News & Reviews

5 Tips For Photographing Christmas Lights

By Lyndsey Abercromby, Little Duckling Photography Training


It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and social media is full of beautiful festive images. Taking photos of Christmas lights can be tricky, and there is no single group of settings that will guarantee great photos in any situation. Read on for tips on how to improve your Christmas photos. 


Tip 1 // Shooting Outdoors? Don’t Wait Until It Gets Dark


The trick to getting good photos of outdoor light displays is to shoot before the sky gets completely dark. Unlike human eyes, cameras find it difficult to compress a bright and dark areas (i.e. Christmas lights and the darker surrounds) into a single image. This means if you take photos of Christmas lights when it is completely dark you will be able to see the lights but the area around the light will be dark and lacking in detail. 


Blue hour, i.e the hour after sunset before it goes completely dark, is the ideal time to capture vibrant Christmas lights as well as some of the details of their environment. Don’t be caught out by the name, as blue hour actually lasts much less that an hour – you might only get 10 – 15 minutes of good shooting time. 


Tip 2 // Avoid Using Flash


Your camera, whether it is a point and shoot or a DSLR, is likely to want to turn on the flash in low lighting situations. Unless you’re confident in lighting, using a flash is best avoided when photographing Christmas Lights. If you are standing close to the lights you’re photographing then using your flash will wash the bright lights out and make them look muted. If you’re stood far away from the lights then the flash will simply be ineffective. 


Tip 3 // Experiment With Your Exposure Settings 


Using a low ISO is preferable when taking photos of Christmas lights. This will keep noise and grain in your photos to a minimum, and ensure sharp, clean images. 


The aperture you choose will determine how the Christmas lights appear in your photograph. Shooting with a wide aperture will allow you to get a beautiful bokeh effect, a staple of so many Christmas photos. On the other hand, shooting with a narrow aperture allows you to capture a beautiful starburst effect. 


Tip 4 // Use a Tripod


The next tip is to use a tripod, especially when you’re shooting with a low ISO and using a narrow aperture to get the starburst effect. When taking photos of Christmas lights It’s likely that you will need to slow your shutter speed in order to let enough light in your camera. Pictures taken hand-held at a slow shutter speed often come out blurry due to camera shake, using a tripod will give you sharper images. 


If you don’t have a tripod, you can experiment with placing your camera on a steady surface. Alternatively you can increase your ISO (therefore increasing your cameras sensitivity to light) to allow you to handhold your camera. This approach is likely to introduce noise into your photos. Whether your camera is on a steady surface or a tripod it’s a good idea to use the self-timer to ensure no camera shake is caused by you pressing the shutter button. 


Tip 5 // Think about how the light falls on your subject


You might want to include someone in your photo of Christmas tree lights. There are a couple of options here you might want to experiment with. 
If you want the person (or pet) in the foreground with your Christmas tree lights in the background, you will want to think about a light source for your subject. The easiest way to achieve this is if you subject can face a window (or an open door) during daylight, and use natural light to illuminate their face. 


An alternative is to have your subject facing the Christmas tree, the lights will then illuminate your subjects face. Your subject could be close to the tree, perhaps hanging a favourite decoration, or further away, perhaps opening a present next to the tree. If you fancy getting creative, you could create a silhouette of your subject in front of your Christmas tree.


Advanced Tip // White Balance Correction


Shooting artificial light in low ambient light may cause problems with white balance. If you normally set your camera to auto white balance you may want to experiment with some of the white balance presets settings available on your camera. Alternatively, use a grey card (or a piece of white paper) to manually set the white balance) for the lighting conditions you’re shooting in. 


Are you looking for some creative photography ideas to try out this Christmas? Head over to my blog for some creative Christmas light photography ideas to try, as well as tips for how to achieve them. 


Check out more useful photography tips and ideas at: www.littleduckling.co.uk/blog