Holiday lights on outdoor Christmas tree
This holiday season you can’t avoid coming across wonderful light displays that add a festive touch to our long nights. Whether it’s the lights on your own home, a favorite neighborhood you like to visit, or one of the great public garden holiday light displays, you can make great photographs of the lights. Just don’t expect to get top results with your phone camera (although it doesn’t cost you anything to experiment).
I prefer to photograph holiday lights right at dusk, when there’s still a little light from the sky to illuminate the scene around the lights. But you only have those sweet conditions for a few minutes each evening so you’re likely to be shooting in near darkness most of the time.
Tip #1: Use a tripod.
Even though the lights themselves seem bright, you’ll likely need a slow shutter speed to capture the scene the way you imagine it.
I set my camera to ISO 100, evaluative metering, aperture at f/8 for moderate depth of field, and aperture-priority automatic. Shutter speeds typically range from 1/8 second to as long as 10 seconds. I always use a cable release to trip the shutter so I don’t shake the camera. When the shutter speed is several seconds it doesn’t matter if a person or two walks through your frame because they won’t be in the same place long enough to show up.
Tip #2: Bracket your exposures.
The trick in photographing lights is to retain as much color as you can. Sometimes your camera’s meter will be fooled and either over- or under-expose your photo. Shoot several frames, at shutter speeds higher or lower than what your meter suggests, and choose the best exposure later. You can use the exposure compensation control on your camera or the auto bracketing feature. In manual mode, just vary the shutter speed.
Tip #3: Bring a flashlight or headlamp so you can see the settings on your camera.
It’s frustrating to not be able to see the knobs, dials, and settings when you’re photographing in the dark.
Tip #4: Experiment with blur.
Soft-focus Christmas lights
Big blobs of color forming patterns can make fun photos. Try setting your lens to manual focus and deliberately blur the lights. Use depth of field preview, if your camera has it, to see the effect of different apertures. The bigger the hole (like f/2.8) the softer the blur. You can also experiment with moving the camera while the shutter is open to create streaky blurs. Simple subjects usually work better for this.