Take Better Photos: How To Capture Christmas Lights Effectively

Image: My Modern Met

Who doesn’t love Christmas lights? They enhance the magic of the holiday season. With a few tricks and your trusty camera, you can steal some of that magic and infuse it throughout your photos this month!

1. Learn to use bokeh.

No, it’s not an ancient martial arts form. It comes from the Japanese word “boke,” which means “blur” or “haze.” Bokeh is the way your lens renders the light that’s out of focus. Those soft circles of light that appear in the background of an image? That’s an example of bokeh! It can show up in the background of photos or make up the entire image itself.

Image: Dooce

How do you take advantage of bokeh? 

  • Open up your aperture as wide as possible — some lenses let you go as wide as f2.8.
  • Have your subject take a few steps closer to the camera and away from the background. That decreases the depth of field so that your subject will be sharp, but the background will be thrown out of focus. With Christmas lights, that’ll make for some lovely circles of light which add a soft mood.
  • Take a photo that’s intentionally out of focus, like the Christmas tree above. Just switch your lens over to manual and turn the focusing ring until you’re satisfied!

Image: Dana’s Photography

Bonus: For some extra flair, experiment with bokeh overlays to change the shapes of the lights.

Simply trace the outline of your lens onto black construction paper and punch a snowflake, heart, star, or any shape you like into the center. Then secure a cylinder of black paper around the edge of your circle, ensuring that there are no openings to keep the light out. Place it over your lens and shoot away!



Image: Our Little Coop

2. Strike a balance with your exposure.

Keep in mind that the lights will be brighter than the house or tree they’re on, as well as any subject you have in the photo (especially at night). In these cases, it’s best to try to expose for the darker objects. You’ll want to be able to see people’s faces or the details on the Christmas tree in addition to the light.

However, if you expose correctly for the dark objects, you’ll wind up with blown out, overexposed Christmas lights. Ideally you want to find a balance in the middle that allows you to see faces to some extent without the lights showing up as distracting bright spots in the image. You’ll probably have to take a few test shots.

Christmas tree lights

Image: Leah Schmalz

How can you find that perfect balance?

  • Start by opening your aperture as wide as possible by decreasing the f-stop value. Not only will that give you a lovely bokeh effect, it will also allow more light into the lens.
  • You can also raise your ISO for really dark shots, like when you’re shooting outside at night. It’s best not to go over 1600 ISO, or your pictures will look rather grainy.
  • Lowering your shutter speed is another option, but try to avoid anything lower than 1/30 of a second (unless you have incredibly steady hands or a tripod).

Image: Adorned From Above

If you’re feeling unsure, try this out for evening photos:

  • Aperture: f2.8 (or as low as your lens allows)
  • Shutter speed: 1/60
  • ISO: 800

Take a few shots and adjust the settings from there until you find your sweet spot!

Do you have any tips for capturing Christmas lights effectively in your photography? Please share them in the comments below.

Leah is a freelance writer, photo junkie, and avid traveler. When she's not chipping away at a story, you can find her exploring the outdoors or planning her next adventure. Read about them on her blog, Relentless Adventure.

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