Christmas Photography Tips
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…
I appreciate your tips, thanks for sharing..
Great article and Disney picture tips to capture all the Christmas Magic in clarity1 @EdArt9~~ sho buz~~~
Let me start out by saying that I absolutely LOVE your blog/website. I was just wondering if you have any specific apps that you recommend for photography at Disney World. I like how you kind of take fish-eye photos, and I have that option on my phone (I have a Samsung Galaxy S6). However, my fisheye photos don’t always turn out good. This will be my first time in Disney World for Christmas time, and I want to be sure that I take awesome pictures. We aren’t going to the Merry Christmas Party though, which bums me out. Any apps or things like that which you recommend would be awesome! Thanks!
Any tips for photographing the parades with moving characters and awesome Christmas lights?
Great tips and great pictures. This season is picture time so its very important to know different good angles.
Thanks for the great post! We leave Sunday for our first trip to WDW during the holidays, and I’m really excited to see all the decorations. I was wondering…do you set your camera to auto white balance when you’re taking pictures of Christmas lights, or do you set it to something else?
ALWAYS auto white balance. Shooting in raw, so it doesn’t matter. I never, ever set white balance in camera. It’s a waste of time.
Wonderful post! Wish it came after our trip (we just got back the 14th) but I will bookmark this for our next trip in future holidays. We had a lot of fun camping out for the end of main street spot during MVMCP and talking photography shop with other enthusiasts. Your wonderful blog came up quite a few times. 🙂
This blog came up in conversation? Uh oh!
Hopefully you weren’t too hard on us! 😉
“All good things! All good things!” – Olaf
How late past park close do you normally stay to get a empty main street? An hour or so past park close and it still was pretty busy a couple weeks ago.
Also – everything I have read says the Monorail/Boat/Resort Busses stop running an hour after park close. Is this actually true? I am mainly concered about getting to the TTC at MK – since I drive. The other parks are not a big deal.
There is no hard time for the buses, but I think there is for the monorail and boat. In any case, a bus should be able to take you back to the TTC. Buses don’t stop running until after the park is cleared.
I’ve now had the chance to try my hand at photographing Disney World during the fabulous Christmas season.
I have a few suggestions to add:
Sure, Christmas light Bokeh is awesome. But how about some festive poinsettia bokeh? https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=566061966033&l=8c9be2e1f5
And… this post needs more OLAF
Sorry that these posts got hit by the spam filter. Facebook links seem to do that….
Anyway, I love poinsettia bokeh. Nice work there.
I can’t say the same about Olaf! 😉
Do you have any tips for photographing Christmas lights with people in the foreground (aside from use a flash)? I manged to get one good shot of my wife and daughter dancing in the Osborne lights a couple years ago, but that was mostly luck.
As an aside – I really like that shot of Sleeping Beauty’s Winter Castle with the Matterhorn in the background.
Kevin- I’m sure Tom has some great tips, but here are mine.
Try to get to a as bright of an area as possible, take extra time and make sure your family is solidly in focus and not the lights behind them, shoot with a wide open aperature, bump up the ISO a bit, and use as slow of a shutter speed as you can get away with hand held. In post processing do a curves adjustment to to brighten faces.
Even with doing all those things personally, I didn’t have much luck getting great photos without flash. Plus, that area tends to be insane and doesn’t lend itself to really taking your time to get everything right =)
No flash: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=566055204583&l=23263fbbf0
No flash, but you can see my camera back-focused: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=566055573843&l=21e1e69efa
Oops okay here is the photo that back focused: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=566054830333&l=2754568759
This one is alright, but the composition isn’t so wonderful: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=566054670653&l=81ef9c21e4
Aside from Mitch’s tips (which are great), I’d recommend using a “fill flash.” There should be a setting for that on your camera. It’ll give you less intense light for a balanced photo. Other than that, look for places that cast a nice, natural front light on people.
The canopy of lights in Osborne Lights would be good for this when its lit in white.
Thanks for the tips. So, with flash basicaly similar camera settings as you would use for a normal picture, but dial back the flash exposure a bit?
Exactly. In an ideal world, flash won’t alter the exposure. Artificial constraints (your camera’s minimum and maximum sync speeds, etc.) might cause it to change, but the goal should be to keep the exposure the same for a natural looking photo.
In auto mode, most cameras use flash as a way to compensate for it being too dark out. This leads to photos were the background is dark, and your subject is the only thing lit. This is what you want to avoid.
Thanks again. I have a strong feeling (since my wife had me order it) that I’m getting my first off-camera flash for Christmas this year. So I’m looking forward to learning to use it in situations like this.
There are actually several Disney M&G’s where flash would come in handy. (Some, like Enchanted Tales with Belle have really weird lighting.) As well as pictures of the family after dark.
I guess I never understood what “fill flash” meant before now! Guess I’ll have to see where that is on the camera and test it out on doggie models in front of our tree!
Man do I wish you published this a few weeks ago! I appreciate your time in sharing your talents!
I just wanted to thank you for all the time and effort you put in to trying to enlighten and educate us on how to get our own great pix! You are incredibly well-versed and knowledgable and your work is inspiring! Too bad it reads reads well but when it comes to applying it in the parks, you’d swear I read greek. I swear, I’m hopeless!
Just keep practicing and reading. This blog has some good (I think) tips, but books and photo-centric blogs are also really helpful!