Saturday, December 14, 2013

How to Photograph Outdoor Holiday Lights

'Tis the season, at least here in the US, for home owners to brightly festoon their houses in vast quantities of small, twinkling lights. Whether you consider them Christmas lights, holiday lights, or just a fun excuse to run up the electricity bill, this article will give up the tips you need to take fabulous shots of outdoor holiday lights and light displays.

holiday lights, Christmas lights, photography, how to


A tripod is a must for tack-sharp night photographs, and a remote shutter release is helpful. (If you do not have a remote, you can use the 2-second or 10-second countdown feature on your camera. Corded remotes, however, are really inexpensive and worth the few bucks to pick up. Read more about them here.) You can use a point-and-shoot camera on night or long exposure settings, but you will have the most control over the final image if you shoot with a DSLR camera.


I prefer to shoot holiday lights in aperture priority mode at ISO 100 with a narrow aperture, like f/22. This can create a starburst effect, turning each tiny light into a miniature star. (Read more about how to create starbursts in my guest post over at Digital Photography School.) Even if you do not get full starbursts for each light, f/22 will help accentuate the glow.

I have found that Christmas lights often look best when shot a bit underexposed, as you still want something of a 'night' look to the final photograph and do not want your camera's sensor picking a shutter speed that will make the whole image look as bright as day. To that end, I recommend using exposure compensation and underexposing your image by one full stop. (You can find how to do this on most point-and-shoot cameras if you look deeply enough into the menus.)

The other option is to shoot bracketed and have the camera take a series of pictures at different exposure compensation values. If you are using this option, I recommend starting with the values of -2, -1, and 0. This will give you a range of options to choose from later.

Use Exposure Compensation to Get the Perfect Look for Your Holiday Lights | Boost Your Photography

Finally, you may want to consider taking your white balance (WB) off of Auto. If you shoot in RAW (or RAW + jpg), then you can leave the WB on Auto and choose the look you like best in post-processing. If you shoot in only JPEG, however, I recommend changing your white balance to tungsten or fluorescent. These will keep the skies blue, render the colors in the lights accurately, and not add a warm yellow or daytime glow to your images. You may want to shoot a series of images at different white balances and then decide. The set of photographs below were shot consecutively using a tripod, and the white balance was the only variable changed. You can see that the tungsten and fluorescent settings keep the snow and the houses white, while the other settings impart a yellow-orange glow to much of the scene.

Watch Your White Balance with Holiday Lights | Boost Your Photography
Comparison of White Balance (click here to see larger version on Flickr)


Timing is everything for making it an iconic holiday lights shot and not just another snapshot. The key is to take your photographs during the blue hour. The blue hour is the period of time (lasting approximately an hour) that occurs shortly before the sun begins to rise in the morning and shortly after the sun has set at night. During the blue hour, the sky becomes a deep blue color that serves as an excellent contrast to the glow of Christmas lights. Your camera will see a record this blue color deeply and more vibrantly than it may appear to your eyes, so you can keep shooting even after the sky has started to look 'black' to you.

Plan to Shoot Holiday Lights during the Blue Hour | Boost Your Photography
These pictures were taken only 15 minutes apart.

You also want to try and shoot during a night with clear skies. A clear sky allows for that deep blue color, unfiltered. Scattered clouds make for glorious sunsets but not for great blue skies. A completely overcast sky will actually look quite a bit yellow or orange, as it will reflect back the light pollution from any surrounding cities or urban areas. The other benefit of clear skies is that you might also be able to record stars, moon, or planets in conjunction with your holiday lights.

holiday lights, Christmas lights, photography, how to, blue hour

There are many easy ways to figure out your timing for such shots. You can use a site like Blue Hour Site to get approximate timings for the blue hour in your area, or you can use a site like Time and Date or the Photographers' Ephemeris to determine the sunrise and sunset times. I have found that 15-20 minutes after sunset is the beginning of the best time for shooting holiday lights against stunning blue skies.


There are an endless number of ways to photograph and show off Christmas and holiday lights. The most traditional, of course, would be a straight on or just off-centered architecturally driven approach, where you include the whole house and are shooting from tripod or eye-level. If you want the walls of your house to appear straight, take the photograph from farther away (like across the street) and zoom in on the house. This will avoid the distortion common in architecture if you are too close to the building you are shooting.

You can also go for a less traditional look. Rather than including the whole house, choose a particular section or area of interest. Narrowing down the focus helps the viewer to see and appreciate all the details present in the scene, which might be lost in a broader composition.

holiday lights, Christmas lights, photography, how to, Santa, church

Think about adding other types of lights into the shot as well. For houses on busier streets, you may want to shoot a wider point of view and include the light trails of passing cars. These extra lights will add interest and a sense of movement to the picture.

holiday lights, Christmas lights, photography, how to

Finishing Touches for Houses

If you really want an above-and-beyond Christmas or holiday lights shot, there are a few finishing touches when it comes to lights and lighting. (A fresh dusting of snow is always appreciated too.) If you want your house to look warm and inviting, you should turn on the inside lights so that the windows glow brightly. This also applies to porch lights or street lamps. Their warm glowing will add to the overall ambiance of the final photograph.

Here the garage lights are too bright, but the interior lights add a warm glow.

Consider, however, turning off or temporarily disabling any flood lights or motion sensor lights that do not add to the overall composition. Flood lights lighting a house may add to the holiday effect, but bright motion lights streaming out from your garage will only blow out in the photograph and make everything too bright, as in the image above.

These seem like nit-picky kinds of things, but, as you can see from the examples, they can make a big impact in your overall photograph.


Christmas and holiday lights are a photographic gold mine this time of year. If you take a little bit of time to plan out your shot (shoot during the blue hour, turn on the inside lights, and bring along your tripod and remote), you will find it easy to capture memorable and delightful shots of your favorite lights displays. Enjoy!

Boost Your Photography: Learn Your DSLR is now available from Amazon. Get the most out of your camera with practical advice about the technical and creative aspects of DSLR photography that will have you taking beautiful pictures right away.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...