Tips on how to take successful Christmas lights pictures

how to take pictures of christmas lights
Photo by Seelview

Introduction

Christmas is getting closer and closer, only 20 days to go and everyone is getting busy decorating houses and Christmas trees. I am going to try to cover in this article how the technique needed to take good Christmas lights pictures outside.

Equipment Selection

Lens Selection

The lens needed here will greatly depends on your composition preferences since it can go from wide angle lens, if you want to capture a full house and its decoration, to telephoto lens if you want to isolate some lights. So I’d say be sure to have at least one lens in the 24~28 mm range one in the 50 mm range and one in the 200 mm range. If this is not possible just take your favorite lens and go, just make sure it can accommodate moderately fast apertures in the f/4.5 range.

Camera Support

Make sure to carry with you your sturdiest tripod with you and use it don’t try to take pictures hand-held.

Flash

We will eventually need a flash for Christmas light photography, I’ll explain why later on. An external flash is better but your camera’s built in flash can server the purpose.

Settings

Camera setting

Set your camera to Manual mode, no aperture priority or speed priority just plain manual mode.

Exposure Time

Even if we are using a tripod we need to have relatively high shutter speeds and that’s mainly because of the wind. A blowing wind will make the lights move and it will make them look blurry in the final picture.
One of the problems is finding a shutter speed long enough to get good saturation and not too long to cause flare, over-exposure or blurry pictures because of wind or breeze.
Depending on the weather conditions, I’d say that shutter between 1/10 to 1 ~ 2 seconds are fine.

ISO Settings

As a general rule of thumb, we always want to use the lowest ISO speed possible to minimize noise, however in that case, we need to make sure that the shutter speed is still in the “acceptable” range specified above. My experience points out that ISO speed is usually between 400 and 1600.

Mirror Lockup and Timer

To minimize camera movements to the max you want to enable the mirror lockup and, unless you have a cable release for your camera, enable the timer on your camera.

White Balance

Set your camera’s white balance to “Tungsten” to get good colors in the lights.

Shoot RAW

RAW is much more flexible in editing afterwards and even if the white balance was previously set to tungsten it is not unusual that you will want to tweak it afterwards to your liking.

Aperture

While shooting Christmas lights outdoor try to keep you aperture between f/4 and f/6.7 to get that star effect.

Metering

Christmas lights are brighter than you might think after all they are light sources. most people will tend to over-expose them they will bloom out and loose colors. The trick is to meter for the lights first, take some test shots until you find one where the lights looks great. Most probably you will feel that the rest is dark, but that’s OK till now.

Getting the house and the lights

One of the challenges of Christmas light photography is to get a picture in which both the lights and the house appears. For this problem we have three potential solutions

Timing

If you’d like to get both the house and the lights then the best time of the day to take these pictures is probably just after sunset or just before sunrise. Why? Well because there are enough light in the sky to help light the house and not enough to overkill the lights

Flash

If you happen to be shooting at night use your camera’s flash as a fill light. In the metering section we have already found the correct aperture and exposure time to get nice looking lights, but the rest of the picture is now pretty dark, we are going to use the flash to brighten up these areas.
External Flash Don’t put the flash on its hot-shoe, turn it on in manual mode and set its power to 1/16 to start with then, during the time the exposure is being taken, give some quick “flash burst” in the dark areas to brighten them up a little. This technique is known as paint with light and the only way to get the correct settings is to experiment. Try different flash powers and different number of flash exposures.

Camera’s pop-up flash If you don’t have an external flash, you can always use the camera’s pop-up flash, dial some flash exposure compensation starting with -1.5 and also experiment until you get the results you like.

Bracket your shots Another solution is to take more than one shot exposed differently and merge afterwards in the digital dark room.

Conclusion

As you might have noticed there is no one way to get good pictures of Christmas lightings, if there is just one piece of advice I can give you as a conclusion it will be shoot shoot shoot, the more you test the better results you will end up with.
N.B.: If you’ve been out too long in the cold shooting with your digital camera you might to also read about camera precautions to be taken after shooting in cold weather

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