No matter where you are in the world, Christmas is a great time to spend with friends and family. For many, “it’s the season for making snowmen and snowball fights, but for others (in the Southern Hemisphere)” it’s the time of year to don Santa hats and pants (boots, mind you), relax on the beach and gorge on prawns and mangoes.
Silly season is also when cool decorations go up all over the world, many of which are lights. Almost every town and city around the world has Christmas parades during the month of December, giving locals and visitors something to enjoy and, of course, photography.
Even before electricity, homes lit candles to put on window sills and hang on trees (talk about the fire hazard!), until Thomas Edison and his apprentice began producing the little lights we use today. Some homes are completely converted by the families who live there, while more extravagant offerings can be found in towns and cities that are definitely worth taking a picture of.
However, it can be difficult to capture unique, well-framed shots of these gorgeous screens, particularly when some of the screens are large or when you’re unsure how to set the camera to shoot the string lights. If you’re looking for pictures that you can show off or turn into Christmas cards, we’re here to help you figure out how.
Pack the right equipment
To shoot Christmas light displays you will need a manual mode camera so you have the most control over your shooter. You’ll need to change shutter speed, aperture size, and ISO occasionally, depending on what you’re shooting. You’ll also need a tripod, especially if you’ll be using long shutter speeds, and for versatility, pack a quality wide-angle zoom lens.
There are a few other items you can consider carrying with you, if you feel like getting creative. The first is a macro lens for shooting close-ups of individual adornments, while the second is an accidental screen filter that adds starburst effects to the lights – in case you want to add a touch of sparkle to some of your shots.
If you have the time and inclination to do some DIY, you can even make some bouquet cards. All you need is some black cardboard, a hobby knife, and scissors. Simply cut out a circular piece of black cardboard so that it can be attached to the lens like a hood, then cut out the shape you want the bokeh to look like in the center of the circular piece. You just need to cut one.
Tape the cardboard to the front of the lens, set the camera to its lowest aperture (aka fully open – maybe f/4 or f/2 if you go that far), and you’re all set. It’s cheap, easy, and you can make whatever you want.
Shoot at dusk or twilight
The light displays won’t turn on before sunset, so the best time to go out to catch these beautiful Christmas displays would be at dusk or twilight. This is also when there’s just a hint of light in the sky to add some soft textures to your images, while also adding an extra layer of depth (giving it a 3D effect).
Don’t worry if you miss the blue hour. While some night shots can appear flat and one-dimensional, the darkness can give way really well when capturing some Christmas shows.
Find the right place
Christmas shows can be popular spots, which means you may not always find the best place to shoot from. However, if you can locate a higher ground—a porch or a rooftop—you can get some nice wide-angle shots of the entire displays.
Also find places where you can frame your picture well. Any element that lends itself to the main lines (anything that draws attention to the subject along the line) would be excellent. Leading lines can be anything from bridges to cobblestones, or even escalators if you’re shooting indoors.
If main lines aren’t an option, frame the Christmas tree or display in some other way — inside an arch or under a dome. Make sure to look around – there will be great places to shoot from so you can find unique angles.
One unique angle of ground level. This often adds mood and atmosphere to your shots, and tells a story about what’s going on around you. So be sure to experiment.
Say no to flash
When capturing the lights, the camera flash is useless. In fact, it will overexpose the frame and wash out the colors of the scene. It will also end up highlighting unwanted details, like the monitor wires, because it’s darker. So, no matter when you go out to capture Christmas lights, stay away from your camera flash if it has one.
Choose the correct measurement mode
The camera can detect the amount of light you’re entering using a metering sensor, which then automatically adjusts the exposure for that specific setting. For capturing displays of light, where brightness can vary across a scene, it’s best to dig into the camera’s menu system and select Multi-area metering (it’s called evaluative metering on Canon imaging tools, Nikon calls it matrix metering), although many cameras come with this as default. This will detect light across the entire frame using several metering areas and optimize exposure accordingly.
Try slow shutter speeds
Christmas lights tend to flicker, or there may be some missing or not working along a string, which the camera can pick up as an unwanted black spot when shooting at high shutter speeds. While a lot of the latest cameras have anti-flicker, it’s still not enough at high shutter speeds. So we recommend experimenting with shutter speeds around 1/125th of a second, which should be enough to make the lights look smooth and sharp as well.
However, feel free to use slower speeds as well (try 2 seconds or even 8 seconds), especially if you’re on the street, as light lanes of traffic can add some interesting dimensions (even leading lines) to your photography.
What is an f file?
There is no perfect aperture for Christmas exposure. You can try a wide open nostril (small F number) to capture a sharp foreground with lots of bokeh in the background, while a smaller aperture (top F number) can sharpen the entire frame. So the aperture setting you choose depends on what you’ll actually be shooting. To keep things simple, an aperture of around f/8 will keep the frame sharp and will provide some depth of field as well, but feel free to experiment.
Modify the ISO
Remember that when you change shutter speed and aperture, it also changes the amount of light entering the camera. This means that you’ll also need to adjust your ISO levels so you don’t overexpose or overexpose your shot.
High ISO values can add noise (grain) to night photography and blur details. So if you’re using a slower shutter speed, we recommend starting at a base ISO (100 or 200, depending on your camera) and moving up, but be careful with values over 400 as noise can become an issue, particularly for older DSLRs. However, most modern mirrorless cameras and DSLRs should be able to handle a higher ISO (at least up to 6400) with ease.
Have fun with the bokeh
Christmas is a great time to capture gorgeous bokeh (aka blurry background lights that add mood to a photo). There will be so many lights around that you could fill an entire frame with them, so go crazy. You can even use a macro lens for this, if you’re shooting indoors – focus on a subject and let the background get really blurry.
If you’re experimenting with bokeh, switch your camera to aperture priority, then open the aperture as much as you want (f/2 or f/4). Use manual focus to prevent the camera from automatically focusing on and sharpening lights.
If you have a subject in frame, make sure it is close to the camera and a short distance from the lights. This will make the blurred lights in the background appear larger, while placing a subject close to the lights will reduce bokeh.
While the displays themselves are worth capturing, there will be other things to photograph as well. If you’re at the Christmas fair, try setting your camera up with a slow shutter speed to capture the rides, or people (including your family) laughing and enjoying the season.
Some more tips
Christmas displays are essentially strings of LED lights, which means you may need to change your camera’s white balance to “tungsten” or “incandescent,” usually indicated by the light bulb symbol. This will remove the yellowish tint (color temperature) that can be found in images taken at the Auto (AWB) or daylight setting when shooting under artificial lights.
Add some sparkle:
While you can use the cross screen filter to add starburst effects to the lights, this can be done in camera without the need for a filter. When zooming in on lights on a tree, try to use a small aperture (f/18 or smaller) to keep the light entering the camera to a minimum.
When capturing the Christmas spirit at home, you can use your camera flash if you’re taking selfies. This will help the main subject stand out from the rest of the scene but be careful not to overexpose any lights within the frame itself.
No “real” camera? Your smartphone will:
If you don’t have a camera with manual mode, the latest smartphones will also do a good job, especially if they were flagships of the last two or three years. The Google Pixel 6 and Pixel 7 range, the Samsung Galaxy S20 and above (especially the Galaxy S22 Ultra), or even the Huawei P50 Pro and Oppo Find X5 Pro are some of the best camera phones around, and will do a great job when shooting. Displays night light. If your phone has a dedicated night mode, be sure to switch that on, but for the most part, modern phones detect the scene automatically and adjust settings accordingly.
Put the camera a little farther away:
Focusing on your photography is all well and good, but don’t miss out on the fun and spirit of Christmas while taking pictures. Every now and then put your camera down and get all in – maybe enjoy a hot cocoa (if you’re in a cooler climate) or grab a snack at a kiosk and, in fact, see what’s going on around you. You might even see some things you can photograph that you wouldn’t have imagined capturing.