Photographing Christmas Lights

Photo Source: Wikipedia

The time of the year for photographing Christmas lights is quickly approaching.  Yes, I have already put my Christmas tree up.  Scoff if you’d like, but next time you’re spending an entire weekend putting your Christmas lights up, untangling the rat’s nest that was the 150′ of lights that you thought was a great idea at the time, ask yourself this… Is it really worth going to all that trouble just to take them down a few weeks later?  No, no it’s not.  Photographing Christmas lights isn’t as easy as petting kitty cats all day, there are a few things you need to know.

Your lighting plays a huge role in a well composed Christmas light photograph.  Duh, right?  Well what I mean is it’s not just the brightness of the bulbs on the string of lights you need to worry about, it’s that and the continuous light around you (incandescent/tungsten bulbs indoors or the sun/moon outdoors).  Typically the biggest problem people run into is that they wait too long and its so dark outside that you’re either going to get a great photograph of the string of lights or the background, not both.


Timing will help you with the lighting issue, try to get to wherever you’re going to photograph as the sun is setting.  Photographing Christmas light works best before it gets completely dark, after dark you’re going to have to choose to either properly expose the lights or the surroundings.  If you are taking a picture of the lights at your house you may have to turn them on a little early (if they are on a timer) otherwise they may come on too late, Whoops!


The white balance in your camera can be tricked as well, a good rule of thumb is to set your white balance to one of the indoor settings (you may have to try tungsten or incandescent to see which works best) because the little light bulbs are actually either LED lights or tungsten balanced (the majority still seem to be tungsten based so start with that setting first).  The added benefit is if you’re photographing around dusk the white balance setting will give the sky some interesting color.

Your shutter speed is going to probably be slowed down around 1/15 sec all the way to an entire second.  I shouldn’t have to tell you to bring a tripod… but bring one.  If you’re using a cheap camera or a camera phone (I’m talking to you iPhone photographer) you will have to hold it very still otherwise the photo will come out blurry.


There are no rules that say you need to photograph lights a certain way, heck you may be able to get a great shot when its pitch dark outside, that’s the great thing about photography…  Rules are made to be broken.  Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Try photographing lights near a reflective surface like water, store window, car windshield, etc.
  • Try to photograph lights with the sun setting in the background, double points for that
  • Zoom in nice and close to a light on a tree with your aperture set to its lowest number (widest setting)
  • Use the snow in your photograph to make the lights really stand out

If you get a great shot you’d like to share with us, by all means email it to us and we will include it in the Photo Journal we do every week.  Thanks and Good luck.
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