Five tips for taking fantastic photos of Christmas lights

By Dan Landau

The Christmas season is upon us, which means Christmas light displays are popping up everywhere. While Christmas light-festooned houses and trees look beautiful, they can be tricky to photograph. Follow these tips and take your holiday photos to the next level:
 
lights madisonAbove: Downtown Madison, NJ decorated for Christmas. Shot at 5 p.m. on a cloudy day with a 3-second exposure on a tripod. (Photo by Dan Landau)
 
 
Shoot in the right light
During daylight Christmas lights don’t stand out to us, but cameras see things differently than our eyes do. At this time of year, the sun sets around 4:30 in the afternoon, meaning that it is usually fully dark by 6 p.m. The best time to photograph Christmas lights is just after sunset — think dusk, not dark.
 
The sweet spot is when it is dark enough for the Christmas lights to “pop” in the photo, yet still light enough for the sky to turn a beautiful blue. Depending on the weather conditions, this time is roughly about 5–5:30 p.m.
 
Take your time
Literally, take your time. To adequately capture Christmas lights, you will need to use a long exposure time (perhaps up to several seconds).
If you’re feeling adventurous, try out the camera’s manual or shutter-priority modes (usually called “M” and “S,” respectively) and experiment with long shutter speeds (1/4 second, 1/2 second, 1 second, etc).  If your camera doesn’t have a have a manual mode, look for a “night exposure” or “low light” mode.
 
 
lights florham treePhoto: These tips work on indoor Christmas light displays just as well as outdoor ones, as this photo of the Christmas tree in Hennessy Hall shows. Taken at 1/25 of a second, with the camera resting on the floor for support. (Photo by Dan Landau)
 
 
Support is key
Because you will be using a long exposure, “camera-shake” will be a big obstacle if you don’t have anything to support your camera and keep it still. Half a second may not sound like a long time to hold your camera steady, but even the smallest movement of your hands will make for blurry photos. The best way to deal with this is to set up a tripod for your camera. If you don’t have a tripod, rest the camera on the roof of your car, or brace it against something solid.
 
Don’t be a flasher
Turn off your camera’s flash. The flash will light up the foreground and turn the background into an infinite darkness. Instead, use the long exposure techniques listed above and the photo’s foreground and background will look beautifully exposed and balanced.
 
Keep on clicking
Zeros and ones are free, so take a lot of pictures. Some of them are bound to be blurry or otherwise imperfect, so when you think you’re finished, take a couple more just to make sure you have a good photo.
 
After you’ve taken your photos, don’t forget to enjoy the pretty lights yourself!