How to Photograph Christmas Lights

For photographers, Christmas lights are one of the more interesting parts of the Christmas season. They present a genuinely unique opportunity; we don’t hang long strings of tiny lights all year round (unless you’re one of those people who never take them down), so taking photographs of them is one of the ways to capture that Christmas feeling. Taking outdoor, night time shots is rarely easy, and when you are photographing  points of light in the dark there are a few extra things to keep in mind. Here are a few tips to help make sure that you get just the photographs you want this holiday season – without any help from Santa!

Have you captured some beautiful and creative photos of Christmas lights? Share them in our user gallery!

Avoid flicker with a slower shutter speed.

The new style of LED Christmas lights photograph differently than the incandescent bulbs that we used when I was growing up. LEDs often flicker; we don’t notice it because it happens very fast and our brains compensate for it, but our cameras can see it. My initial frames were taken at 1/500th of a second and I couldn’t figure out why every other frame was black – I thought my camera was failing! I quickly realized that it was because my shutter speed was so high that I was catching the lights while they were flickering. I achieved more consistent results once my shutter speed was 1/125th or lower.

Christmas lights in downtown Ottawa December 9, 2014. Photo by Blair Gable

Use a large f-stop (small aperture) for starbursts.

If you crank your f-stop as high as it will go (and compensate with your other settings accordingly) you will find that bright point-light sources (sun, light bulbs, etc.) turn into little starbursts with sharp rays of light shooting out of them. This happens when your aperture gets smaller and light sources mimic/exaggerate the shape of the aperture opening as it gets smaller – it’s science. The effect can be especially cool with Christmas lights, which will become a whole row of tiny little starbursts!

Christmas lights in downtown Ottawa, Canal. December 9, 2014. Photo by Blair Gable
Christmas Tree lights wide aperture

Shoot just after dusk to avoid completely black backgrounds

I like to shoot in the time period between when the sun goes down and the horizon loses its glow. I like just a little bit of light in the sky because once things get too dark the photos lose context. If the sky, or ambient light level, is too bright then the bulbs get lost and the lighter spots become distracting. On the other hand, if the sky or ambient light level is too dark, you might only see tiny spots of light and lose all context anyway. There is a sweet spot, you just have to be ready to shoot when it happen, because it doesn’t last long!

Christmas lights in downtown Ottawa December 9, 2014. Photo by Blair Gable

Tripods can get in the way

Now that most DSLR cameras have great high-ISO capabilities, you don’t even necessarily need your tripod. Shooting at 3200 ISO is no big deal. Depending on your lens/camera weight you should easily be able to hand hold your shots as low as 1/60th of a second. Tripods slow me down and the metal ones get really cold quickly. Unless I am using a very slow shutter speed or have to be very precise with my composition, I would rather handhold my shots and stay mobile.

Other creative elements

As always, be on the look out for other creative elements that can take your photo to the next level. Sometimes pretty colors just don’t cut it. Watch for reflective surfaces, frames to shoot through, backgrounds that compliment your foreground, linear perspective, etc.

Christmas lights in downtown Ottawa December 9, 2014. Photo by Blair Gable

Here are a few bonus suggestions for veteran photographers…

When shooting lights close-up, I like to use a small f-stop (large aperture) so that bulbs in the foreground or background become colorful but indistinct shapes.

Christmas lights in Snow

Leave the flash at home, won’t help. That said, it takes a higher concentration of bulbs to make great Christmas light photos then you might think. Look for the part of town or houses that really went overboard for the best results.

If you are shooting without a tripod and need to stabilize yourself, try crouching down, or leaning against something stable like a wall or tree. Otherwise, hold your breath and dig your elbows into your ribs to keep steady yourself when you press the trigger.

There you have it. Hopefully these tips are helpful and I hope you’ll share your best photos with us in our photo gallery.

Technical stuff:

Camera: Canon 5D Mk III
Lens: Canon 24-70 mm f2.8 II
Mode: Manual
White balance: varied
ISO: 200-3200
Aperture: f2.8-f22
Shutter speed: 1/125th to 20 seconds
File type: Large JPG

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