Throughout Upper Canada village during the Alight at Night festival, half a million lights are strung out to outline buildings, trees and fences in a fairyland display — even when there’s no snow. Regardless of the weather, there is something magical about the sparkle of Christmas lights as shown here in a scene outside Christ Church.

Upper Canada Village's Alight at Night festival perfect setting to try time-exposure digital photography - and be a kid again

News Archive BY GARY MAY
There is a Currier & Ives quality about Upper Canada Village, a place stalled in the world of the 1860s. It is especially charming in winter, in a gentle snowfall, when flakes tumble down and accumulate with artistic randomness on split rail fences, pioneer homes and barns.  

On a snowy evening, I have come with my new digital camera and tripod in hand to test out its time-exposure capabilities and hopefully capture some beautiful pictures during the village’s Alight at Night festival.  

Over the course of five weeks around Christmas and New Year’s, a celebration of light and colour splits the early-winter darkness and bathes the village on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in a radiant glow. Alight at Night is a marriage of our pioneer past with modern celebration.  

As I leave the car and approach the village, the tang of wood smoke on the crisp air catches me up in the moment. I am transported back in time. My boots crunch through the sticky wet snow. Gentle flurries create a fluffy white shroud. The soft, twinkling lights break through the air’s gauzy veil.  

My first thought is a practical one: protecting my camera from the wet snow. I’ve stored it safely inside a carrying bag and tucked a plastic bag next to it for future use. More on that later. First, it’s time to scout out locations.  

I stroll over the bridge and along the village streets, past farmhouses, shops, a tavern, a blacksmith’s and the 1837-era Christ Church. Fences and buildings are festooned in strings of holiday lights. I hop onto a horse-drawn wagon and watch a couple passing by in the private carriage that’s available to reserve.  

A walk in the past

Everywhere, there are interpreters dressed in period costume, ready and eager to help me recreate that magic Christmases-past moment. I stop in to the bakery, where women dressed in gingham are just removing fresh bread from the wood-fired brick oven. The tantalizing aroma brings back childhood memories of grandma’s kitchen.  

Nearby, Cook’s Tavern is a great place for a beer or a glass of wine with a mouth-watering snack. For those with bigger appetites, the Harvest Barn offers hearty dinners.  

There’s an artificial skating rink that lets you replicate the joys of an old-fashioned outdoor glide across a millpond. Drop by and just see if it conjures a long-forgotten childhood image, perhaps something culled from the pages of The Bobbsey Twins, or Little Women, or perhaps Anne of Green Gables.  

Across a field, a warm candlelight glow bursts from the windows at Christ Church. The sounds of carollers drift across the still air.  

The stately Crysler House is a fine example of a mid-1800s landowner’s mansion and during the holidays, a special sound-and-light show is performed there.  

During a pause in the snowfall, community carollers, dressed in Victorian garb, break out in song on the boardwalk outside the photographer’s shop. Passersby stop to listen; others join in as the joyous atmosphere catches everyone up in the season’s mood.  

When a brisk wind off the St. Lawrence nips at your toes, visitors crowd into the village gift shop, perhaps to sip a hot coffee or cocoa, or pick up a bit of cheese, maple syrup or bread, made fresh at the bake shop they’ve just visited.  

Upper Canada Village has been holding its Christmas lights festival for more than a decade. Alight at Night, which runs until Jan. 5 this year, draws thousands of visitors from the Ottawa Valley and beyond to Quebec, New York state and even from overseas.  

Throughout the village, more than half a million lights are strung out to outline buildings, trees and fences in a fairyland display — even when there’s no snow. Regardless of the weather, there is something magical about the sparkle of Christmas lights. For some, they bring memories of warm-hearted moments shared with family and friends. For others, perhaps thoughts of sipping eggnog around the hearth or the Christmas tree.  

During my walk through the village, I have made a mental note of the places I want to capture digitally. If you’d prefer to leave the picture-taking to others, the village is a great place to just soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the fabulous light display.  

Postcard-perfect pictures on offer

But my new camera awaits its debut. The snow has stopped, so wet flakes will not be a danger to it. I came prepared, however, with a little “hood” to shield its lense. This is a store-bought one of plastic. They also come in rubber, but you can build your own, something as simple as a piece of cardboard that’s light enough to hold above the lens.  

I haul out my tripod and secure it on the snowy ground, 200 feet from the church. I attach my camera to the tripod. Like a cinematographer, I create my scene with the church slightly off centre, with a wide enough scope to take in some of the trees outlined in coloured lights.  

I’ve also brought along a tiny flashlight that makes it easier to see as I set my camera’s ISO (I choose 100 for less graininess), focus, f-stop and speed. The f-stop is 5.6, large enough to brighten the view, yet small enough to provide for a fairly wide depth of field. For variety, I also try 4.5, 5.0 and 6.3. There is always an “exploratory” nature to nighttime photography: try a setting out, then try something else and compare your results.  

Now for speed. I start at 1/15th of a second and move to slower settings. Half a second, a second, two, then five seconds. The wonderful thing about digital cameras is they offer the opportunity to see immediately what you have. You quickly discover that different combinations of speed and f-stop create different moods.  

Then I move on to a split-rail fence, laden with snow and draped in strings of lights. I try a close-up of three coloured lights cutting their way through a layer of snow. As I walk through the village, the subjects I choose are a range of close-ups and scenes.  

I return to the boardwalk outside the village photographer’s studio. The carollers are back. I pick my vantage point, set up the tripod and start shooting. In this case, with the carolers being more animated than a stationary building, my shutter speed is of critical importance. I try a few with a flash and discover they work best, freezing the carolers.  

However, sometimes a small amount of motion and blur can add an interesting quality to your picture. Remember, don’t be afraid to experiment!  

Then it’s into the bakery for some photos of bread-making. This is where that plastic bag comes in handy. The rapid temperature change as I move inside is bound to create condensation on cold surfaces. Before I go inside, I slip the camera into the plastic bag. When I walk into the warm cabin, condensation forms on the outside of the bag. Without it, that condensation would be coating the camera lens and working parts. Let the camera warm up slowly, inside the bag, and all will be well.  

Upper Canada Village is located near Morrisburg in Eastern Ontario, about 30 kilometres west of Cornwall. More than 40 heritage buildings have been moved to, or erected on the 60-acre site, some of which would otherwise have been destroyed when the Seaway flooded riverfront areas 50 years ago.  

If you’re thinking of staying over, one interesting option is Montgomery House, a log cabin available for overnight rental that sits next to the village. It’s a touch of pioneer heritage — with all the modern conveniences, including wide-screen TV. There are several other motels and B&Bs in the immediate area.  

There are other Christmas light displays around Ontario’s waterfront communities, but for me, none surpasses Upper Canada Village for its charming, old-fashioned warmth.


Winter Festival of Lights

The annual Winter Festival of Lights is a great excuse to head to Niagara Falls during the winter, with a fantastic light show amid the dramatic backdrop of the famous Falls. Take in Canada’s largest lights festival, with more than three million lights along a six-kilometre route. The whole family will love the animated lighting displays, including the Disney themes. There’s also nightly fireworks, plus concerts and children’s entertainment. The festival runs until Jan. 31. Best of all, admission is free!

Christmas Lights Across Canada

In Ottawa, capital cities throughout the country are brought together by the annual celebration of Christmas Lights Across Canada. In Canada’s capital city, the winter landscape glows with more than 300,000 multi-coloured lights, making this the perfect time to take a walk around historic Parliament Hill. The festival runs until Jan. 7. Don’t forget to dress warmly!  

Festival of Northern Lights

Head to Owen Sound for the Festival of Northern Lights, featuring more than 350 lighted displays and more than 18 kilometres of light strings along the banks of the Sydenham River in downtown and Harrison Park. The dazzling light displays are on daily from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. until Jan. 6.

Lakeside Festival of Lights

Bring the family to the waterfront at Spencer Smith Park in Burlington for the 17th annual Lakeside Festival of Lights. Walk along the lakeside promenade where you’ll enjoy a dazzling collection of lights, including more than 60 animated displays. Best of all, it’s all free! Take in the show until Jan. 9.

Fantasy of Lights

The quaint Victorian town of Kingsville is a nice place to visit year-round, but even better when Lakeside Park is transformed into a sea of colourful displays during the Fantasy of Lights festival. There’s something for the while family, including a parade, idol competition, park train tour, visit with Santa, carolling, ice sculptures and wine tastings. It's all happening until Jan. 6.

River Lights

Take the family to historic Amherstburg for the River Lights Winter Festival. Enjoy light displays, horse and carriage rides, period costumes, costumed carollers, ginger bread house contest, house tour of decorated homes and more. It’s all happening until Jan. 1 at Navy Yard Park on the Detroit River waterfront and in the streets of downtown Amherstburg. — Updated December 2012