We’re often asked what camera settings need to be used for Christmas photography, and it’s no surprise why. Christmas is arguably the best time of the year for photography. Lights everywhere, photo ops galore, family and friends around to be unwitting models–it has all the trappings of a photogenic time of year, regardless of what type of photography interests you.
Here we’ll offer some of our top tips for taking photos during the Christmas season. Unlike most of our photography tip guides, this doesn’t really focus on Walt Disney World, Disneyland, or other Disney theme parks.
Christmas photography tips are pretty much universally applicable to all scenes involving Christmas, so there’s no sense to artificially constrain this to just the Osborne Lights, ‘it’s a small world’ holiday, etc. Even if you don’t have a Christmas trip to Disney planned this year, you should still be able to take advantage of these tips around the house or your neighborhood.
With that said, let’s get started with the tips!
When to Photograph Christmas Lights
The big questions here are when to photograph Christmas lights and what settings to use. Reasonable minds may differ on this, but my preference is photographing Christmas lights against a dark, night sky. I think the contrast created between the black of the sky and the color of the lights looks better than an ambient blue hour against lights.
Many photographers prefer this earlier-evening shots because this makes it easier to balance the exposure, without anything underexposed. This makes sense, and if you agree with this philosophy, you’ll want to start taking your photos as soon as the sun is completely down.
I think the dark of a night sky against vibrant Christmas lights makes a shot “pop” more, plus any additional detail that’s needed can be recovered by brightening the shadows in post processing. I typically wait for at least an hour after sunset for these shots. Even if the sky isn’t completely black, it’ll often appear to be so (you’ll learn why in the settings section below).
Photographing Christmas lights at dusk does have one distinct advantage, and that’s the benefit of more light in your shot. If you’re not using a tripod, beanbag, or Gorillapod (or some other means of stabilization), this is huge. In fact, if you’re without a camera stabilizing device, in most situations you definitely should be trying to photograph the lights at dusk. I say “in most situations” because there are some notable exceptions, and the Disney theme parks are one of those exceptions. Places like the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights are so brightly illuminated that it’s like daytime at night. Even after the sun is completely down there, a tripod isn’t strictly necessary. Actually, a tripod isn’t necessary for most Christmas light photos, but it does typically make for much better and less noisy photos.
If you have a tripod, whether you shoot Christmas lights at dusk or later is entirely a matter of personal preference. You might disagree with me completely on this–a lot of photographers do!
Christmas Light Photography Settings
This section is going to assume that you’re using a tripod or other stabilization device. If not, you should find a mode on your camera that slows the shutter speed down, but not so much that camera shake becomes a problem. Night mode will probably slow down the shutter speed too much unless you have really stable hands, but you might give it a try.
If using a tripod or other stabilizing device and you’re not familiar with your camera settings and still plan on using a scene mode, stick with night mode. Then, set the camera to 2-second self-timer mode (you’ll want to do this because pressing the shutter button moves the camera a bit, which in turn causes blurry photos), and wait for the results.
The rest of this section assumes basic technical understanding of the elements of exposure (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO). If you aren’t familiar with those concepts and just stick in auto mode, I (as always) highly recommend reading Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson before going any further. For less than $20 and a few hours of your time, you can take significantly better photos. Seriously–my photos were awful until sat down and read this book (and others like it) a couple of times, and learned photography. A lot of people ask what kind of camera I use to take these photos, but without knowledge, a camera is just an expensive paperweight. If you want better photos, start with that book (and other photography books) and upgrade your camera if necessary. (Sorry for the tangent, but the “my camera is bad” excuse for poor photography that I often hear is just that…a poor excuse.)
When photographing landscapes or scenes of Christmas lights on a tripod, I typically go into full manual mode and adjust aperture and ISO as I see fit. I always set my ISO to 100 and then adjust my aperture depending upon the scene and the intensity of the lights. Usually, I use f/8 to f/16 for my aperture. Which aperture, precisely, depends upon the lens, whether I want a star effect (read below), and if there are crowds that I want to blur out of the shot. For shutter speed, I put the camera into “bulb” mode and leave the shutter open for as long as I feel appropriate. (If you want, start out with the camera at 30″ before switching to bulb mode, so I have an idea of what it thinks is a reasonable exposure.) Sometimes this requires guessing, checking, and re-shooting (if the guess is way off), but it also teaches you to eyeball a scene and approximate exposure based upon what you see. This may or may not be a valuable skill (probably not), but it’s my preference.
It’s also on the intermediate end of the spectrum. If you’re not comfortable doing this, or you simply think this is not a valuable skill, stick to aperture priority mode with the settings listed above, and let the camera choose the shutter speed.
If you’re doing a single exposure and not HDR, make sure that the lights aren’t blown out and that the non-light part of your photos aren’t pure black shadows. You want to find the happy medium between the two. If a happy medium isn’t possible, aim for lights that aren’t overly blown (you can always bring out shadows–it’s more difficult to recover highlights). A lot of photographers recommend doing HDR for Christmas light photos because of this, but I don’t (unless it’s to achieve that style–I don’t think it’s technically necessary). Unlike photographing neon lights, for example, Christmas lights are not super intense. Yes, they can be bright, but usually not to the point that doing a slight curves adjustment can’t fix them. Besides, if it’s dark out, things should be dark unless the lights are so bright that they actually illuminate those things.
If you’re shooting handheld, I would recommend trying to brace the camera as best as possible, and using a moderate shutter speed (1/30th to 1/10th of a second), wide open aperture (the lowest number your camera has; it should be around f/2.8), and high ISO (ISO 800 to ISO 1600). The slower your shutter speed, the greater the possibility for blurry shots, so shoot in burst mode and trash the blurry shots (this is what I would do) or raise your ISO and increase the shutter speed for a greater percentage of crisp shots.
Keep in mind that the precise settings will be contingent upon the light present in a given situation. The Osborne Lights at Walt Disney World aren’t going to require as slow of a shutter speed as the lights outside your house. Unless your last name is Simmons! Also, these settings are for light-landscapes.
We’ll get into settings for some other situations on page 2…