Taking pictures of holiday lights is a great part of winter holidays (in my list it goes right after Christmas baking). Christmas lights photography is fun and interesting, but it can also be a challenge.
In this article I’ll show you how to photograph Christmas lights, including fairy lights. You’ll be using ambient light and a carefully placed speedlight.
Five Tips to Get Started
1. Turn Off Your Camera’s Flash
First of all, forget the flash that’s built in your camera. This is a general photography tip, to be honest.
In most of the cases, frontal light looks flat and unappealing. And when you’re trying to capture something as magical and subtle as Christmas lights or fairy lights, it’s even worse.
If you’re trying to capture holiday lights outside, you’re probably far from your subject. The camera flash isn’t going to contribute much to the exposure.
For this kind of shot, in-camera flash is simply useless. Photo by Jamie Davies on Unsplash
If you’re shooting indoors, camera flash, on the contrary, tends to get too powerful and you may end up with an overexposed image.
It overpowers all ambient light and the resulting picture lacks any warmth or cozy atmosphere. Camera flash can also interfere with the colors of fairy lights or Christmas tree lights, bringing an unpleasant blue tinge.
We are going to talk about how to balance Christmas lights with artificial light sources (namely, speedlights), but in-camera flash stays off.
2. Use a Long Shutter Speed
Christmas lights are beautiful, but not very powerful. Our eyes adapt to a dim light rather quickly, so we can see the dim scene as brightly lit. But the camera isn’t that sophisticated.
We need relatively low shutter speed to make the glow visible. The exact number depends on many factors like the power of your particular fairy lights and the nature of ambient lighting. But I can recommend starting with ¼ second and do down from there.
Take a test shot, see if you like the result and if the lights don’t look shiny enough, set the shutter speed to 2 full seconds or even slower.
The difference between 2, 8 and 20 seconds shutter speed, respectively.
Don’t get carried away though. If you set a too long shutter speed, you’ll see an overexposed picture drowning in warm light.
3. Get a Tripod
Slow shutter speeds capture holiday lights in their full glory but they also leave your photo vulnerable to motion blur.
A clumsy gesture, a fallen prop or a cat caught in the frame can cause blur. To minimize that, be careful not to move the items of your composition during exposure. And get a tripod.
You can hang some of the fairy lights on your tripod, to shoot some of them closer to the camera and out of focus
I definitely recommend shooting with a tripod every single time you take a photo (of course, I’m talking about still life photography). It saves time, allowing you to focus on the fine details of your composition.
For Christmas lights and fairy lights, using a tripod is necessary. Shooting handheld compromise the image quality too much.
If you don’t have a tripod, try placing the camera on a steady surface and use the camera’s self-timer feature. That will get rid of camera shake from pressing the shutter release.
4. Shoot With Low ISO to Avoid Grain
High ISO introduces digital grain. I usually shoot with artificial lighting I set purposefully, so most of the time I use the lowest ISO possible.
In cases where you can’t control the ambient light, higher ISO can prove itself useful.
Start with the ISO at around 40. That should be enough to overcome the problems of the dark environment. And just go up or down from that.
My settings for shooting the image above
If you need more light, I would suggest increasing the exposure time first. Raising the ISO should be your last resort.
5. Create Bokeh by Keeping the Aperture Wide Open
Warm, dreamy holiday photography with beautiful bokeh from blurred lights means a wide open aperture more often than not.
It creates a very shallow depth of field, which throws your background out of focus and turns your Christmas lights into little balls of glowing warmth.
Sometimes you don’t even need any objects in focus. Photo by Andrew Knechel on Unsplash
You can make the bokeh flares even bigger and blurrier by increasing the distance between your subject and the lights.
Fairy lights on the foreground don’t look very shiny but put them out of focus, and you get shiny dots.
Also, bokeh can appear in different forms (hexagons, octagons, etc) depending on the number of aperture blades in your lens. And you can make costume bokeh shapes (hearts and stars are pretty popular).
Just make a fake lens hood out of black paper and cut out the small shape you want in the center. Keep the shape to at least 5mm and at most 20mm.
Set your camera to its lowest aperture value and enjoy the results of your custom bokeh filter.
An image made with a custom bokeh filter. Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash
And now, when we got all the basics, let’s try to create a festive still life with Christmas lights using speedlights as the main light source.
Christmas Fairy Lights Step-by-Step
1. Start With a Sketch to Plan Out Your Shoot
First of all, make a sketch. Getting the settings right for Christmas lights is tricky, but not impossible.
A good photograph doesn’t just mean beautiful bokeh in the frame. That’s why we need to think about the mood and atmosphere. Or even better, about the story.
Sketches don’t have to be pretty!
Before coming up with this story, I was thinking about Christmas melodies. They are everywhere now and all of them have something unmistakably Christmassy!
I combined a sequence of notes from Deck the Halls (‘Tis the season to be jolly / Fa la la la la, la la la la) with traditional Christmas baking. The result combines the chalk drawn Fa-la-la-la-la notes (I had to Google them) with cookies.
And I’ve always wanted to photograph a flat lay with a letter to Santa, so I added that to the list too.
2. Add Other Props to Fill Up Your Frame
If you don’t want to make a full sketch, at least make a list of props. I gathered some fir tree branches, Christmas decorations, a couple of ceramic cups, cinnamon, and anise. And I baked some star-shaped cookies.
I cut out paper notes for the musical sequence. And for the Letter to Santa, I prepared a couple of envelopes and crumpled up paper balls.
Props for Santa’s letter. Nothing fancy, as you can see
Don’t forget your holiday lights. It’s better to pick ones with a soft warm light. Multicolored lights may be too distracting.
If you get the right color palette, you can pull off even multicolored Christmas lights. Photo by Gary Runn on Unsplash
For both photos, I used the same background, which I painted dark gray and black.
3. Setting Up Your Workplace and Lighting
On the technical side, everything is simple. We will need a camera with manual mode and adjustable shutter speed, and a steady tripod.
As a light source, I use a simple speedlight behind a large diffuser. You can use soft-box, but if you are shooting your flat lay compositions on the floor, a diffuser would be much more convenient.
It’s also useful to bring a cable release or a remote shutter release, so you can avoid camera shake. And that way you can photograph your own hands as part of the composition if you want to.
A diffuser is great for shooting flatlays, but a softbox is actually better if your workplace is a table.
4. Take a Test Shot
It’s useful for any flat lay you’re about to make but especially with Christmas lights. Low light conditions can be tricky to handle, so it’s better to make sure you have your lights and props under control before you start to arrange a sophisticated composition.
I simply put some paper notes with cookies on my background to see how well they looked together.
Aperture f/2.8, shutter speed of 1/3 c and aperture f/3.2, shutter speed of 3 seconds.
At that stage, I set my lights and adjusted the settings. I took the first shot with a wide open aperture (f/2.8) and a shutter speed of 1/3 c.
Clearly, the lights did not have enough impact in the first image, so I decided to close the aperture to f/3.2 and set a longer shutter speed (up to 3 seconds). Much better!
These are going to be my default settings for these two shots.
5. Turn Off All Ambient Light
Don’t forget to turn off all the ambient light. This shot was made with my home lights still on, and they just overpower every other light source. And the soft glow of fairy lights is just lost.
Turn off all the lights that shouldn’t affect your scene
6. Use a Speedlight to Create Depth
Apart from the Christmas lights themselves, my scene was lit with a speedlight. This creates depth, reveals texture and provides a contrast to the soft warm glow of the fairy lights.
Without the speedlight, I would have a dark scene lit with soft spots of warm light. But with it, I have cookies with clearly visible texture on a background with a colder tinge, which provides a beautiful color contrast to the fairy lights.
Using speedlight as the key light source
My key light is a speedlight behind a large diffuser, working on very low power (about 1/64). For the musical notes photo, I added only a reflector.
For the Letter to Santa photo, I added an extra speedlight. It’s a fill light in a small strip-box on the right side. I needed this to lift the shadows from my hands holding the letter.
7. Putting Together the Composition
I started with drawing staff lines. I know it’s not very accurate, but it’s enough for the reference. Then I added my main heroes, the notes and cookies.
After that, I moved on to the details; the fir tree branches, teacups, and anise stars. As a final touch, I scattered some powdered sugar above the scene. It adds texture and invokes imaginary snow.
And only after that, I added the Christmas lights! Nearly ready!
Working on composition…
…going from the main object to the little details
8. Take the Shot
Check your settings. You may decide that you need a longer shutter speed or a wider aperture, after all.
I had several tries with the Letter to Santa picture before I settled for a slightly longer shutter speed.
The too long shutter speed overpowers the key light and messes up the white balance
Is everything fine? Great! Take a shot.
There’s not much post-processing involved. But you can increase color contrast and give the image a little polish.
I adjusted the contrast, but that’s all the editing I did.
The final Letter to Santa shot
Shooting a still life with Christmas lights step-by-step
Voila! Now it’s time to think of new Christmas stories and capture this magical feeling of wonder in other still life shots.
Wishing you the most wonderful Christmas photos this holiday season!
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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