How to Shoot Great Photos of Christmas Lights – The Basics

December 1, 2014

“I love the twinkling lights, the cookies, and the carols.”

“I love getting together with family, and all the decorations and lights.”

“I love the magic of Christmas.”

Most people say that the beautiful lights are one their favorite things about the holiday season. Christmas lights—indoors and out—make this time of year magical. Most families and many businesses have a tradition of decorating with lights. Many families also have a tradition of driving to specific neighborhoods to see holiday light displays. Capturing visual memories of the lights with a camera (digital or film) can be tricky, but it’s not too hard to learn the basics so your photos of Christmas lights will be spectacular. You’ll just need to learn about when to shoot, what to shoot, and how to set your camera for both the basics and some special effects.

Christmas lights in Sloane Square.jpg

Christmas lights in Sloane Square” by Wolfiewolf – – Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

When to shoot

The best time for shooting is at dusk. Photograph while there is still some light left, but not too sunny. Late afternoon or dusk works best. Balance is the key to taking beautiful holiday light photos—balance between the lights and the ambient light of the surroundings. But there’s a prime time for getting these shots and it only lasts about 10 to 15 minutes.

What to shoot

Fill your frame with interesting things, not just the lights. Include the sky, with its moody colors and expressive clouds to create interesting backgrounds for the lights, advises For indoor shots, include people, pets or a special ornament. Take some images that are asymmetrical since these create visual interest, whereas symmetrical pictures create harmony and stability.

Christmas lights trees and snowman

By Mike Spasoff from Granada Hills, USA (Trees and Snowmen) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

How to shoot

There are 3 main “pillars of photography”: aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

Aperture adds interesting artistic elements by blurring the background or bringing things into focus. Aperture is a hole in a lens, and functions in a way that’s similar to the pupils in our eyes. Oddly enough, a smaller f-stop number means a larger aperture, while a larger f-stop means a smaller aperture. Aperture has a lot to do with depth of field and focus. An f-stop number of f/1.4 has a larger aperture and will blur the background and bring objects in the foreground into focus. A larger f-stop number of f/32 has a smaller opening and will bring all the foreground and background into focus.

ISO is the level of sensitivity of the camera to available light. A higher ISO can result in images with “visual noise.” Most cameras have a base default ISO of 200, but in situations where you are shooting with low lighting (like taking pictures of Christmas lights at dusk), you’ll need a higher ISO setting. ISO also affects how much time is needed to capture the image. An ISO of 1 takes 1 second to capture the image, whereas an ISO of 32 takes 1/32 of a second to capture the image.

Shutter speed or exposure time can either blur the motion or freeze the action. It’s the length of time the shutter is open to expose light to the camera sensor. If the shutter speed is fast (such as 1/1000th of a second), it can freeze the action for something like bird photography. If it is slow, it can create an effective blur.

With that in mind, here are a few things to consider for your images of Christmas lights:

  • ISO—Set the ISO at around 800
  • Shutter Speed—Set it at 1/4 of a second to 2 seconds or more (unless it’s a windy night)
  • White Balance—Set the white balance for tungsten for the lights to look clearest without a yellow hue to the image
  • Stabilize your shot by using a tripod to help eliminate blurry images (also try using your camera’s Night Landscape scene mode)

Photography Special Effects

Christmas Tree Lights Bokeh.jpg

Christmas Tree Lights Bokeh” by Rushilf – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Bokeh Effect

Bokeh comes from the Japanese word meaning “blur” and is a photographic technique in which the lens gives an aesthetic quality to out-of-focus points of light. For bokeh shots you’ll need some Christmas lights and a lens with a relatively ‘fast’ aperture (large aperture, low f-stop number). The key is to shoot at the largest end of your available aperture. This throws the background of your shot out of focus and any Christmas lights look like little balls of light. Bokeh is especially effective if you have one element of your shot that is in focus, like a person, a pet, or a specific Christmas ornament. You can also experiment with Bokeh’s cousin, Tilt-Shift (miniature), and you can even add (or enhance) it with software afterward.

Starburst Effect

Another interesting effect to use with Christmas lights is the starburst effect. For this effect, close up or narrow your aperture (this will mean a higher f-stop number). For the starburst effect the camera will need to be set to at least f/18. This setting can be used for indoor or outdoor photography of Christmas lights.

Digital Camera World offers a free camera settings “cheat sheet” for photos of Christmas lights. Print a copy to carry in your camera bag, or save it on your computer. The settings and adjustments will become second nature to you with practice. Now is the perfect time to practice.

It’s also the perfect time to be sure you have enough LED lights for your home or business.
Holiday LEDs has a wide selection of products year-round, discounts on bulk orders, and a recycling program to take care of your old lights. With beautiful, efficient LED lights and these photo tips, you’ll be set to capture the season in brilliant color.