 29 - Sunday, December 2.

And just outside the state capital of Providence, Pawtucket’s Winter Wonderland takes up residence in the city’s Slater Park, on the weekends of December 1-2 and 8-9, featuring approximately 500 illuminated trees, sponsored by local families in honor of a loved one.

Photograph by Ted Jackvony

Pawtucket photographer Ted Jackvony notes, “The whole park is covered in Christmas lights, scenes and decorations, and each year there are hay rides, games, and food vendors, but the most iconic element is the historic Looff carousel, which is among the oldest in the country.”

Jackvony captured the warm ambiance outside the carousel enclosure with his Canon EOS Rebel T5i and EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 lens secured to a tripod. Setting his ISO to 100 and with his aperture to f/4.5, he bracketed three successive exposures at 8 seconds, 15 seconds and 25 seconds, combining them in post to make the most of the high-contrast setting.

Connecticut

The Nutmeg state is brimming with seasonal events. “Connecticut has a lot of light festivals and two lighted boat parades,” says Caryn B. Davis, author of the best-selling book, A Connecticut Christmas: Celebrating the Holiday in Classic New England Style.

The festivities begin on Saturday, November 24, with the state’s maritime heritage taking center stage in Mystic’s Lighted Holiday Boat Parade. On Sunday, November 25, the fun shifts to the riverside community of Essex for Trees in the Rigging.

Holiday drive-through light shows include fundraisers such as Hartford’s Holiday Lights Fantasia, which enlivens Goodwin Park, from November 22 - January 1, and New Haven’s Fantasy of Lights, which illuminates Lighthouse Point Park, from November 15 - December 31. Free events range from Meriden’s Festival of Silver Lights, a drive-through experience in Hubbard Park, from November 20 - January 2, to Ivoryton Illuminations, which brightens this quaint historic village from December 1 - January 5.

Photograph by Caryn B. Davis

When shooting for her book, Davis’s camera of choice was a Canon 5D Mark III with an EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens. In low-light situations, she stabilized her system with a Giottos Pro Series Aluminum YTL Silk Road tripod and Manfrotto 410 3-Way, Geared Pan-and-Tilt Head with 410PL Quick Release Plate, using a Canon Remote Switch RS-80N3 to avoid camera shake during long exposures. And when capturing fast-moving subjects like illuminated boats, she added a Canon Speedlight to balance ambient light with a pop of her flash.

While Davis photographed most light shows in a traditional manner, capturing the scene as it was realistically represented, she says, “The last light show I photographed was the Ivoryton Illuminations, and only then did it occur to me to start playing around with the lights.”

Her abstract composition of colorful blurred bulbs layered with the pinpoint focus of illuminated trees in the background is featured above. She exclaims, “It turned out to be one of my favorites in the book.”

New York

Holiday spirit lights up the Empire State well before the official season begins. The city of Buffalo gained a leg up on holiday light shows with the recent re-purposing of the industrial area of Canalside, on the city’s historic waterfront. This once-overlooked area now hosts hundreds of events annually. Each night, the gigantic Connecting Terminal Grain Elevator is illuminated in a kinetic light show, from dusk to 11:00 p.m., across the Buffalo River from the Canalside boardwalk. For those seeking a more targeted celebration, a holiday tree lighting is held at the Canalside skating rink, on November 30 at 5:30 p.m., including on-ice performances and a visit from Santa, with additional visits scheduled on weekends - Sunday, December 23.

In the Central New York village of Liverpool, Onondaga Lake Park gets festive with Lights on the Lake, a two-mile drive-through light show featuring towering displays and animated scenes, which welcomes visitors nightly from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m., beginning Thursday, November 15, - Sunday, January 6. And in the Hudson Valley hamlet of Ulster Park, a Halloween theme park is transformed to the holiday light spectacular A Frosty Fest, on weekend nights from November 23 - December 23. From Frosty’s Enchanted Forest and the Glistening Gardens drive-through displays, to the walk-through Magical Mansion and Frosty’s Magical Adventure 3D experience, you’ll find dazzling lights, magical animations and costumed characters galore.

Yet by most accounts, the hub of holiday lights and festivities is in New York City. From the intimate glow of department store window displays, to the bold lights and decorations erected throughout midtown Manhattan, the entire city oozes holiday spirit. Equally magnificent as these iconic sites are DYI neighborhood displays that dot the five boroughs, such as Christmas in Jamaica Estates, Queens, or the holiday lights of Dyker Heights, Brooklyn.

Photograph by Olga Doubravova

“Once a year, Dyker Heights is transformed into magical place,” says photographer Olga Doubravova. “Many houses get decorated with spectacular holiday lights and ornaments, bringing joy to both children and adults. I love to bring friends and visitors here right before Christmas, to see their surprise and excitement. It is one of my favorite ways of getting into the holiday spirit.”

With her ISO set to 2000, Doubravova hand-held her Canon EOS Rebel T2i and 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens, exposing for 1/30 of a second at f/3.5.

New Jersey

People tend to do things up big in New Jersey, and the holiday season is no exception to this rule. Beginning on November 17, Jackson Township’s powerhouse theme park, Six Flags Great Adventure, mixes stunning light shows with thrilling rides during Holiday in the Park on select weekdays and weekends, while in Augusta township, Skylands Stadium hosts a 1-mile drive-through Christmas Light Show and an Outdoor Village with walk-through displays, from November 16 - December 30.

Yet, for those seeking a festive experience of a more contemplative nature, Atlantic County’s Historic Smithville offers a unique Holiday Light Show featuring more than 120 illuminated Christmas trees, magically floating on Lake Meone, in the center of the village. From Thursday, November 22 - Sunday, January 6, more than 50,000 lights dance to seasonal music nightly, in an orchestrated show that plays out across the lake.

Photograph by Jonathon Cianfrani

Jonathon Cianfrani can see this holiday display over Lake Meone from the window of his photo studio, in the Historic Smithville Shoppes, so he decided to make some pictures one evening after wrapping up an editing session. “From a technical standpoint, I wanted to make sure I had a long exposure, to let in a lot of light, as well as to capture as many trees as possible,” he explains. “Since the lights are blinking, a fast shutter would have only caught a few.”

After attaching his Canon 5D Mark III and EF 70-200 2.8L IS II USM lens to a Slik 500DX Pro Tripod with an SBH-280E Ball Head with Quick Release, Cianfrani framed a shot with his lens at its widest setting. “I wanted to use a smaller f-stop, so the lights would give off a star burst effect, which you don't get if you're shooting wide open at f/2.8,” he says. This also ensured the background buildings would be in focus.

“I set my aperture to f/9 for a 10-second exposure at 100 ISO,” he notes. “It wound up giving the water a bit of a silky effect, but since there is very little (to no) movement on the water, the long exposure wasn't a major concern.”

When working in the cold for an extended period, Cianfrani makes sure to keep cold warm clothes handy, such as his Freehands Stretch Thinsulate Gloves. He adds, “As long as you dress for the weather, it’s a great place to walk around and photograph, since the lights stay on all night long.”

Pennsylvania

The Keystone state is home to a wide range of holiday attractions, from the French-inspired holiday display A Longwood Christmas at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square to a Christkindlmarkt in the city of Bethlehem.

For some old-fashioned Pennsylvania Dutch flavor, head to Koziar’s Christmas Village near Bernville, where more than a million lights decorate the farmhouse and barn, as well as the lake, walkways, trees, and fences. This family-run operation is currently celebrating its 71st season, and it is open Friday - Sunday, from November 3 - Thanksgiving, and then nightly from Thanksgiving - January 1, offering both indoor and outdoor holiday displays, miniature trains, fresh treats from the country kitchen, and much more.

A holiday extravaganza on an even grander scale awaits visitors to Hersheypark, which is draped in more than four million lights for the holidays. Inside the park, at Christmas Candylane, visitors can enjoy NOEL, a choreographed light show synchronized to your favorite holiday music. Outside the park, Hershey Sweet Lights Holiday Drive-Thru Spectacular features nearly 600 illuminated, animated displays along two miles of wooded trails.

Photograph by Amy Spangler

Photographer Amy Spangler is well accustomed to the challenges of working in low-light conditions. “When creating night shots, I’m usually equipped with a tripod and time my shooting to a half hour after sunset or before sunrise, to pick up some color in the sky,” she explains. “But on this family excursion to the park, I traveled light.”

Spangler captured this image of the Christmas Candylane Light Show using a Nikon D600 and an AF-S NIKKOR 24-70 mm F 2.8 lens. “In lieu of a tripod, I looked for sturdy surfaces, like a flat-topped trash can, railing, or bench to stabilize my camera,” she notes. “To freeze the action of this animated display, I used a two-second exposure at f/5.6.”

Delaware

Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park comes alive for the holidays with Winter WonderFEST. Taking place Thursday through Sunday evenings, from November 17 - New Year’s Day, festivities include a Light Spectacular with more than 90 dazzling light displays along a 1.5-mile ride through the park. In addition, a Christmas Village at the Cape May Lewes Ferry features a 70-foot Ferris wheel, carnival rides, live entertainment, a special ice rink for skaters, a s’mores fire pit, and Santa’s Workshop.

Photograph by Victoria Pickering, @vpickering

“The WonderFEST lights are spectacular, nestled on a long winding road through Cape Henlopen State Park, with new scenes at every turn, illuminating the beach grass, evergreen trees, and other native vegetation,” says local photographer Victoria Pickering.

She captured the image above on New Year’s Eve, 2016, using a Sony a7R II and FE 55mm f/1.8 lens, shooting at ISO 6400 for 1/25 second, with an aperture of f/2.

Maryland

Along the Chesapeake, in Sandy Point State Park, the local SPCA hosts Lights on the Bay, a 2-mile drive-through held nightly from Saturday, November 17 - Tuesday, January 1, 5:00 - 10:00 p.m. Don a pair of 3D glasses to make the most of classic displays, such as a historic colonial village, and new themes like North Pole Village and Enchanted Fairy Tales.

Closer to our nation’s capital, the Garden of Lights display, at Montgomery County’s Brookside Gardens, features more than a million dazzling lights shaped into hand-crafted flowers, animals, and other natural elements. Wander the gardens on Thursday through Sunday nights, from November 16 - January 1, to enjoy twinkling tree forms, sparkling fountains, and whimsical winter scenes.

And, for a holiday tradition like no other, head to the Baltimore neighborhood of Hampden to take in the “Miracle on 34th Street,” which transforms a block of row houses into a kaleidoscope of kitschy ornaments and quirky fun, from a Christmas tree made of hubcaps, to bike-rim snowmen, a giant snow globe, overhead trains and a big red crab. Now in its 72nd year of operation, the action happens on the thoroughfare’s 700 block, between Chestnut Avenue and Keswick Road, running from November 24 - January 1. The block is illuminated every night, from around 6:00 to 11:00 p.m., except for December 24 and 31, when the lights stay on all night long.

Photograph by Kevin B. Moore

“I try to get there during the “blue hour” for the good light, and to beat the hordes of merrymakers who show up later,” says photographer Kevin B. Moore. “I usually bring two cameras, a Canon 5D MKIII paired with a 50mm f1.4, and a 70-200mm f2.8. The image above was made with a Canon 7D MKII and a Rokinon 8mm Ultra Wide Angle f/3.5 Fisheye lens set to f/16. I was on a tripod with a six-second exposure, at ISO 200,” he says.

Want more Holiday Lights?

Watch this space in the coming weeks for stories featuring four other US regions: Southeast, Midwest, Southwest, and Northwest and West Coast. These companion articles will be linked here as they are published.

Do you have a favorite Holiday Lighting event not mentioned above, or a cherished memory at one of these sites? Tell us about it in the Comments section, below!

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