Tips for Photographing Holiday Lights

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The best time to capture holiday lights is at dusk, when the sky still has color.  The colors will be rich.

Flash – Turn it off.

Lens- Typically you’ll use a wide angle lens instead of a zoom lens.  Since the more you zoom in the less light comes into your lens and allows for more motion blur (which might be what you want for a more creative effect).  If using a point & shoot camera – physically move closer to the subject matter you’re trying to shoot and stay zoomed out.

ISO – High - 400 on up.

Shutter Speed - Long Exposures needed to capture the lights as well as the sky colors.  Use a tripod and cable release, or your timer feature.  Don’t have a tripod? Try setting your camera on the ground or on top of a car/ fence post/ trash can.  If using a point & shoot try using a bean bag to set your camera on top of.  It allows you to accommodate for the curve in whatever you’re setting your camera on (car top/ garbage can).

White Balance– Use Tungsten – Incandescent lights (white) should appear more true to color.  At dusk, the sky will appear as an exaggerated dark blue.  If shooting RAW, adjust white balance later.  Tungsten temperature is 3000 – 3200 degrees.  The newer lights out this year are LED versus incandescent so you may need to try other white balance settings as well if you can’t tell which you’re looking at.  Regardless, always try tungsten first.

Composition – Lights on a house have inherent leading lines in them.  When setting up your shot make sure if the lines are there they lead your eye where you want it to go.

Creative Experiments

Ghosts - Try using a long shutter speed (ex 12 secs) and as people walk through your image, they will record as “ghosts”.

Motion Blur/Streaks – Use a slow shutter speed (less than 1/30 sec), and intentionally move the camera.  Try panning, zooming, etc…  and create some interesting patterns.

Reflections – Trying capturing the lights in a reflection on a car, in a mirror, in someone’s glasses, in a puddle, on ice or the colors on someone’s face.

And always look for interesting patterns, shapes and color combinations.


Check out these sites for more information:

Article by Sue C. & Faith W.

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