How to Photograph Christmas Lights: 8 Complete Tips
For photographers, the best part of the holiday season is capturing the Christmas lights and subjects against the Christmas lights as a backdrop. It is during this season that you can take pictures with beautiful Christmas Bokeh and they are so much fun to photograph.
When taking photos of Christmas lights, it is important to understand the environment. Since the light display from holiday lights is not as bright as other lights you would normally use for photography, you will need to use the techniques you normally use for low light photography. You’ll be dealing with high ISO values, so be careful that you choose your aperture and shutter speed wisely to get sharp images.
Further Reading On Low Light Photography
Here are 8 suggestions for shooting Christmas lights:
1. Plan Your Shot
Depending on what you want to shoot, you have to choose the time of day. For example, with Christmas light photography at a fair, you can wait until the sky gets dark and experiment with long exposure photography. In this case, you should use a tripod, so you can shoot at a low ISO, to produce noise-free images.
Also, if there is movement of light in the scene, you can capture light trails when shooting using a tripod and long exposure techniques.
Further Reading About Long Exposure Photography
However, if you are planning on holiday light photography of buildings like churches or other structures, the best time is the blue hour as the ambient light that is still available will help you capture details of the buildings, structures and help you get some color in the sky as well. Your photos will have detail and texture instead of being flat and boring.
Further Reading On Shooting During Blue Hour
Either way, it’s best to use a tripod when shooting in very low light conditions, so you can shoot at a lower ISO.
Notes: The blue hour lasts for a few minutes, so make sure you are ready at your location, everything is set up, so you can shoot. Also, this is the time when you get some beautifully detailed shots instead of boring photos that just look like holiday lights against a black background.
2. Equipment Needed To Photograph Christmas Lights
The equipment needed to photograph Christmas lights is minimal and you probably already have some. You don’t need a high-end camera or expensive lenses for great results.
- A camera that can shoot in manual mode
- A faster lens with a wide aperture in the f/1.2 to f/2.8 range, most photographers have a 50mm f/1.8 lens which is one of the best for low light photography
- Tripod for long exposure photos
- Release the cable to avoid camera shake caused by shutter release. If you don’t have one, use the timer delay feature on the camera
3. Camera Settings For Photographing Christmas Lights
Cities come alive at night after darkness falls and the holiday lights come on. So, the best time to shoot Christmas Lights as mentioned in the section above is during the blue hour or at night. You need to have a good understanding of the exposure triangle in order to fine tune camera settings for Christmas lights photography and get the right exposure.
Make sure you pay attention to your histogram too, so you don’t blow out highlights or lose detail in the dark parts of the image.
If you use a tripod, you need to use your exposure settings wisely. Set your desired aperture and choose a shutter speed depending on what you want to shoot. Aperture priority mode works well if you are going to be shooting at a wide aperture. For example, for long exposure shots, you may need to have a slow shutter speed from one second to several seconds. Choose your iso depending on the aperture value and fast or slow shutter speed value, so you get the right exposure and for the perfect final image quality.
If you are going to be shooting handheld without a tripod then you may want to choose the widest aperture possible, shutter speeds greater than 1/(2 x focal length) or 1/250 second if possible, so you avoid blur. as a result of shaking hands. Depending on the aperture value and shutter speed, you have to choose an iso value. For handheld shooting, an aperture value of f/1.2, f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2 or f/2.8 will be best, allowing you to shoot at moderate iso values without a lot of noise in your image.
If you are going to be shooting portraits with the holiday lights in the background, the best lens is a 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 lens for an APS-C camera and an 85mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 lens on a full-frame camera. This lens is fast in focusing and lets in more light, so you don’t have to increase the iso very much to get a decent image and it helps with the stunning bokeh in the background. If you have trouble focusing in the dark, take advantage of manual focus.
Further Reading On Focusing In Low Light
For macro pictures using Christmas lights, such as photographing Christmas statues or detailed shots of ornaments etc., you can use a macro lens. Since most macro lenses are equipped with an aperture value of f/2.8, there should be enough light to shoot using ambient light.
Don’t use your camera flash to photograph holiday lights as it can make the image look very unnatural and blurry. Take advantage of the available ambient lighting to illuminate your scene and subject, and that is what brings out the true Christmas atmosphere in your images and helps for beautiful holiday photography.
Notes: If you are using your DSLR on a tripod for longer exposures, make sure you use the mirror lock-up feature to avoid even the slightest shake which can cause the photo to turn out blurry.
4. White Balance
The best white balance presets to use are tungsten or incandescent lamps. Since Christmas lights are made up of many colors and the ambient light can also change quickly, it is best to choose Auto White Balance when shooting and make sure you are shooting in raw conditions. This way, if you find color temperature variations in your photos, you can adjust them during post-processing.
Further Reading On White Balance
5. Experiment With Starbursts
If you’re a fan of starbursts, you can narrow your aperture down to around f/16, mount your camera on a tripod, and take long exposure photos to get the exposure right. This way, depending on the shape of the lens, you will get different types of starbursts. If you don’t want to use narrow apertures, you can use a star filter for your lens, which will help you achieve the star effect of the Christmas Lights.
Starburst photos work well for wide frames that need to be captured using a wide angle lens.
Read here for 2 easy ways to capture brilliant starbursts in your photos
6. Experimenting With Creative Bokeh
Christmas time is the best time to try creative bokeh pictures. Apart from the normal bokeh that you get from a lens, you can use a bokeh kit to create different shaped bokeh like hearts, Christmas trees, stars, snowflakes, etc. If you don’t want to invest in a kit, just build your own. .
Here’s a List of Resources For Getting Started With Bokeh
Notes: This is what I usually do – take a piece of heavy paper and outline the lens I will be using. I cut out this circle, folded it in half and cut out the shape I needed. This way I know that the shape is symmetrical on both sides and it also helps to cut the shape easily.
I then used blue nails around the edges of the cut round paper and glued them to the front of the lens. I have tried this on my 50mm f/1.8G lens and it works great.
7. Try Using Lights In The Foreground
When shooting portraits, you can also include some lights in the foreground to get some interesting foreground bokeh that will also help illuminate your subject’s face. These can be fairy lights, Christmas tree lights, or any display of Christmas lights. This technique can also be applied when photographing Christmas toys and figurines.
8. Try the Zoom Burst Effect
For the zoom burst effect your camera should be mounted on a tripod for best results and you will need to use a zoom lens. This is also a long exposure technique where you put the camera in manual mode, compose the image and you rotate the zoom ring while the shutter is pressed.
A very detailed article on this technique can be found here – a complete guide to zoom burst photography.
A Few Things to Keep in Mind for Christmas Lights Photography
- Use the widest possible aperture for stunning bokeh and shoot at low ISO
- Use a narrow aperture for starbursts
- Use a tripod for long exposure shots so you can shoot at low ISO
- Take advantage of the mirror lock-up feature when using a DSLR on a tripod
- Use a cable release to avoid camera shake during shutter release for long exposure images
- Always shoot RAW
- Since the color temperature for most Christmas scenes is caused by incandescent or tungsten light bulbs, it is best to select an incandescent or tungsten dependent white balance preset, otherwise set the white balance to auto and change the white balance if needed, during post-processing
- Experiment with creative bokeh, starburst or zoom burst effects.
We hope you enjoy capturing the Christmas lights this holiday season and these tips have been of great help to you. Don’t forget to share your images with the community here at Light Stalking.
Further Resources About Photographing Christmas Lights
- How to Photograph Your Christmas Story
- Here’s Why You Should Always Ask a Photographer Before Purchasing a Thoughtful Christmas Gift
- How to Successfully Photograph Your Christmas Tree
- How to Photograph Your Christmas Dinner for Great Results
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