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How to Photograph Christmas Lights

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You want to freeze this moment in time so that long after the season has passed, you can evoke the feel of holiday cheer by looking at the amazing photos you took of that unique store display or your neighbor’s Christmas lights or the live church nativity scene.

One of the biggest difficulties with photographing Christmas lights is that they are designed to be enjoyed in the dark. Add to this the fact that many of them twinkle, flicker and flash, and you’ve got yourself quite a dilemma.

Professional photographers have an abundance of fancy gadgets and expensive gear at their disposal, not to mention loads of experience and know how. You don’t need the priciest camera with millions of attachments to snap great shots of the holidays, but you must be familiar with the settings on your camera in order to adjust for lighting conditions.

Capturing Christmas lights on your camera can be quite a challenge, so here are some useful hints that will help you shoot like a pro.

11 Steps to Get The Right Holiday Shot

1. Shoot at dusk

Rather than wait until it’s completely dark, capture the moment when the sun is on its way down. If you shoot when it is totally dark, you can properly expose either the lights or the surroundings but not both.

Likewise, shooting lights during the middle of the day means that the surroundings might look amazing, but you won’t be able to see the lights.

If you know the owner of the lights, ask him or her to turn the lights on early for your photo shoot. Most lights do not come on until the ideal lighting moments have already passed.

2. Turn off your flash.

It may seem counter-intuitive, as you will be photographing at night. However, if you shot the scene with your flash, the Christmas lights would actually look as though weren’t even on.

3. Stabilize your camera.

This is where your tripod really comes in handy. In order to make up for the lack of light due to not using a flash, the shutter of your camera will remain open for a longer period of time to allow as much light as possible to enter the scene. Any movement at all will severely distort your photo.

If you don’t have a tripod, you can improvise by placing your camera on a stationary surface or bracing your body against a wall. But only a tripod will guarantee absolute stillness, as your camera will require a few seconds to actually capture the scene.

4. The Rule of Thirds

Frame your shot using the rule of thirds. Imagine four lines that divide your frame, with two going vertically and two horizontally. This will resemble a tic tac toe board and split your frame into thirds.

Place the most important part of your photo at one of the intersections, as most people’s eyes are instantly drawn to these points. Following the rule of thirds gives your photos instant visual appeal.

5. Capture the Sky

Include as much of the sky as possible in your shot. You may need to position your camera lower in order to achieve this. Consider using a light foreground, such as snow or water for textural contrast.

6. Go Wide

Use a wide shot to include as many lights and colors as possible. Fill the frame completely for a professional look.

7. Use an ISO of 800 or greater.

Experiment with various shutter speeds and f-stops. In general, a shutter speed of ¼ or ½ will serve you best.

8. Set white balance to tungsten.

This setting is often overlooked even by the pros. By adjusting the white balance setting to tungsten, you can give the sky a gorgeous blue glow while enhancing the gleam of the lights.

9. Focus on Contrasting Objects

Focus on an image in the foreground or background. The contrast of sharpness and blurriness looks stunning.

10. It’s OK to Edit

Use photo editing software to enhance, add contrast, crop and touch up however you see fit.

11. Use Accessories for Indoor Photoshoots

When taking photos indoors, you may need a light box or strobe. You can also use your flash on the lowest setting.

While you can definitely get some breathtaking shots using a point and shoot camera, a single lens reflex (SLR) grants you amazing manual control. As you become more familiar with the settings, you can adjust things like the shutter speed and aperture to get the desired effect.

The beauty of a digital camera is that you can take as many pictures as you’d like, only keeping the good ones. Remember that time is limited, so take as many shots as possible. You’ll have time to pick and choose later.

What’s the Best Camera for Shooting Christmas Lights?

The best camera is the one you have with you. Today’s smartphones have incredible features that can really make your photos pop with little effort.

So if you come across the perfect Christmas light scene, and all you have is your smart phone, well, in that moment, your phone is your best camera.

When using your smartphone or tablet to capture Christmas lights, be sure to hold it with both hands to steady the camera. Brace yourself against something solid, such as a wall, fence, or tree. Use the night setting if available, and always be sure that your lens is clean.

By following these tips, you could end up with a once in a lifetime shot worthy of being featured on the cover of a magazine.

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