Christmas is almost here! Trees are being decorated, wreaths are being hung and don’t forget about the lights! Christmas lights have to be one of my favorite parts about the holiday. From the soft glow of a Christmas tree, to wild and crazy light shows and installations in the yards of suburbia, it’s amazing to see homes and buildings strung with an array of light strings. Though not everyone decorates their houses in this electrifying tradition, I am sure most have enjoyed viewing their fair share of lights during the holiday season. Here are a few tips on getting great photos of Christmas lights this year!
Firsts Things First
Exposure, White Balance, and Stabilization: If you want to capture the structure and the lights you have a small window of time and balancing the exposure without post production help is extremely hard to do. There is usually a 15 minute window within twilight hours to accomplish this, but also depends on the amount of lights and their brightness. Never fear! If you shoot in RAW, just a few simple tweaks to your images will make them shine. To start, you will want to have stabilization for your camera – this can be a tripod, beanbag or even a monopod (if you are really careful). If you are caught without one, just learn to be resourceful by bracing yourself. Also, try shooting your photos with a Tungsten white balance. This will deepen your blues and balance out the whites in the string lights.
The Right Angle
The Lens and The Angle. For these types of shots, you will want a wide angle to lens to provide plenty of scenery to complete the image. If all you have is the kit lens, than use the wider end of the spectrum. My images were shot with a 14mm on a full frame sensor, just so you have a reference. 18mm-24mm on crop or full frame body should be just fine. Make sure to get low in your composition, the sky is so beautiful this time of night so take full advantage of it! Remember to take plenty of shots, the subject isn’t moving but your settings should be. If all you images are the same and you find out later they didnt work, they are all useless. Try a few different things like exposing for your highlights, midtones and shadows. That way, you could even do HDR image in post processing.
Editing Christmas Lights. Here is where the magic happens. You can see here that the HDR I tried did not work with this specific set of images; the lights are too bright. The reason why was in two of the three, the lights were completely over exposed and threw the balance off. So what I did was take my underexposed image in Lightroom, boosted the shadows and dropped the highlights and then found a nice balancing point with the exposure slider. If your image then looks a little too contrasty or too flat adjust your blacks slider. MCP’s Enlighten Presets for Lightroom can accomplish this in just a few clicks for you. All of this is also possible in Adobe Camera Raw.
I hope you have enjoyed this and it gives you some insight on how you can better your Christmas lights photography this year! Always remember to take some time without the camera in your hands to enjoy your surroundings. In a season that is so packed full of things to do, take some time to relax. Merry Christmas! Want a fun, abstract way to photograph Christmas lights – read this article on Bokeh Christmas Lights.
What are your best tips on how to photograph Christmas light displays? Come share your images in the comments below.
Jarrett Hucks is a portrait and wedding photographer based in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. His revealing journalistic story-telling has helped him find his voice in a saturated market. He is very active on his Blog and his Facebook Page sharing his commissioned work, personal work and street photography!