How to photograph christmas tree lights

Christmas Light Background Photography | 15 Tips for Better Photos

It’s holiday time, which means big meals, a deluge of Christmas and holiday cards, family moments, decorations, gifts, and lots lots lots of photos. We’re here to give you the gift that keeps on giving: knowledge. So make yourself some hot chocolate and snuggle up with our Christmas light background photography tips for both indoor and outdoor scenes.

How to shoot outdoor Christmas light backgrounds

Most Christmas light photos look basically the same. There are the buildings and trees (probably too far away) with their teeny lights against a pitch black background. It sorta makes sense to wait until nightfall —  you don’t want the sun hogging all the light, and after all, won’t lights look the best in the dark?

Nope. When it’s pitch black outside, exposure becomes tricky. Your camera can either properly expose for the lights or for the lights’ surroundings. If the camera exposes for the lights, they’ll look like they’re floating in nothingness. If it exposes for the surroundings, the lights will be completely washed out, almost colorless.

1. Photograph around twilight or dusk

For a few minutes, the atmospheric light will perfectly complement the continuous artificial lights. You’ll pick up the beautiful ambient colors of the sky and surroundings and get much more photographic texture than the flat blackness. Expose for the lights, not the sky. That way, the sky’s ambient light will come in to complement the lights, which can remain your focus.

2. Act fast

We’re serious about that few minutes part — if you’ve tried to photograph a sunset, you know how quickly the light changes. Between sunset and nightfall, each minute will bring slightly different lighting conditions. This means that you have plenty of opportunity to capture a variety of scenes, but not a lot of actual time.

3. Use a tripod

Without it, you’ll probably end up sacrificing a lot of image quality because of slow shutter speeds. So unless you’ve got superhuman steadiness, bust out the tripod. It’s the only way to guarantee a crisp shot for your long exposures.

4. Forget flash

You’re trying to capture the color of the lights, and even if they aren’t multi-colored, your flash could interfere with the lights’ color profile. And that’s if your flash even shows up. Unless you have an incredibly powerful flash or are very close to your subject, the flash isn’t likely to contribute much to the exposure anyway. Bottom line: keep the flash off.

5. Start with the ISO at around 400

If your photos are too dark, increase it, but know that any increase to the ISO will degrade image quality. It may not be enough to notice, but you’ll get technical degradation nonetheless. Any time you’re on a tripod, go all out with the lowest ISO possible. Low ISO means higher quality, because if you use a super high ISO, your image will be grainy.

6. Set your aperture for f/8

This is a good starting point if you’re following our previous suggestions. Remember: lower numbers let it more light, and higher numbers let in less.

7. Go for an incandescent white balance

Your camera might call it Tungsten, but they’re the same thing. The lights that you’re photographing are likely incandescent bulbs, so the Incandescent setting will faithfully render the color of your lights.

8. If you need more light, increase the exposure time (slow shutter speed)

Do this instead of increasing the ISO — this prevents the grain that will be introduced by the higher ISO, plus long exposure captures the full glory of the light display. Note, though, that it does leave your photo vulnerable to blurry moving subjects (kids, flying reindeer, trees in the wind).

9. Fill your frame

Fill it with everything you’re trying to capture, including some negative space or reflective surfaces. Snow, water, or even wet concrete will take your photos up a notch by softly reflecting your lights.

10. Increase shutter speed for blinking lights

This helps capture the full light cycle (if you’re in Shutter priority mode, you won’t have to worry about adjusting your other exposure settings accordingly).

A bonus to the Incandescent setting is that it gives your ambient sky the gorgeous blue tones of the ever-popular blue hour.

11. Adjust your white balance for warmer lights

Want your lights to look warmer? Incandescent lights shot with your white balance set to Daylight will make the lights look more orange. If your holiday lights are LED or full spectrum and you set your white balance to Incandescent, then the lights in the photo will look more blue than your eye perceived them. LEDs can be weird and inconsistent, so we recommend trying the AWB (Auto White Balance) setting.

How to shoot indoor Christmas lights

Photographing Christmas trees, menorahs, or any kind of interior light arrangement can be trickier than shooting outside. Your camera can get stuck between adjusting to the dark background and the actual bulbs, so automatic settings don’t really cut it.

12. Brighten up the scene

Bring extra lamps or any other light source into the room to brighten your shadows and decrease the contrast that might confuse your camera.

13. Set your shutter speed relatively low

You’ll need your tripod (or table, mantle, whatever sturdy surface you have at hand) to compose your shots because the shutter’s open longer. Keep in mind that these are still life shots. Once people are involved, you’ll use different settings to stop the inevitable motion.

14. Use a shallow depth of field for a dreamy holiday look

Shooting with a shallow depth of field is a staple of that warm, dreamy holiday photography we all know and love. Shallow depth of field means that there’s a really narrow range between what’s in focus and what’s blurry.

To get this look, you need to be pretty close to your subject, with a long focal length and the right aperture settings. If your camera has aperture priority mode, as you adjust your aperture throughout your shooting, the camera will automatically update the related settings (shutter speed and ISO) to get the optimal exposure value.

How to get bokeh, in-camera

Bokeh is purposeful blur in a photograph, and it is used to describe everything from a gently dappled glow to sparkly, geometric facets of light. Of course, you can apply bokeh as a texture in PicMonkey, but here’s what you need to know to get a bokeh look for your shots, in-camera.

15. A wide open aperture is a must

The low end of your aperture window (aperture settings with larger numbers like f/11) just flat out won’t work because there’s an inverse relationship between the aperture setting and how much light it lets in. You need to let in a lot of light with a setting like f/2.

A wide aperture will throw your background out of focus, and your holiday lights should become little luminous balls. You can make the bokeh balls bigger by increasing the distance between your subject and the lights. Plus, you can make your bokeh balls look like hexagons (or octagons or whatevergons, depending on the number of blades in your lens), by closing the aperture a bit. Play around. You’ll see.

When you're ready to edit your photos, PicMonkey's easy-to-use photo editing tools will help you get the job done right. Perfect your Christmas photography just in time for Jolly Old St. Nicholas. Happy Holidays!

How to Take Pictures of Christmas Tree Lights with Starbursts & Bokeh

11 December


Over the past couple of years, I’ve received a lot of questions about how I take pictures of Christmas tree lights. From blurred bokeh backgrounds to super sharp tree images that look like the lights are sparkling, I’ve been asked about tips, settings, and if there’s an app I use. The bad news – no, I don’t use an app and I don’t use an iPhone. So, I can’t speak to whether there’s a way to achieve similar photo results in that way. But, if you have similar, basic camera equipment to what I have, it’s not difficult to catch on once you start practicing.

I use the same camera I’ve had since around when I started the blog and everything I know about photography is self taught. I’ve literally Googled my way around my basic little Nikon D3200 since getting it three years ago — I’m always learning, adjusting, and trying to figure out ways to better do things. I rely on using Lightroom for editing but I haven’t come across a program/app in the world that will magically fix everything if the original photo isn’t taken somewhat properly. In this post, you’ll see I don’t use a lot of technical terminology – I know the result I’m looking for and generally, what settings to move up or down to help get me there. But, don’t count on this to be a comprehensive camera tutorial – there are a ton of resources out there that will get you fixed right up 😉

With all the photos you’ll see in the post, I’ve used my 50 mm prime lens (HERE). You can still use a wide angle lens but I prefer the 50 mm when possible. If you’re looking for your first lens beyond your kit lens, this is the one I would recommend, without a doubt. Also, all the lighting conditions for these photos vary – that means, my exact camera settings may be different than yours, depending on your setup/lighting/etc. Another important thing to note- incandescent bulbs photograph way better than LED. And, some LED photograph better than other LED. I’m not sure of the scientific reason of why the can look different and why they can read green in photos but I can’t always make LED lights do what clear, warm, incandescent bulbs do.

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How to Make Your Christmas Tree Lights Twinkle

In my experience, getting that starburst effect that makes it look like your Christmas tree lights are twinkling comes down to how long the shutter stays open. Here’s how I make that happen for as long as possible:

  1. USE A TRIPOD. You can’t pull this off while holding your camera.
  2. Shoot in manual mode.
  3. Turn overhead/lamp lights off.
  4. Set your ISO down as low as possible. I try to stick with 100 – occasionally 200 if it’s pitch black outside.
  5. The darker it is outside, the easier it is to set your camera to have a slow shutter speed without the photo getting overexposed.
  6. Set a small aperture (make the lens hole small) to minimize depth of field and get your photo as crisp as possible
  7. Focus on the tree/whatever subject has the light strands.
  8. Most of my twinkle light photos have an ISO of 100, aperture of f/13-f/16, and will vary the greatest in shutter speed depending on how light/dark it is outside/inside.

I also often get questions about whether I’ve added additional lights to my trees as sometimes they seem to be way brighter or glow from within. It’s all in the camera settings! The longer the photo processes, the more light it’s gathering and emitting from those lights. Here are photo examples in conditions from overcast outside, to twilight/after sunset to when it’s totally dark outside – see settings below each photo.

50 mm lens | ISO 100 | f/16 | 4.0 sec

50 mm lens | ISO 100 | f/16 | 15.0 sec

50 mm lens | ISO 100 | f/16 | 30.0 sec

50 mm lens | ISO 200 | f/13 | 13. 0 sec

50 mm lens | ISO 100 | f/16 | 15.0 sec

50 mm lens | ISO 200 | f/13 | 15.0 sec

50 mm lens | ISO 200 | f/13 | 15.0 sec

How to Give Your Christmas Tree Lights a Bokeh Effect (Blurry Circle Background)

To achieve a bokeh effect with your Christmas lights, you basically use the opposite settings for most of your photos. You want a quick shutter speed and an intense depth of field (large aperture) (focus on foreground with deep background blur) – this is also where THIS lens comes in handy. You can get this effect at night or during the day and can pull off a blurred bokeh effect with or without a tripod. If your conditions are dark, I’d still use one 😉 But, your ISO is much more flexible with this style of photo.

  1. With a good portrait lens, this is an easier effect to achieve. And, this is a setting you’ll use way more often if you want people in the photos. For example- portraits for Christmas cards.
  2. Shoot in manual mode.
  3. Turn overhead/lamp lights off.
  4. Whatever your subject is, pull it away from the light source, like your tree, far enough in front so it can really blur the background. The closer it is to your tree, the more focus it will give the tree, thus, giving you less bokeh and blurred background.
  5. Get close to your subject and focus on it – not the light source/Christmas tree.
  6. Set a large aperture (make the lens hole big) to maximize depth of field and get your photo as crisp as possible
  7. The larger your aperture and the faster your lens, the more blur you will have. To get more distinct circles, adjust your settings slightly.

50 mm lens | ISO 200 | f/1.8 | 1/250 sec

50 mm lens | ISO 100 | f/2.5 | 1/25 sec

50 mm lens | ISO 400 | f/1.6 | 1/13 sec

50 mm lens | ISO 200 | f/3.2 | 1/60 sec

50 mm lens | ISO 200 | f/2.2 | 1/80 sec

50 mm lens | ISO 200 | f/1. 6 | 1/160 sec

When in doubt, pull your camera out and just play around with it! Make your tree the subject when you’re looking for it to sparkle; put your focus on something in the foreground to get a blurred bokeh background. A few final tips in editing:

  1. To really pronounce the starburst twinkle, take your highlights all the way down.
  2. To make your tree glow more, turn up the vibrance.

To catch this year’s Christmas Home Tour, be sure to visit the post HERE and you can check out other posts to get you ready for the holidays on the far right of the menu at the top of the screen.

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How to photograph Christmas lights: best settings and tips

Shooting Christmas lights is a great part of the winter holidays. Taking photos of New Year's garlands is fun, interesting and ... not quite easy. Therefore, I decided to share with you how to photograph Christmas lights, including garlands.

Christmas decorations and garlands are a great opportunity for creating creative photos

How to set up the camera to shoot Christmas garlands?

Use a slow shutter speed

Garlands, as a light source, are beautiful, but not very powerful. Our eyes adapt to low light fairly quickly, so we can see a dim scene as brightly lit. But the camera can't do that.

To photograph the Christmas lights, we need a longer shutter speed. The choice of shutter speed depends on many factors, such as the brightness of the garland and the nature of the ambient light. But I can recommend starting at ¼ second and slowing down as needed.

Related: What and how to photograph on New Year's Eve

Take a test shot, see if you like the result, and if the light doesn't look bright enough, try a shutter speed of 2 seconds or more.

Difference between 2, 8, and 20 second exposures

In the photo above, you can see the difference between exposures of different lengths. The longer the shutter speed, the narrower the aperture and the stronger the light from the bulbs of the garlands resembles star flares.

But don't get carried away! If you set the shutter speed too slow, you can get an overexposed image, drowning in warm light.

Use a tripod

Slow shutter speeds capture the holiday lights in all their glory, but leave your photo vulnerable to motion blur.

A clumsy gesture, a dropped prop, or a cat stuck in the frame can cause motion blur. To minimize this possibility, be careful not to move the elements of the composition while shooting. And, of course, use a tripod.

You can also hang a garland on a tripod so that its lights are closer to the camera and give a beautiful effect when out of focus. Shooting handheld reduces the quality of the photo too much.

If you don't have a tripod, try placing the camera on a stable surface and using the camera's self-timer function. This will prevent camera shake when the shutter button is pressed.

Keep your ISO low to avoid grainy images.

The higher the ISO, the more likely it is to get a "grainy" picture. I usually shoot with artificial lighting, which I set purposefully, so most of the time I use the lowest ISO possible.

In cases where you cannot control the ambient light, you can choose a higher ISO value (but be very careful).

Start at ISO 100. With a slow shutter speed, this should be enough to capture Christmas lights. But if necessary, increase it to the required value.

My settings for this photo were: shutter speed: 1/6s, aperture: f/5.6, ISO: 125

If you need more light, I would suggest increasing your shutter speed first. Raising the ISO is only a last resort.

Create bokeh with shallow depth of field

To get beautiful bokeh from blurry light, a wide-open aperture is most often required. It creates a very shallow depth of field, so the background is out of focus. She also turns the lights of the garlands into small, glowing discs.

Sometimes you don't even need objects in focus

For beautiful bokeh, you need to choose an aperture around f/4 or wider.

Don't use the built-in flash

First of all, forget about the built-in flash. To be honest, this is a general advice for any genre of photography.

In most cases, the front light looks flat and unattractive. When shooting street lighting, you will most likely be far from the subject. The built-in flash in such conditions will have almost no effect on the exposure (at least it won't do it better - that's for sure):

On-camera flash is simply useless for such a shot.

When shooting indoors, the built-in flash, on the contrary, becomes too powerful, and you can get an overexposed image. In addition, the built-in flash blocks all the surrounding light, and the resulting picture will lack warmth, comfort and a festive atmosphere. The built-in flash can also distort the colors of the garlands, introducing an unpleasant blue tint.

More on the topic: How to take pictures on a smartphone on New Year's holidays

Christmas lights photo ideas

There are many ways to use lights in photography. They can serve as decoration, background and even the main source of lighting. Below I have put together a few ideas for using garlands for Christmas photos.

Bokeh Christmas Light Tree

The best way to bring out the festive beauty of a Christmas tree is to decorate it with garlands and show off its shape with gorgeous bokeh. Use manual focus to blur the tree and let the lens create bokeh from the tiny lights of the garlands.

Take a close-up photo of the Christmas decoration

The lights of the garlands look great in the photo of the Christmas decorations on the Christmas tree. The closer you get to the toy and the wider your aperture is, the more beautiful the background bokeh will be.

More on this topic: Christmas bokeh and compression

Portrait illuminated with Christmas lights

Try to shoot a creative portrait in which the lights of the Christmas lights are the main source of light. Be sure to use spot metering and measure the exposure against the lights of the garland. This way they won't be blown out and your subject's face will get attractive, soft lighting.

Christmas Garlands for Lighting Port

Try Shaped Bokeh

Depending on the number of aperture blades on your lens, bokeh comes in a variety of shapes (hexagonal, octagonal, etc.). But you can also easily create bokeh of your own shape.

Simply make an imitation filter out of black thick paper, and cut a small hole in the center of it in the desired shape. The hole size should be between 0.5 and 2 cm.

Open the aperture as wide as possible and enjoy the results of your own bokeh filter.

More on this topic: 11 original ideas for Christmas photos


Garlands are accessible to everyone and are great for creating atmosphere in Christmas photos. I hope this article was useful to you and suggested what you should pay attention to when setting up your camera for photographing New Year's garlands and lights.

And now it's time to move from theory to practice, and capture the magical New Year's mood in your photos! I wish you the most wonderful New Year's photos and great holidays!

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How to photograph Christmas lights

Maybe you decorated a Christmas tree in the yard, or maybe we are talking about a smart city center? Alfonso S. told how to take beautiful New Year's photos with bright lights of festive garlands.

It is especially interesting to take such pictures now, when there is very little time, while the city is decorated with garlands.

Advances in cameras have made shooting in low light easier than ever before.

High ISO allows you to shoot in low light. And the metering modes available in the camera make the process easier.

This post will show you a few techniques designed specifically to make taking Christmas holiday shots much easier.

The more thoroughly you prepare, the easier it will be to complete the main task. Let's do the main thing first.

Disable auto mode

The way you choose to show the nighttime holiday illumination will greatly affect the result.

If the exposure is insufficient, then the light from the festive splendor will be severely limited.

If the exposure is too high, a strong glow will result, which may even lead to lens flare.

As with most night shots, Christmas lights at night require manual exposure.

Shooting large garland details requires manual exposure to avoid overexposure that can occur with automatic modes.

Disable flash

If your only flash is on-camera flash then make sure it stays off.

The flash on the camera is fired directly at the subject, which is flooded with direct bright light. This white light will mix with the red, green and yellow lights of the garlands, creating a dull, lifeless picture. If the on-camera flash is directed upwards, then sharp, unattractive shadows will also turn out.

However, external flashes are another matter entirely.

Since they provide more control over the intensity and direction of the light, you can take steps to avoid negative effects.

The ideal flash situation is when the main subject is in the foreground and the lights are in the background.

The flash can illuminate the main subject and minimally affect the background lights from the garlands.

It's best to try taking pictures with and without flash and then compare the results.

Use manual mode

Manual mode gives you full control over shutter speed and sensitivity. This is very important so that there is no movement from trembling hands. Make sure you have made the correct settings.

Ideally, the lowest ISO setting should be used. But, of course, it depends on the aperture, shutter speed and the degree of illumination.

When shooting outdoors at night, a good sensitivity level to start with is ISO 400-800.

You can always increase the ISO level if necessary. It should be noted right away that many professionals advise not to exceed the ISO 1600 value, because. the amount of noise increases significantly.

What happens if there is a moving car in the picture and your ISO 1600 settings and f/4 aperture are still not enough to avoid subject blur?

Won't you take a picture because it needs ISO 3200? Of course not!

Increase the sensitivity to the desired level. Just be aware that the picture will be noisier.

You can always remove noise with software processing. Of course, such a frame will not be of sufficient quality for large format printing. But at least you can get a good picture.

This photo couldn't have been shot below ISO 3200. And that was the only way to get the correct exposure to avoid blurring the moving truck.

Follow the shutter speed rule no longer than 1/FR

If you're shooting handheld, make sure you follow the rule where the shutter speed is no slower than 1 divided by the focal length (or the equivalent focal length if you have a non-35mm camera).

That is, with a 50 mm lens, the shutter speed should not be longer than 1/50 sec. In short, you can, for example, 1/100. If you make it longer, then there is a great chance to get a blurry picture from hand trembling. This rule is especially useful when using telephoto lenses of 200mm or more.

Handheld shot with 18mm lens and 1/2 second shutter speed. Pay attention to the lights, they are a little blurry. In this case, it was necessary to use a shutter speed no longer than 1/18 sec.

Use tripod

If you shoot at a large aperture and high ISO, you will have to have very strong hands. If you reduce the aperture value by one stop and lower the sensitivity, then you need to use a slower shutter speed. Use a tripod for these shots. It will allow you to get frames without lubrication.

Shoot at dusk

Don't wait for the sky to turn completely black, Christmas night lights can be shot at dusk, after the sun has already gone, but its light still illuminates the sky, which allows you to get rich colors. This will help to get an interesting background for the night illumination.

Since twilight lasts for several minutes, you need to shoot quickly!

After the twilight is over, you can continue to shoot New Year's garlands in full force. I would recommend shooting wide cityscapes at dusk. After the sky is completely black, you can move on to more close-up shots with an open aperture.

Twilight added extra color to the landscape with Christmas garlands. The shooting lasted only 5-10 minutes, after which the blue sky and water turned black.

Exposure and light sources

This tip is especially good for Christmas lights shot at night.

Depending on the exposure, Christmas garlands can appear in many ways.

Depending on the exposure, the bulbs will either create a glow around them, or the glow will decrease when the exposure decreases.

You can always add more glow to underexposed frames. However, it is most likely impossible to get rid of the excessive glow.

Not sure which option you need? Do both!

Take one shot for the main highlights (slightly underexposed) and one for the darker details (slightly overexposed). Then, if you shot on a tripod, you can blend the two shots, taking the best from each.

Avoid Mistakes With Color

The combination of colors when shooting garlands makes auto white balance very difficult to work with. When shooting in JPEG, you need to make sure that automatic white balance detection is disabled.

Setting the white balance to that of an incandescent lamp will generally produce more accurate colors. You need to be sure of the correct setting so that you do not have to deal with fitting in post-processing.

If you can shoot in RAW, this is the best option and highly recommended. This will give you complete control over the white balance and make adjustments after shooting without worrying about degrading image quality.

Note the non-yellow tint on the left and the need to correct it during processing (right).

Use bracketing

Exposure bracketing is the use of different exposures to create a single frame in order to get a better result. In this mode, the camera takes more frames, with different levels of exposure.

The wider the bracketing used, the more opportunities to get a good photo in processing.

Slight changes in exposure allow lights and clouds to appear differently in the background.

Use bokeh

By using a longer focal length, a larger aperture, and placing the subject closer to the camera, background lights can be blurred.

This is called bokeh and is a good way to add warmth to holiday photography.

The Nutcracker was placed closer to the camera and further away from the garlanded Christmas tree, and the long lens added a strong bokeh effect to the background.

Get ready

The more you know about the location you'll be filming in, the better. You will understand where the Christmas lights are, where the sun sets and what the camera settings should be.

Learn more