Picture Perfect: How to Snap Photos of Holiday Lights

A month of hints for happy holiday pictures

Holiday lights add sparkle to so many special moments. When I was a kid, I lived for the night my mom loaded us into the car and drove us around town so we could marvel over the magnificent displays that took hours to produce.

We pointed from the car and kept moving. Now, though, folks get out and snap a photo. But the twinkling lights, and other holiday photos, aren't easy to capture. Starting today, we're going to run a series that describes how to snap photos of lights, family and other holiday moments so you can preserve those memories. 

I wish I could take credit for this tutorial, but I can't. I got it from Strobist. The blog is published by Dave Hobby and has been around since 2006. This site has a track record; the content and the comments are fresh and up to date.

Hobby's post is titled "How to Photograph Christmas Lights." I stick to the generic term because folks around here decorate for Christmas, Chanukah, , Valentine's Day, and so on. The holiday doesn't matter; Hobby's tutorial is great. He gives detailed directions, but I'm going to summarize the best advice.

  • Don't wait until dark. Wait until dusk. Hobby explains that photographing around dusk ensures proper exposure of the lights and the background. If you're photographing your own house, turn on the lights between 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. I photographed the and shot as late as 5:45 p.m., but earlier is better. 
  • Don't use flash. Use a tripod. The tripod keeps the camera steady enough for a slow shutter speed or a larger lens opening. Hobby suggests setting the camera at a shutter speed of 1/4 of a second or longer.

I do disagree with one of his tips. He suggests setting the camera's white balance for tungsten and aiming for the sky. (Quick explanation: each type of light has a different temperature. Each temperature has a color cast. White balance tells the camera which light predominates, so the whites are clean, without an orange, yellow or blue tint.)

Following those directions gave my photos an unnatural bluish tint. If your camera lets you choose file format and white balance, try shooting in RAW instead of JPEG. Set the white balance for cloudy, instead of tungsten. Then use your software to manipulate the tint to your liking.

If your camera doesn't let you make those choices, take photos with different white balance presets until you make one you like.

Whatever you do, please share your photos with us here at Patch. We'd love to see how they turn out.

Brad Bolton December 06, 2011 at 03:29 PM
Good ideas! To make the lights stand out, I underexpose by 1/2 to 1 1/2 stops. Most cameras have this feature, and should be easy to do. Check your manual, and don't forget to reset the exposure to normal when you're done shooting holiday lights. I underexposed the accompanying 3 photos (Acorn Alley, McKay Bricker, and Kent street scene) to bring out the lights. This technique also improve lighted windows as you can see in the McKay Bricker photo. You can see that I shot these at dusk, too.
Michelle Simakis (Editor) December 06, 2011 at 03:58 PM
Brad, great tips! Thanks so much for sharing these ideas and showing us a few examples, too.
Afi-Odelia Scruggs December 06, 2011 at 07:33 PM
Brad, thanks. I forgot to mention underexposing because I tend to do it anyway. I like the depth underexposing adds to a photo.
Brad Bolton December 07, 2011 at 01:07 AM
I know, it's the things we do without thinking that we forget to mention to others! I used to underexpose slide film for richer colors, but now with digital and post-processing, exposure all depends on what look you're going after. Hope to see more photo articles from you.
Afi-Odelia Scruggs December 07, 2011 at 06:39 AM
BTW, Brad, thanks for being the first to comment on this story. We've got several more coming up. Now, if only it snows before the series ends.


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