take better christmas light photos - bubbablue and me

How to take better photos of Christmas lights

Christmas is one of the times of year when we want to capture all those magical moments (except for my OH who refuses all photos on Christmas day which means we don’t have any over the years – I’m sad about that, that N will have none to look back on).  There’s so many photography opportunities from the festive run up in advent, outdoor light displays and trails, stately home house displays, school events, and capturing your own family traditions at home.  And those perfect wintry scenes – from misty sunrises to snow scenes.

Yes, we can all shoot on auto, but I’m a big believer in getting as much right as possible and not having to spend ages editing everything. I like to keep my photos as real as possible, so just a brief touch up for lighting and sharpening, and resize for the blog, otherwise most of what I use is pretty much straight out of camera. Shooting in low light is harder though, so RAW photography on cameras does allow for picking up more than a camera might see.

Here’s tips for those of us (because I always need a reminder) who don’t want to always have to spend ages sorting out our manual settings everytime we want to take photos. From beginners to those who want to do a bit more with their cameras.

take better christmas light photos - bubbablue and me

Tips for better Christmas lights  photography

The basics

1. Use the camera that works for you and you always have with you. If you want to travel light then take your phone. Just make sure it’s a good one – look for a camera with pro settings (although they can be hard to get right), or use an app which can give you options for using shutter or aperture priority and doing more with your basic settings.

2. Learn how to use your camera before trying to take shots.

3. Take a tripod if you’re not able to keep the camera really still. Or get used to looking for things to rest the camera on. The trick for much low light photography is a lower shutter speed to get as much light in as possible alongside the low aperture. That means you need to ensure there’s no camera wobble. You can usually get away with it for small screen instagram photos, but if you want to use photos on your blog, or in photo albums, you might find blown up, they’re not in focus.

4. If you use auto, set your focus (quite often you just touch on the screen for phone cameras and cameras with a touchscreen). Or try using the scene setting – try a couple – night scene, party scene, fireworks depending on the amount of lights and whether the lights are static or moving.

5. If you’re getting off auto or struggling to get your camera to get the lights in focus, stick with priority settings like aperture or shutter priority. It means you only have to worry about 1 setting at a time. This will limit you, but will start you off until you can use full manual.

6. If you have a DSLR or mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses, make sure you’re using a lens which has a low F stop to let the most light in. And learn how to set your ISO rather than relying on auto ISO. 

Outdoor lights

Shoot at dusk ideally with a tripod. Rather than increasing the ISO which makes photos grainy, change the shutter speed instead. If you can still see surroundings, you’ll get a much nicer photo than just lights floating in the dark.

blenheim palace front lit up at dusk
F/1.5, ISO 250, 1/27 sec – Samsung Galaxy S9 

Use everything in the frame to help the lights be brightened, e.g snow, puddles, water, they’ll all reflect the lights.

Find tips on shooting outdoor lights and outdoor house lights using 2 different lenses with different settings.

Moving lights 

Capturing trails of lights (light displays or car trails etc) depends on having long exposure. Essentially leaving the camera sensor open for longer to capture the moving light. With a phone camera you’re fairly limited – mine will allow 1 second of exposure, but with a decent camera and if you want longer trails you’ll need longer. You can try phone apps to lengthen shutter speed if a phone is all you have.  I’ve had a bit of success with waterfalls and carousels using my mobile phone, but you’ve more flexibility with a camera on shutter priority.

cascades at Blenheim under lights
F/2.8, ISO 250, Shutter 1/4 sec
lights swirl on the hill
F/5.6, ISO 200, Shutter 1 sec 

Steadiness is required, so the longer exposure you’re using, you’ll need to use a tripod, and using a shutter release cable will also be helpful. I rarely use one for Christmas light trails – if I think my hands are too cold to be steady I’ll find a fence to prop the camera on.

For more detail on long exposure light trails, this article explain all.

Christmas trees

1. Traditional family tree shots. Try creating these using close ups of little hands putting ornaments on the tree. Or for something pretty try taking photos of the family around the lit up Christmas tree looking in through the window. 

re-decorating the christmas tree

Getting the exposure right is the hard bit to see the tree against a background rather than just black, or too light where you can’t see the lights properly. 

If you’re struggling to get the lights to look right, try changing the white balance from auto to tungsten or incandescant which reflects the type of lighting you have on your tree..

Try these tips on timings and use of settings to get light shots right. These rules apply outside too – just look at shooting the half hour before it gets dark so you can get some interest alongide the lights.

2. Baubles and macro shots

On a phone, try using portrait mode to get blur behind, or a slight zoom in. With a camera try using macro extension tubes if you don’t have a macro lens. The big watch out with baubles is reflections as you don’t usually want to see yourself taking a photo in the bauble. 

deer in a bauble on a christmas tree

3. Creating bokeh,  or the blur behind a subject.

There are 2 options to play around with.

Distance – leaving enough room between your subject and the lights in the background.  This can be done on a phone – I find I need to zoom in a little to do this and then focus lock on my subject. Or try the portrait mode if there is one. 

or Aperture. Lower your aperture, the lower the F stop the more the bokeh.

table in front of christmas tree

Generally it creates circular bokeh, but if you want to try alternative shapes you can cut out shapes and put the mask over your lens – it’s hard to get the size of the hole right but with a bit of practice you can get some good effects.

heart bokeh on a christmas tree

Bokeh effects can be created using sunlight, or any other light source, not just Christmas lights. It translates from the Japanese as blur, so any kind of blurred backgound is bokeh not just Christmas lights.

Try this for more information on bokeh.

4. Starbursts

To get little starbursts for each light you need a higher aperture, e.g F/16. These create rays or bursts of light rather than bokeh blurriness. For more settings details, try the tips in this how to make your lights sparkle article.

close up bauble and starburst lights

Finally, if you’re working on camera, or using pro settings on your phone, set it to capture RAW. I tend to do both jpeg and RAW because often the jpeg is fine. But with RAW, you can bring more out on the editing.

Useful resources

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