How To Get Great Photos Of Outdoor Christmas Lights

How do you get great photos of outdoor Christmas decorations?

Well, your digital camera can help make it easier to get those pictures of the Christmas lights on your house to turn out.

New Glarus, WI Christmas lights

There are 3 things you will need to get great photos of outdoor Christmas lights

  1. A camera that can shoot long exposures.
  2. A remote shutter release.
  3. A tripod.

First, you need a camera that will allow you to shoot at long shutter speeds.

The first photo with this post is of New Glarus, WI. The shutter speeds I used while taking photos that night were from about 4 seconds to over 15 seconds long at an aperture setting of F11. The images of Michigan Aveneue Christmas lights in Chicago were from 1-5 seconds long at F11. You will need a camera that will do these long shutter speeds. It also helps if your camera has a noise reduction option for long exposures built in. In this case, I used a Canon 5D at ISO 100.

You will need a way to trigger the shutter without shaking the camera.

Ideally, you will have remote shutter release for your camera. If you do not, you can use the self-timer function.

You will need a tripod.

A tripod is one of the most important accessories you can purchase for your camera. The sturdier, the better. The trouble with photography in cold weather like this is those metal tripod legs get really cold. Some tripods come with foam to cover parts of the legs. A nice feature if you cannot afford the more expensive new composite tripods.

A tripod was also very handy while I slid down a steep, icy sidewalk in New Glarus, WI. A city that resemble Switzerland, not only in arcitucture, but in hilly terrain.

I suggest using your camera in aperture priority.

Set your aperture for resonable depth of field. Then, vary your shutter speed according to the light. This way, you can keep your composition in focus while you experiment with exposure with the shutter speed.

You should bracket your exposure.

With night-time photography, it can be hard to get detail in shadow areas while not overexposing the highlights. This is the trick. To find the best exposure for the scene you are photographing. Your cameras meter will give a good starting point. I usually shoot a stop over and under. A quick look at the preview screen can give you an idea if you are close or which direction you should bracket more in.

Michigan Ave Christmas lights Chicago Il

Using a RAW file format is ideal in this situation.

Using a RAW file format will allow you to fine tune the exposure a bit more. Also, you can adjust the color balance to your taste much better later while you are looking at a high resolution image on your computer. You can also make a bracket exposure from one RAW file.

For further improvement, you can use Photoshop to increase the dynamic range in your photo.

The latest versions of Photoshop CS2 and CS3 can combine different exposures of an image to get the best highlight and shadow detail a put it in one image. There are other programs that will add this feature to earlier versions of Photoshop. You may also be able to do this by hand. Have several bracketed shots on a tripod, or taken from a RAW file are needed for this technique. The photos in this post did not use this technique.

It might be a good idea to put a plastic bag over your camera to protect it if there is snow.

The photograph of the Christmas lights on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Il was shot during the first real snow storm of the season. After shooting for about 10 minutes, I looked down to discover I and my camera bag were coated with wet snow. Keep a towel ready for when you get back to the car to wipe excess moisture off your equipment.

Cold weather will also cause batteries to weaken faster.

Spare batteries can be kept in a pocket closer to your body so you can keep shooting. Check your camera manual for an idea how cold weather will affect the batteries. It can cut normal use in half.

Try to start taking photos of the Christmas lights right after sunset.

The leftover light at dusk will help balance the bright Christmas lights and fill shadows. This will provide more detail. Of course, sometimes it can be too early. Just after I spent 45 minutes photographing the lights around New Glarus, WI and got in the car, the lights on the church were finally turned on.

Photographing Christmas lights is a fun challenge.

Even better is to finish it up with a drink of something warm with a loved one while you warm up afterwards.

About James Thoenes

James has spent most of his life involved in photography. He is now dedicated to producing portraits that his clients will treasure for the rest of their lives.