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How to Photograph Christmas Lights (Best Settings and Tips!)

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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.

Christmas melody notes flat lay with star-shaped cookies, fir tree branches, wooden tray, anise stars, and decorations.
Christmas carol concept for a header or postcard

How to Set Up Your Camera for Shooting Christmas Lights

1. Use a Slow 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 slow 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.

Christmas still life with fairy lights triptych
The difference between 2, 8 and 20 seconds shutter speed.

In the example image above, you can see the difference that a slow shutter speed means. Because of it, the fairy light will transform into starburst as the aperture size will narrow.

Don’t get carried away though. If you set a too long shutter speed, you’ll see an overexposed picture drowning in warm light.

2. 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.

Christmas lights still life set up
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, and adding a remote control is also useful. Shooting handheld compromises 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.

3. Shoot With Low ISO to Avoid Grain

High ISO produces digital grain if you don’t have an ISO invariant camera body. 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 100 (Some DSLR’s are capable of going below 100). That should be enough to overcome the problems of the dark environment. And just go up from that if necessary.

Redberry tea on a stack of books with fairy lights. Christmas drink on a dark background with copy space

My settings for shooting the image above were: shutter speed: 1/6 s, aperture: f/5.6, ISO: 125.

If you need more light, I would suggest increasing the exposure time first. Raising the ISO should be your last resort.

4. Create Bokeh with Shallow Depth of Field

You might want to create warm, dreamy holiday photography. To include beautiful bokeh from blurred lights, you will need a wide-open aperture more often than not.

It creates a very shallow depth of field, which throws your background out of focus. It also turns your Christmas lights into little balls of glowing warmth.

Colorful bokeh Christmas lights
Sometimes you don’t even need any objects in focus.

You can make the bokeh flares even bigger and blurrier by increasing the distance between your subject and the lights. You also need to have an aperture around or below f/4 to get a decent bokeh in your images.

5. Don’t Use an On-Camera 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.

A snowy street scene at Christmas
For this kind of shot, an on-camera flash is simply useless.

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 cosy atmosphere. Camera flash can also interfere with the colours of fairy lights or Christmas tree lights, bringing an unpleasant blue tinge.

Inspirational Christmas Lights Photo Ideas

There are many ways to incorporate Christmas lights to your picture. They can serve as decoration, background, and even as a primary lighting source. Here we collected some photo ideas that you can use your holiday lights for.

Create Bokeh Lights On The Christmas Tree

There is no better way to capture the magic of the Christmas tree than covering it with lights and showing its shape with gorgeous bokeh. Use manual focus to blur the tree and let your lens create bokeh out of the tiny lights.

Bokeh lights in the shape of a Christmas tree

Take a Closeup Photo of Christmas Ornaments

You can make use of the lights when taking photos of Christmas decorations on the tree. The closer you get to the subject and the wider aperture you use, the nice the bokeh in the background will be.

Christmas ornaments and lights on a tree

Light Portraits with Christmas Lights

To add an extra level of creativity to your Christmas photos, try taking portraits where the fairy lights are the primary light source. Make sure to use spot metering and meter the light based on the lights. This way, they will not be blown out, and you will get attractive low-key lighting on the person’s face.

A portrait of a man holding a string of Christmas fairy lights to his face

Create Shaped Bokeh

Bokeh can appear in different forms (hexagons, octagons, etc) depending on the number of aperture blades in your lens. You can easily make custom bokeh shapes for your own photos.

Just make a fake lens hood out of black paper and cut out the small shape you want in the centre. 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.

heart shaped bokeh lights

Conclusion

Christmas lights come in handy when taking Christmas photos. They are easy to find, cheap, and they create a truly beautiful atmosphere in every image. We hope that this article has shown you what to pay attention to when setting up your camera for photographing lights.

Now it’s time to think of new Christmas stories and capture this magical feeling of wonder in other still life shots. We wish you the most wonderful Christmas photos this holiday season!

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