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Christmas Light Photography: 11 Quick Tips

‘Tis the season for Christmas light photography! By now, it’s likely you can find dazzling displays of Christmas lights everywhere in your town or city. If you’re like most photographers, that means it’s time to get out and start shooting. With the spirit of the Holiday Season in mind, we’re offering this list of tips to help you get the most out of your time with the camera this year.

We’ll forgo the tips about dressing warm, keeping an eye out for traffic and all those other significant, but often-repeated items. This time around, we’ll just say “stay safe.” You’re welcome. Now, let’s move on to the good stuff!

1. Bring the tripod.

There! We’ve started off with one that will have some of you rolling your eyes.

There are a dozen different ways to get around setting up your tripod when you shoot in low light. None of them is as reliable as stabilizing your camera. No other means of doing that is as versatile and efficient as a tripod. We’ll touch on this off and on throughout this article, but for now, we’re recommending you bring it along.

2. Bring the flash, too.

Nine out of ten Christmas light photos will probably look better without a flash. After all, the warm colors of the lights are part of the charm. There are some exceptions, though and you should be prepared for them. For instance:

Christmas portrait with lights in background

Indoors or out, if you want to shoot a portrait backed or surrounded by those lights, you’re going to need some supplemental lighting to expose your subject correctly without blowing out the lights. This can be tricky, but most modern digital cameras offer a Night Portrait setting that’s designed to fire the flash, but leave the shutter open long enough to expose for the background, too. Look for the icon of a person with a star. (By the way, a tripod is recommended when using this setting!)

Christmas light photography: falling snow frozen with flash

You may also be able to add interest to an image by “painting” parts of a scene with your flash. For some extra fun, try using a gel over the flash for color. You can even use your flash to highlight and “freeze” falling snow as in the photo above.

3. Don’t wait until dark

Chritmas light photography at dusk

Obviously, the lights are going to appear most brilliant when it’s really dark out. Many of your outdoor Christmas light shots, however, will be more interesting if some of the surroundings and the lit structures themselves are visible. Try shooting at twilight. The sky will add extra color and you’ll find your images have more depth.

There are an awful lot of variables when it comes to shooting scenes with multicolored lights under variable ambient lighting.

4. Christmas light photography is best served RAW.

Holiday turkey photo

Okay, maybe that’s a cheesy way to put it, but hopefully we got your attention!

There are an awful lot of variables when it comes to shooting scenes with multicolored lights under variable ambient lighting. The chances of needing to make adjustments in exposure, white balance, contrast, and much more are increased in these situations.

Saving your images as Raw files retains all the captured data and will allow you more latitude in those adjustments. When you save them as JPG, much of the data is lost when the camera compresses the images.

5. Find the right White Balance setting.

Shooting Christmas lights is not a good match for Auto White Balance. The low light and multiple colors of the light sources will cause your colors to shift from image to image.

Christmas light photography with church

Set your white balance manually when you start shooting and take a few test shots to see if you’re getting the kind of results you want. Leave it at that setting and periodically check your results to see if you need to make adjustments.

6. Bokeh is beautiful, but boring by itself.

Christmas lights create amazing bokeh when you shoot wide. That’s such a well-known fact that many photographers use them to shoot backgrounds that can be used later in portraits and other images. Unless you’re shooting with that purpose in mind, though, you’ll create much more interesting images with something in the foreground.

Christmas light photography including decorated yard light

Get in close to your subject and keep some space between it and the lights to get the best effect. Open your aperture and focus on the subject. You may need to experiment a bit to balance the lighting in shots like the one above. Bracket your exposures and choose the one that comes out best. If the differences are extreme, you might even want to blend two exposures to get the right effect in the final image.

7. Move in with the macro lens.

Bokeh effects like the one in the previous tip are easiest to achieve with longer focal lengths. Another great way to create bokeh, though is to get in even closer to your foreground subject with your macro lens. The extra magnification and extremely shallow depth of field will help create nice bokeh from light sources in the background.

Christmas light photography with background bokeh

If you happen to be shooting with the #Irix 150mm Dragonfly macro lens, you get the best of both worlds for these shots. Its extended focal length helps separate the background from the subject, while the true 1:1 macro lets you get “in there” to bring out the details. BONUS: The 150mm Dragonfly’s iris consists of 11 curved aperture blades, to ensure smooth, round bokeh! DOUBLE BONUS: The 150mm focal length of the Dragonfly makes it an excellent Christmas portrait lens, too!

Irix 150mm f/2.8 Macro Lens
Irix 150mm f/2.8 1:1 macro Dragonfly lens

Need some macro photography tips? Check out our tutorial here.

8. Go wide.

Opening up the field of view can add a while new dimension to your Christmas light photography, too. Grab your wide angle and capture more of the color and sparkle.

Irix wide angle lenses are perfect for these shots. The rectilinear projection minimizes barrel distortion to near zero, eliminating those unwanted curves in the corners. What’s more, both of our ultrawide lenses are fast enough to handle low-light shooting without requiring excessive exposure time. The 15mm has a maximum aperture of f/2.4, while the 11mm opens up to f/4.0.

9. Shoot for the stars!

When shooting at night, your first thought is usually going to be keeping the shutter speed as high as possible. If you have the right conditions, though, you might want to consider stopping your aperture down to minimum or near-minimum for some of those Christmas light shots. (With your rig mounted on that tripod you brought!)

Captured by Furqan Sayed with the Irix 15mm f/2.4 Instagram: @fergiebiryani

Why? Because many lenses will create diffraction spikes at smaller apertures. Those are the anomalies that cause those striking “starbusts” where there are bright points of light in a scene. All Irix lenses have aperture blade configurations that create unique, striking starbursts, so much so that they’re almost a signature effect for each of our lenses.

10. Controlling noise in Christmas light photography:

Finding the right solution for your camera, software and shooting style is a matter of practice and experimentation…

Low-light digital photography comes with two separate issues where noise is concerned:

  1. Increasing your ISO setting amplifies both the signal (light) you’re recording and the inherent electrical noise generated by the camera circuitry.
  2. Increasing exposure time causes the sensor to heat up, which creates noise.

If you’re thinking that’s a losing battle, you’re right. It’s not entirely without a solution, though. Because noise can be managed fairly well by software, you can reduce it in-camera (by selecting the type and strength of noise reduction in the camera menu) or during post processing.

Finding the right solution for your camera, software and shooting style is a matter of practice and experimentation, especially with something like Christmas light photography. A good ISO starting point is 800 or lower with a crop-sensor camera and double that for a full-frame sensor. In-camera noise reduction results vary from model to model and setting to setting. You’ll have to find what works best for you or turn it off and trust one of the many post-processing applications for noise reduction.

11. Play around.

Christmas lights photo with zoom

Remember, photography is a creative process and there are no rules. Don’t hesitate to think outside the box when you’re out shooting Christmas lights. Zoom in our out while the shutter is open. Induce a little camera movement or movement in the lights themselves. Shoot from various angles. Create a little fog or smoke. Capture some light trails from passing cars.

The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

Show us your Christmas light photography!

Now that you’ve got some basic guidelines and ideas, get out there and shoot! We love to see what our loyal Irix Shooters capture! You can share your photos in a message to Irix USA on Facebook or post to @irixusa on Instagram. (Please include the lens, camera and exposure information!) We look forward to seeing them!

Written by Dana Crandell

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