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How to Photograph Christmas Lights

photographing Christmas lights
Photo by: Paul McDermott

During Christmas time households, streets, shop windows, trees, lamp posts and everything else are adorned with many types of lights, lights of various sizes, colors, flickering lights etc. all turn otherwise ordinary landscapes into a dream world. All this Christmas lights and decorations present the creative photographer with plenty of opportunities to capture the festive mood with his/her camera. But photographing Christmas lights could prove to be a tricky affair; getting it right requires the right technique in this article we will discuss how to photograph Christmas lights in the best way that captures the spirit of the festival.

Why are Christmas lights difficult to Photograph?

Photo by: Trey Ratcliff

Photographing Christmas lights prove to be difficult to many amateur photographers mainly because they don’t plan things ahead. Christmas light photography is basically an exercise in balancing the Christmas lights with the fading sunlight; the real trick is in timing your shot to perfection.

Christmas photography tips
Photo by: Jeff Krause

The most common mistake amateur photographers make while photographing Christmas lights is to wait till it’s completely dark outside. Can’t blame the photographers alone; most people do wait till it’s very dark to turn on Christmas lights. The problem with trying to photograph after the ambient sunlight has completely vanished is that you cannot properly expose the lights and the surroundings. If you expose for the lights the surroundings will become completely dark and all detail in the shadows will be lost and if you expose for the surroundings then you end up with clipped highlights where the lights are.

How to photograph Christmas lights
How to photograph Christmas lights

The diagram given above explains the technique better than words, you can see that the Christmas lights have a fixed brightness level but the brightness sunlight is continuously diminishing.

Point A is the time when both light sources are equal in power and Point B is when the sky has turned completely dark.

Christmas lights photography tips
Photo by: Federico

The trick is to find the sweet spot where the right balance of continuous (read Christmas lights) and ambient (read sunlight) is achieved. Depending upon your time zone the best time to shoot will be from half hour before sunset to about one hour after sunset. As per the diagram the time between Point X and Point Y will get you the best results.

How to Photograph Christmas Lights – Step by Step Tutorial

How to Photograph Christmas Lights
Photo by: Eric Begin

  1. Do your homework and find out what time is the sunset you should plan your shoot such that you should arrive at the scene early enough to scout the location, find out the best angle to shoot from, and to set up and compose your shot well.
  2. It is always a good idea to talk to the right people and have it arranged to turn on the Christmas lights well in advance.
  3. Include a bit of sky in your shots and if you have the liberty to choose shooting angles try shooting into the afterglow of the evening sky.
  4. For best results shoot RAW, thus you have the ability to play with white balance and really bring your sky and other features in the composition to life.
  5. Twilight shooting involves some very slow shutter speeds in the range of ¼ seconds to about a full second and it is always a good idea to set up your shot with the camera on a tripod.
  6. Once you are set up and ready to shoot now it’s time to wait for the light to be just right.
  7. Keep taking pictures at regular intervals well before what you think is the ideal lighting conditions and well after you think you have got your shots, just increase the frequency when you think the lighting conditions are just right.
  8. Regularly review your pictures in the camera’s LCD monitor what your naked eye sees will be much different from what the camera is recording. So what appeared to you is the best light mix would not be the best as far as the camera’s sensor is concerned. 
  9. You will typically get a 10-15 minute window to capture a great series of different lighting variations so make the most of it.
  10. You will know it’s time to quit when either the sky has lost all color and turned completely dark or when the contrast between the (now very bright) Christmas lights and (now very dim) ambient is very large to expose both properly.

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