Back to Blog
header graphic for blog post helping photographers to photograph festive christmas lights

Capturing the Christmas Spirit: Mastering the Art of Photographing Festive Lights

technique tips Nov 30, 2023

As December dawns, the city streets are transformed into a wonderland of twinkling lights, bringing a unique opportunity for photographers to capture the festive spirit (okay, we know some people put their lights up in November - or even earlier - but you get the picture). So, let’s walk through the art of photographing twinkly lights, from choosing the right settings to creative compositions, ensuring your December images sparkle.


The Best Time to Shoot

Christmas lights photography is all about timing. The 'blue hour’, that magical period just after sunset, is ideal. During this time, the sky's residual light perfectly balances the warm glow of the festive lights. This balance is crucial for avoiding overly dark backgrounds or overly bright lights. Plus, the blue hour's soft light can add a dreamy quality to your images, particularly if there are some clouds moving across the sky during a long exposure.

Equipment and Settings

A tripod is essential. Long exposures are key in low light, and a tripod will prevent camera shake. In manual mode, start with a low ISO, around 100-200, to minimise digital noise. Play with your shutter speed; begin at 1-2 seconds and adjust based on light intensity. After sunset the sky brightness can drop quite quickly, so you’ll need to keep checking that your exposure is on target and tweak the shutter speed accordingly.

Aperture control is equally vital. A wider aperture (lower f-number) allows more light but narrows your depth of field. For broader scenes, a smaller aperture (higher f-number) keeps more elements in focus. If the weather is really cold, remember that your batteries aren’t going to last as long, so make sure you have spares with you.


Experiment with different lenses too.

A standard zoom lens is versatile, while a wide-angle lens can capture expansive scenes of Christmas streetscapes. Telephotos allow you to isolate the details, and perhaps eliminate festive shoppers, but be careful as the risk of camera shake increases with the focal length so you’ll really need to lock down that tripod!

Creative Composition

Beyond technical settings, composition is where your creativity shines. Look for unique perspectives—shoot from a low angle to capture the reflection of lights on wet streets, or find a high viewpoint for a panoramic view of city lights.

Incorporate foreground elements to add depth. A silhouette of a person gazing at the lights, for instance, adds a human touch and scale. Play with reflections on surfaces like water, glass, or ice for an artistic twist.

Post-Processing Tips

In post-processing, adjust the white balance to accurately render the light colours, particularly if mixing different light sources. Enhancing contrast and sharpness can make your lights pop (try the texture/clarity sliders if you’re a Lightroom user). But be careful with saturation—too much can make the scene look artificial.

Photographing Christmas lights is more than just a technical exercise; it’s about capturing the essence of the festive season. With the right approach, you can turn simple strings of lights into mesmerising photographs that evoke the warmth and joy of the season. So grab your camera and tripod, embrace the chill in the air, and go create some Christmas magic.



Our weekly Tips and Techniques email is FREE.

Sign up today, unsubscribe anytime.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.

Don't miss out on unlocking your full photography potential. Join the MYP community on a monthly subscription to gain exclusive access to photo critiques, expert tutorials, and a network of like-minded photographers. Transform your skills from amateur to awe-inspiring.

Tell me more