Focus on Bethlehem AD [Encore Publication]: Our neighboring town hosts perhaps the largest nativity scene reenactment in the US

Even professional travel photographers can’t travel all the time.  I’m always on the lookout for great opportunities to shoot local attractions during those stretches when I’m home.  There’s a fun annual event in nearby Redwood City, California called Bethlehem AD that puts on perhaps the nation’s largest re-imagining of the nativity scene.  Replete with Roman centurions, townspeople, craftsmen, dancers, bakers, camels, alpacas, and of course the holy family, some wise men, and a heavenly host of angels, this lavish staging of the nativity is a photographic treat.

Because the event is held only in the evening and there is very little lighting available on location, photographers must provide their own lighting.  I used an off-camera speedlight that I handheld off to the side of the camera and connected to my camera’s TTL metering system using a flash cable.  I’ve shot with Nikon’s own brand of flash cable in the past, but this new off-brand model worked better and cost a fraction of the price [NOTE: I retract my support for this off-brand flash cable.  It failed and caused considerable damage to my camera.  I strongly recommend you order the genuine Nikon brand flash cord, instead.]:


I shot in Manual mode at 1/60 second for flash synchronization and at f/5 or f/8.  I chose ISO settings from 800 up to 3200 depending on the subject.  Buy this photo

To freeze the motion of these dancers, I used TTL flash (off-camera, connected via a 3-foot flash cord) and a shutter speed of 1/60 second.  Buy this photo

As with any sort of portrait photography, the best results are obtained by getting to know your subjects first, getting in close, and spending enough time that they become accustomed to the presence of the camera.  Using this method, you can obtain natural-looking portraits.  Buy this photo

All of these images were made using my go-to portrait lens, the Nikon 85mm f/1.8.  Buy this photo

Beautiful portrait lighting can be shaped using an off-camera speedlight such as the Nikon SB-910.  I made this portrait by holding the speedlight, with diffuser attached, a couple of feet to the left of the camera and bouncing the light off a nearby wall.  The resulting light is soft and warm with no harsh shadows.  Buy this photo

The final tableau, of course, is the actual manger scene.  Because we arrived at closing time, this scene was packed with performers and spectators.  I used the 85mm lens’ magnification power to isolate the holy family and a few onlookers from the rest of the scene.  I handheld the flash unit above the camera and aimed it directly toward the holy family.  A high ISO setting of 3200 also helped concentrate the ambient light at the scene.  Buy this photo

What are your favorite winter holiday events?  Please share your experiences shooting around the holidays.

Want to read other posts about shooting ideas while traveling or close to home?  Find them all here: Posts on What to Shoot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *