Capture Beautiful Photos of Holiday Lights

December 19, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

It is that time of year. Now that Christmas is almost here, it is time to start enjoying the season by slowing down and going out to see all those holiday light displays. Interested in photographing them too? Well, here are some tips for capturing memorable shots of the holiday season.

Estes_Park_Christmas_LightsEstes_Park_Christmas_LightsChristmas lights illuminate the empty streets of Estes Park, Colorado just before sunrise on New Year's Day.
New York Christmas BallsNew York Christmas Balls 1. Try a shallow depth of field

Create a shallow depth of field by using a wide open aperture, such as f4 or f5.6. This will get your subject in focus while softening the lights in the background into large, colorful glowing balls of light. This technique creates an effect called bokeh and produces a fun and creative perspective on Christmas lights. 

2. Expose for the lights

Since most photos of Christmas lights will be taken in the evening, it is important to expose for the lights, which are the brightest part of the image, rather than the dark surroundings. This will help prevent blowing out the details in these glowing orbs. You can tell if you have blown out the highlights by using the "blinkies" on your camera's LCD screen (highlight alerts). Parade_of_lights_2017_2Parade_of_lights_2017_2Nutcrackers on a float in the Estes Park Parade of Lights. When the highlights are blinking, it means all detail has been lost in that section of the image. This can happen in any photo any time of the day. For example, if you photograph a landscape with big white fluffy clouds in the sky, overexposed clouds with highlights will be pure white and lack detail. These will appear as white blobs on a print. You can overcome this issue by exposing for the brightest portion of the scene. 

3. Photograph outside in the blue hour

This can be the best time of night to photograph holiday lights because the deep blue in the sky means there is still enough ambient light to illuminate the scene to provide a little detail in the shadows. As the evening gets darker, the surrounding features might fall into total shadow and lack detail. Getting close to the lights will also help illuminate nearby features. Another benefit of photographing lights during the blue hour? Complementary colors — especially when photographing white lights. White lights give off a yellow glow. Yellow and blue are complementary colors on the color wheel and this makes our brains smile (it feels balanced).

Christmas_lights_2017_1Christmas_lights_2017_1A Christmas ball hanging on a Christmas tree surrounded by sparkling lights. 4. Get creative with your lights

Try focusing in really close on the Christmas tree. Photograph Christmas decorations that have ambient light from nearby lights. Or have a child or pet sit under or just in front of the tree to get soft glowing light on them. Another option is to go outside and use the lights as creative light trails. Without any people or objects near you, spin strings of lights in various shapes to create unique patterns. 

5. Use a slow shutter speed and higher ISOs

Even though the lights give off some illumination, the scene, for the most part, is pretty dark. This will require slower shutter speeds (in the range of 1/4 to two seconds) and higher ISOs. The slower shutter speeds will also require using a tripod, especially if you don't want ISO levels that introduce noise. To handhold the camera, raise the ISO level or try setting the camera on a steady surface, such as a flat brick wall, and set the timer to take the photo. 

Denver City and County Building at ChristmasDenver City and County Building at ChristmasDenver City and County Building decorated in glorious holiday lights. 6. Suggestions for photo ideas  Christmas LightsChristmas Lights

  • Try a street full of shops decorated for Christmas
  • Pets under the tree
  • Fresh snowfall over lights on a pine tree outside
  • City street with holiday revelers and lots of lights
  • Illuminated decorations on a Christmas tree
  • A handful of lights
  • Christmas parade (a parade of lights)
  • A child's face illuminated by lights from the Christmas tree
  • Christmas tree photographed out of focus
  • A downtown area decorated with lights (maybe from above or a distance)
  • Nativity scenes
  • Iconic holiday scenes, like those at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City

Have fun with the photography and lights, and have a very merry Christmas.


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