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!
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!
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 below…
There’s one main reason why I love photography at Christmas-time, and that’s CHRISTMAS LIGHT BOKEH! This bokeh is best achieved with a fast lens, say the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 (check out my review of the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 here) or the ever-popular 50mm f/1.8 lenses. Even f/2.8 lens, like my Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 VC work. However, if you don’t have a fast lens, the long end of a telephoto lens (say a 18-250 lens at 150mm or above) will work. Better yet, reach for a fast telephoto lens for the ULTIMATE BOKEH MACHINE.
The ‘intensity’ of the bokeh will depend upon the distance between your subject and the lights behind it, your aperture, and the focal length of your lens. The greater the distance between subject and lights, the more intense the bokeh. The wider the aperture, the more intense the bokeh. The longer the focal length, the more prominent the bokeh (due to compression). For this reason, my preferred combination is a subject with lights at least 5 feet behind it, an f/1.4 to f/2.8 lens, and a focal length of 70mm or above. Compromises can be made (I don’t have a 70mm+ f/1.4 lens, so I either have to go with a shorter focal length or a slower lens), but that’s my ideal scenario. Your mileage may vary.
You can also get even more creative with Christmas light bokeh photos. We recently did a post on creating custom bokeh, which is a really fun (and rewarding!) method, but requires some DIY crafting effort. If that’s not your style, consider setting up Christmas lights specifically for a bokeh shoot! You can also put the bokeh in front of your subject, or make bokeh the subject itself by manually adjusting the focus until it’s entirely out of focus (this works particularly well with Christmas trees and other objects with that will still have identifiable shapes when out of focus). If I manage to make it onto the “nice” list, I might be playing with a macro lens this Christmas, which should make for great ornament/bokeh possibilities.
I mentioned in the settings section that I usually use an aperture of f/11 to f/16 for photos of lights. One reason for this is because (on the lenses I own, at least), these higher apertures have the effect of producing a natural star effect. As with all things science related, I don’t know why this happens, but here is some proof that it does. I love the look this gives to Christmas photos. It’s like a more natural and less over-the-top version of a star filter. Note that in the photo above, the effect is only really noticeable in the foreground bushes; with an actual filter, there’d be streaks in the actual ‘it’s a small world’ facade, too.
The exact aperture you need to use for this depends upon the lens. I have one lens that creates stars on points of light at f/8. Another of my lenses doesn’t do it until f/20. It’s usually somewhere in between. Be warned that as you stop down, you’ll notice a slight drop in image quality. With some lenses at f/20 or f/22, this can be quite noticeable.
The alternative to this is an actual star filter. These filters were really popular in the 1980s (if you have any Disney souvenir book from then, I guarantee you’ll find at least one star filter photo in it), but since have sort of faded away. They were a photography fad, to be sure (I wonder how many things today will be cringe-worthy in an decade?), but I think they can still be fun in small doses. Part of this is probably my nostalgia for Christmases then, but I think these photos have a warm, home-y feel to them. Sort of like a Campbell’s Soup commercial from back then just made you feel warm.
Photos produced with a star filter definitely have a different look than photos produced with the aperture technique. Star filter photos generally have longer streaks of light, with this light often having a bit of color to it. I recently bought a cheap star filter set (4 point, 6 point, and 8 point) to play around with, and I’ve enjoyed the results. If you are going to get a star filter, cheap is definitely the way to go. There will be a loss in image quality, but no one should be getting enough use out of a star filter to justify spending $60-100 on one.
Up to this point, this article has mostly focused on Christmas lights. This is for good reason, as the lights are probably the most photogenic aspect of Christmas. However, the story is told through the details. Ornaments, gifts being wrapped, table settings, stockings, etc., all make great photo subjects.
We spend a lot of money and put a lot of effort into making things “just perfect” for Christmas (I know my family never uses nice table settings any other time of year!), and the upside to that is that is that virtually every aspect of Christmas is like a perfectly-staged photo op. Think of it this way: virtually everything that you spend money on as part of Christmas is a potential photo subject.
One storytelling detail that is priceless is the family moments that happen around Christmas. Due to all of the excitement of Christmas, people often let down their guard and allow for some great candid moments. People sleeping next to the fire, opening presents, and baking holiday treats are just a few examples. (Tip: think twice before posting that photo of your wife while opening presents in her PJs after she just woke up…not that I know from experience or anything!) These great moments in the pretty Christmas environments can make for exceptional photos, so don’t overlook the people that make Christmas so special!
Hopefully this guide gives you an idea of how to improve your photography for Christmas with some new techniques and ideas to try. Like I wrote at the top, I think Christmas is the most photogenic time of year, with so many great scenes and details to shoot, and nearly infinite ways to get creative. This article just scratches the surface on those–if you have other creative ideas for Christmas photography or tips, please share them in the comments!
If you’re interested in improving your Disney photography, check out a few of my top photography blog posts:
Photography Buying Guide: Everything from Underwater Cameras to Software
Best Books for Improving Your Photography
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Choosing the Best Travel Tripod
Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel
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Do you have any questions about taking photos at Christmas? Have any tips of your own? Please share your own tips and any photos you’ve taken! Hearing from you is half the fun, so share your thoughts in the comments!