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How to take pictures of Christmas lights

Jamie Davies / Unsplash

Photographing Christmas lights is almost as hard as hanging them while wearing oversized mittens and balancing on an icy metal ladder. Night photography is always difficult, and cold weather and flickering lights only add to the challenge. Before you head out to ooh and aww over the local light displays this year, learn how to take pictures of Christmas lights with the steps below.

What you’ll need

A camera and lens

For the most control and best results, a DSLR or mirrorless camera is the go-to tool for photographing Christmas lights, but a newer phone with a good night mode — like the iPhone 11 Pro or Google Pixel 4 — can get great results for more casual photographers. With an interchangeable lens camera, a lens with a bright aperture, like f/1.8, is recommended, but it’s possible to photograph Christmas lights with a kit lens, too.

Smartphones won’t offer the detail and performance of a larger camera, but you can move beyond some of their limitations with an app that offers more control over the settings compared to the native camera app. Check out Camera+ 2, Halide, or Open Camera.

A tripod

Unless you’ve got a camera with a crazy good optical stabilization system — like the Olympus OM-D EM1X — a tripod is a huge help. While some scenes will be bright enough to shoot handheld, you’ll get sharper photos, less grain, and more creative options if you can steady your camera. You don’t necessarily need one of the best tripods, but make sure what you get can safely support the weight of your camera and lens.

Cold weather gear

Be sure to protect yourself and your gear when photographing in cold weather. If the weather calls for snowfall, you’ll want to be working with a weather-sealed camera or use a rain cover or be sure to brush off any snow before it melts. Fingerless gloves or touchscreen gloves are also a favorite among photographers for keeping warm while still having access to all the camera controls.

Optional accessories

There are a few accessories that add an extra dash of magic to pictures of lights. A cross screen star point filter will turn each light into a starburst — the effect can be overwhelming for some situations, but can work well if there aren’t too many lights in the scene. Prisms can also be used create cool reflections, and the Lensbaby Omni system gives you a few different options for special effects.

Hillary K Grigonis/Digital Trends

How to take pictures of Christmas lights

1. Find the scene

Christmas lights offer plenty of opportunities for great shots. Do a bit of exploring and find the lights you want to photograph. A wide, landscape-style shot of lots of lights works well, but don’t rule out photographing something with the lights blurred into bokeh in the background. Composition tricks like looking for leading lines, finding repeating elements, and framing using the rule of thirds can work well here.

James Wheeler / Unsplash

2. Adjust camera settings

Fully automatic exposure modes may fail in low light photography, but aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode, or manual mode can all work well for photographing Christmas lights.

Aperture priority: Use this mode (A or AV on the mode dial) to control depth of field, or how much of the scene is in focus. Choose a small aperture (large f-number) like f/8 or f/11 to create a deep depth of field and keep everything in focus. Or choose a large aperture (small f-number) like f/2.8 or f/1.8 to create a shallow depth of field and turn any lights in the background into soft, colorful blur circles.

Shutter priority mode: Use this mode (S or Tv) when you want to control for motion in the scene. A slow shutter speed, such as 30 seconds, will blur the motion — ideal for taking photos of Christmas lights where the people milling around turn into artistic, blurry streaks while the lights — which are stationary — remain crisp. If you want to freeze the motion, you’ll need a higher shutter speed that’s still low enough to let in enough light, like 1/60 second.

Keep in mind, very slow shutter speeds won’t work unless you have a tripod.

Manual mode: Use this mode (M on the dial) to get full control over the exposure settings. In manual mode, you can control both depth of field and blur together. You’ll need to adjust the ISO (or set it to auto) to make sure you get a proper exposure.

If you’d rather avoid manual mode but still want full control over exposure, you can use exposure compensation in aperture or shutter priority modes to lighten or darken the image as needed.

3. Focus

Depending on how much light those Christmas lights are giving off, autofocus may or may not work. Try using autofocus, and if the camera hunts back and forth, or if the resulting image on the LCD screen appears out of focus, you’ll need to use manual focus.

Manual focus might sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Most newer digital cameras have a feature called focus peaking, which highlights in-focus areas of the frame in red or another color. Turn this feature on in your camera’s menu so that it’s easy to see if the shot is in focus or not. If you’re shooting a DSLR, switch it to live view mode to use this feature.

On a smartphone, many manual camera apps also have manual focus with focus peaking — exactly where the setting is will depend on the app that you are using.

4. Trigger the shot hands-free

If you’re on a tripod and using a slow shutter speed, use the camera’s self-timer or a remote to trigger the shot. Most cameras with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth can be controlled remotely from a smartphone app. This allows for the sharpest photo, without accidentally shaking the camera when you touch it.

If you are using a faster shutter speed, such as 1/60, remotely triggering the shot isn’t necessary and you can take the photo by simply pressing the shutter release.

5. Review the photo and troubleshoot

Once you have the shot, take a look at the LCD screen to identify any problems while you have the chance to make corrections. Use the zoom tool to zoom in on the subject and make sure that it’s in focus — if not, refocus and take the shot again (you may need to switch to manual focus). Watch out for blur that could be due to motion from bumping the tripod or even the wind affecting the tripod.

A problem that’s unique to Christmas lights — or rather, photographing lights in general — is that some types of lights will have a flicker that’s not detectable by the human eye. If a section — or all — of the Christmas lights in the shot appear to be off, that’s likely what happened. If you spot “unlit” Christmas lights in your photo, turn your shutter speed below 1/60 — this will keep the shutter open long enough not to catch that flicker. Some cameras also have an anti-flicker mode that you can turn on in the menu.

Hillary K Grigonis/Digital Trends

6. Edit.

Most photos could benefit from a little boast after the shoot. For Christmas light photography, editing can punch up colors and remove noise. Using your favorite photo editor (or one of our favorite photo editors like Adobe Lightroom or the best alternatives), increase the contrast in the photo by lightening the highlights and whites and darkening the blacks and shadows. For color, add a bit of vibrance — but not too much, or your photo will quickly look over-edited. Most editing apps — including many smartphone camera apps — have simple sliders for controlling all of these settings.

If you shot with a high ISO in order to get a faster shutter speed, use the software’s noise reduction tools. The key is to set the noise reduction at a level where the noise isn’t noticeable, but the details are still sharp. You can get away with more noise reduction the smaller your eventual output size will be, which is good news for Instagram. If you want to display a photo large on your website or make a print, be careful not to be too heavy-handed with the noise reduction slider as it may just make the photo look blurry.

While it’s possible to get lucky and snap a quick photo of Christmas lights that looks good, the more work you put into it, the higher your chances of getting great pictures. The above steps will help get you there, and allow you to get predictable, repeatable results.

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Hillary K. Grigonis
Hillary never planned on becoming a photographer—and then she was handed a camera at her first writing job and she's been…
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