Photographing Christmas Lights

December 22, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

There are only ten days left to catch the glow in photos of Christmas lights. 

We haven't had many opportunities in Colorado to photograph the lights with fresh snow. A bit of a bummer but it happens in these drier years. 

I spent many nights trying to catch just the right looks for photos of Christmas lights. The conditions didn't always work in my favor — fog one night, lack of snow another, heavy clouds on more nights than not. But overall, it was a fun season trying a few new things. Here are some ideas for you as we wrap up the year and you look for something to photograph over the next week. 

People with Christmas lights

All that color produces great opportunities to photograph silhouettes of people against the lights. When you visit one of the public displays, like the Winter Wonderlights in Loveland or the Garden of Lights in Fort Collins (both in northern Colorado), you can't escape having people around. 

Instead, embrace the opportunity, expose for the lights and make a silhouette of the people. To capture a silhouette, make sure your shutter speed is fast enough freeze any movement of the people. You may have to up the ISO quite a bit or open up the aperture. The latter shouldn't be too much of an issue for depth of field if the lights and people are close to each other because the background at night drops off into darkness anyway. 

The alternative option is to use a slow shutter speed and then let the people "move" through the photo. They blurred motion will create the sense of movement while still showing that people are present yet not reveal who they are. 

Framing people, and objects, in Christmas lights makes for a beautiful Christmas portrait. Use a shallow depth of field and the Christmas lights for illuminating the face and the background will drop off with lots of glowing light and the person's face will have a soft glow on it. This works for pets too.

Finally, since most Christmas displays do not move, you can use a very, very slow shutter speed with moving people. If they are in dark clothes (avoiding colors like white or yellow), they actually will just about disappear in the image. 

Get creative

There are many options for capturing photos of lights — up close, wide angle, shallow depth of field. 

But how about trying some intentional camera movement. Pick a focal point and then zoom in and out. Or move the camera around in various movements. The options really are endless here but it will take many, many tries to find something that is appealing and really gets the movement right.

Another option is to shoot the lights intentionally out of focus. This technique will create lots of glowing orbs of color, perfect for a background image or just a representation of the season's color. 

You can also try a multiple exposure. Many newer cameras have this in-camera feature where you combine multiple frames into one abstract image. I know on my camera it does create a jpg file rather than a RAW file, one of the downsides, but it is something fun to play with on something stationary like Christmas lights. This photo captured the same subject but I walked in to take a series of six frames at different distances.

Scenic images

Photographing scenes of Christmas lights has many of the same challenges as night photography. The ambient light is too dark for stopped down apertures so you have to use settings on your camera that seem counterintuitive of landscape photography. 

Go wide open, like f3.2 or f4 and be far from subjects. Remember to remove filters from your lens, as leaving them on will reduce the light hitting the sensor. And use a long shutter speed. All of this requires using a tripod and remote shutter as well. 

Another alternative I prefer is to photograph Christmas lights during the blue hour. This allows you to have enough light to still shoot in a stopped down aperture (f16 being my preference for my 24-70mm lens) while having some color in the sky rather than just a dark black area. Often you can pick up a few stars too.

And Christmas lights make great reflections in water and ice. Look for those light displays set near water — frozen, thawed or flowing — and find the angle needed to capture the lights plus the reflection. 

There are times when tripods just aren't feasible when photographing Christmas lights. Parades are a perfect example. In these situations, the only option really is to open up that aperture and boost the ISO as high as you need to go and then use noise reduction software, like Topaz AI or Topaz DeNoise, to bring that noise back into a reasonable range. 

Watch the highlights

With any photo of Christmas lights, the challenge is watching that you don't blow out the highlights. Especially on the long exposures, white lights in particular can be a challenge. If the opportunity is available, try photographing a few frames at a few different exposures, like this photograph of The Stanley Hotel. I wanted the dark blue sky above Lumpy Ridge but when I exposed long enough to get the sky and detail in the rocky ridge, the lights on the hotel blew out. Instead, I captured two frames, one exposed for the sky and mountains and one exposed for the hotel, and then blended the layers in Photoshop. 

The final image now shows off the lovely complementary colors of the blue sky and gold tone of the lights.

Have a wonderful time photographing the last of the holiday lights. Hopefully you can capture a few with falling snow.

Merry Christmas!

This post doesn't include any affiliate links but if you would like to help support my work, you can buy me a coffee for those cold Colorado days.
 


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