How to Take Digital Photographs of LED Christmas Lights

October 5, 2010

Basics & Background

Taking pictures of LED Christmas lights can be difficult because digital camera sensors respond differently than do human eyes, making it nearly impossible to take a picture that reflects exactly what is seen. As an added challenge, natural sunlight is in flux, constantly changing in color and intensity. The art of photography is the ability to control and manipulate light, though many photographers have shifted focus from mastering light, to mastering post-production software like Adobe Photoshop. The key to successfully photographing an LED light display is to properly balance the ambient light of the surroundings, with the LED lights themselves. Manipulating setting on the digital camera can also help the photographer achieve this balance.

Once completely dark, the camera will properly expose either the lights or the surroundings, but not both. On the other hand, LED Christmas lights would not show up at all, if the photo were taken at noon on a sunny day. Again, a balance must be achieved.

Tips and Methods

The photographer should first set up the shot, and frame the subject, keeping in mind that the best time to photograph LED lights is before it gets totally dark – arriving around sunset is typically ideal. Including a large amount of sky in the background, and shooting from a relatively low position, will prove to be useful tools for successful photographs. 

Many shots should be taken, to find the best balance, as the daylight dims to twilight. LED lights will become increasingly visible in photographs as the sky darkens. Somewhere between sunset and complete darkness, the LED lights and the ambient light will balance beautifully.
A tripod is essential for photographing LED lights, especially if the photographer wishes to change the aperture or shutter speed. Longer shutter speeds can be difficult without a tripod, even with image stabilization. A tripod also allows for multiple shots of the same subject, with varying settings, giving a better comparison between photos.
Manipulating certain settings on the digital camera, such as white balance and shutter speed, can offer immense photographic improvements as well – the most important setting for shooting LED lights is white balance. Most digital cameras can automatically adjust to the lighting around them, or can be set to a particular type of lighting. The camera’s automatic white balance should be turned off, and a setting such as “daylight” or “tungsten” should be used. These settings are particularly important if the photograph is being taken indoors.

Closing Thoughts

Photographing LED Christmas lights can be a challenge, but learning how to balance the subject with the surrounding ambient light, is a matter of trial and error. The photographer should adjust settings like white balance on the digital camera, use a tripod to better compare photos, and practice shooting in various environments to find success in capturing LED displays.