How to Photograph Holiday Lights

With Christmas just two days away, the holiday cheer is nearly bursting at the seams.  Or in other words, you've got a million things left on your to-do list and your holiday cheer is borderline crazy.  If you've been running around like a maniac, you probably haven't slowed down long enough to appreciate the beauty that comes with this festive season. Homes line the streets with twinkling lights, windows show the glow of a decorated tree or the gleam of a flickering Menorah.  No matter what you celebrate during the chilly month of December, its unarguably a beautiful season and one that should definitely be photographed.  Besides, you've probably already got your camera handy with all your family in town, right?

If you've ever be interested in photographing the city plaza decorated with holiday lights, or the kids posed in front of the tree but can't get the right bokeh, then here are some helpful tips to get those twinkling lights just right!

nick Nikon Nick

Our very own Nick Gilson, or "Nikon Nick" as some refer to him as, took to the cold streets of Temple Square this season with his family to photograph the incredible Temple lights here in Salt Lake City.  With thousands of strands of lights, its guesstimated that there are over a million lights that decorate the entire 10 acres of Temple Square.  For many, it's a yearly tradition to travel down to the site and view the spectacular scene, and for those that have never seen it, Temple Square during the holidays is an incredible experience for the first time.

If photographing buildings donned with twinkling lights is what you're after, understand there needs to be a balance of camera settings to ensure the lights and building are metered correctly for accurate exposure, contrast and white balance.  You don't want the lights on the trees to be overexposed and nearly blow-out because you assumed you needed a high ISO, or have camera shake because you thought you could hand-hold the camera and receive the desired look.

The best time to photograph outdoor lights is to wait until the sun has gone down, and the lights really start to shine!  Slow down your shutter speed and bring your ISO to a 100-200 to cut down on noise and grain and this will allow for cleaner, much more beautiful images.  With this, you need to understand that a tripod is an absolute must! If a tripod isn't something you have in your camera bag, or you're unable to set your camera on a sturdy surface, higher your ISO to at least 800 to allow for a faster shutter speed, but be aware, you'll notice a considerable amount of noise. Another useful tip - which is one many should know, but unfortunately do not - is to turn off your flash!  Unless you have a really good reason to use it, the flash is doing more damage than good when you're having it go off.



So what about that beautiful bokeh effect? Well that's simple; increase your aperture to a f/1.4 or f/2.8, depending on your lens, to allow for the shallow depth-of-field. If you can, try to speed up your shutter a bit, and yes - I am allowing it just this once - go ahead and use your flash!  If you're trying to capture your adorable little one standing in front of what you expect to be a magical display of bokeh'd lights, the flash will cut down on movement and freeze the subject in place. A flash will also give the object your photographing a beautiful glow, and can be a useful device in these situations!



Justin Workman, of j5 Photo utilized these same tips when photographing what is becoming a yearly tradition in Draper City, the willow tree decorated with over 1,000 strands of lights, deemed the "Tree of Life."  Justin also added a bit of creativity to some of his other images by adding motion to his images, creating a unique visual experience.

Understand that there is no "one size fits all" when it comes to photographing lights.  Take some test shots with the tips provided, and go from there!  Every situation will provide different results, but it's the learning and improving your skills that really matter.  Having fun and experimenting is when the most unique and incredible results occur, so relax and just play around!  Feel free to download the cheat sheets provided and take them with you this holiday season!  From everyone here at pictureline, we wish you a wonderful and safe Christmas!




BokehChristmasChristmas lightsDecember 2014Lighting

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published