Your guide to Holiday Light pictures!


One of the highlights of the Christmas decorations you put up every year is always the tree! Some people go all out and have several trees with different themes. Others, like myself, let the kids decorate as only a kid can. (then fix it after they have gone to bed, just kidding!  I love the excitement my kiddo gets whenever he tells people he decorated the tree!)  Either way, we want to take pictures of it to share with everyone or take pictures of our kids and family in front of the tree. 

I am going to give you some tips to take the best Christmas tree photos.  Most of this will be aimed at everyone with either a phone camera, point and shoot or a DSLR.  However, there will be a section that I will direct towards those using a DSLR.

I highly recommend practicing your setting before having your kids try to sit still through it.  It will not end well.  Even my extremely camera happy, loves to pose and be my model child will not sit long enough for practice shots. Find a stuffed animal, a toy or something else to use that won’t argue or get bored.  


Indoor Lights

To begin with, the biggest issue most people have is the lighting.  You either get your tree lights overexposed and blown out or there is so much ambient light the tree lights get lost.  This will help you get better photos!  First, ambient is defined as “the surrounding area or environment”.  Ambient light is light that comes from a surrounding source. Like a window, a lamp or overhead room lights.  Ambient light will help you get great pictures in this case. Your flash will not.  (In this case when I refer to flash I am going to assume you don’t have professional lighting. I am referring to the pop up flash on your camera or on your phone, don’t use it!)

I will repeat in case you missed it Do Not Use Your Flash.  The flash will have its place, but this is not it. You will end up with harsh shadows and barely seen lights.  It just won’t be good. Trust me.

Ambient Light. To get the best lighting scenario you want the ambient light to be just enough to light up details on your subject but not overexpose your tree lights.  To achieve this, place your subject between the tree and the ambient light source.  If you have too many coming from different directions, turn the others off.  For example, if I am using the ambient light coming from my kitchen behind me, I will turn off the other lights or cover up the windows, so I can control what light is used. 

Location. Next up is the location of your subject.  If you are wanting a picture of the someone in front of the tree, it looks best to have the tree and lights nicely blurred behind them.  That blur is something called bokeh.  Bokeh is normally achieved by having a lens that you can adjust the aperture and control depth of field. Confusing?  Yeah, a little.  You can mimic this with any camera by correctly placing your subject a distance away from the background.  The further the subject is from the background and the closer you are to your subject will help to get that nice blurred background.  This will also help to get the light on your subject not the Christmas tree lights.  (These are a couple of cell phone photos with two goofballs!)


SettingsThis is directed at someone who is using a DSLR camera.  These are manual settings.  This will not work well if you have your camera in full auto mode.  You can achieve so much more by trying your hand at the manual settings.  If you are too scared to try full manual, at least set it to Aperture priority mode.  (A or AV on your dial) This will let you adjust your aperture or F stop.

*Aperture. That is the amount of light that the lens lets in to your camera.  The lower the number 1.8, 2.5 the more light is let in.  The higher the number 5, 7 etc. the less light is allowed in.  The lower numbers (more light) will give you more blur.  But be careful because the lower number will also make your focus range smaller. 

Now which f-stop you choose will depend on the lens you have.  I like to shoot this type of thing at about 1.8-2.5 but yours may not go that low. 3.5 or 4.0 may be the lowest if you have a kit lens.  Try it at the lowest your lens allows and adjust from there. 

*ISO. If your test shot is too dark, you can adjust your ISO, or light sensitivity.  The higher the ISO, the brighter your image will be.  Don’t go higher than your camera can handle. High ISO will make your pictures look grainy.  Start with the lowest ISO then move up from there until you get the brightness you want.

*Shutter Speed. This is how long your shutter is open.  Longer exposure is a lower (slower) number, shorter exposure is a higher (faster) number.  Faster shutter will freeze action, slower will blur motion.  When dealing with kids you want a faster shutter or else you will get blurry images.  The trade off is faster shutter will make the image darker.  I suggest setting your shutter at about 150 and adjusting your f-stop and ISO to get your desired brightness.  (The following image setting were: f1.8, ss 120, ISO 1600)


I understand this is a lot of information and confusing.  Read it a couple times and practice! 




Outdoor Lights

Taking the information you learned above, you can also take great pictures of outdoor lights.

A few things you need to determine is what outcome or effect are you looking to get.  Do you want just the lights bright and the rest to be inky black?  Do you want to see the lights but still have some detail in the background?  This one is popular with decorated buildings. 

Lets start with keeping detail.  As with indoor lights, you will need some ambient light to see any detail in other things.  Many buildings will also have some sort of lighting on them to help with that.  Otherwise you will need to rely on the sun.  I suggest trying to get your light images right at sunset to 30 minutes after sunset before it becomes pitch black.  This will allow for that detail you are looking for. (following photos were taken with a cell phone)



If you want to see just the bright lights, everything else black, you will want to wait until it is darker out.  Which isn’t hard this time of year here in the United States.   Your camera will need to keep the shutter open longer so the picture will get blurry easier.  If you don’t have a tripod to use, find something to stabilize it or stabilize your arm.  Camera shake is very noticeable in these types of pictures. 


In summary, practice.  The more you practice and try different things, the more you will learn about how your camera works. 

For indoor pictures you will want:

  1. Ambient light
  2. Distance between your subject and the lights
  3. Adjust setting appropriately if using a DSLR

For outdoor pictures:

  1. Ambient light (depending on the look you want)
  2. Tripod

I hope you found this article helpful.  Share your images with me on my Facebook page, I would love to see them!  If you would like to learn more, contact me and I can tell you how you can get in on a beginner’s photography course. 

I hope you have a great holiday season. Whichever holiday celebrate this season, take pictures!  I would love to see what you create!