Top Tips for Photographing Holiday Light Displays


Holiday light displays are fun to view and can be even more fun to photograph. These days there are lots of varieties you’ll find if you scope out your neighborhood, from figures made completely out of tiny colorful lightbulbs to statuary and even the trendy blow up characters that have made it to lawns everywhere, for different holidays throughout the year.

Whether you spend time walking around your neighborhood, driving past the local holiday display hot spot or just photographing your own decorated yard, a few simple tips will make it easy for you to get great photos of holiday lighting displays.

To ensure that your scene will have some of the background visible and exposed, shoot at dusk. This will allow for the lights to glow and look lit but you’ll also be able to expose for the ambient light in the scene and see the background too.

Use a tripod if you have one but don’t let it stop you from shooting if you don’t. Simply turn on the VR image stabilization on a Z series mirrorless camera or DSLR with a VR lens. This will let you handhold the camera at a slow enough shutter speed to be able to capture the glow from the lit bulbs but stay sharp enough overall.

When photographing a subject made out of lights such as a lighting display or even a figure fashioned out of strings of holiday lights using a slow shutter speed allows for the lights themselves to glow, often with a warm tone. You’ll want to do this whether you’re photographing outdoors or indoors.

Don’t use your flash when photographing displays made out of lights. If you use a flash, the light will wash out the colors of the bulbs. When photographing holiday lighting displays, you want to capture the soft, warm glow of the lights. There is one instance where you may want to use fill-flash and that’s if you’re photographing a statue-like display that is not made of lights itself. In that case adding low-powered fill-flash may illuminate the character/statue but not completely wash out all of the lights in the entire scene.

Increase the ISO. You may want to increase the ISO to let you use the shutter speed and aperture combination you want for the effect you’re after. We’ll explain more further on…

Get that starburst look. Using a small aperture, such as f/16 or f/22 when photographing small bright pinpoints of light will cause those lights to look like small starbursts.

Use a wide aperture or “fast lens” to separate a main subject from the background. If you’re photographing one subject (an object or character figure) and want to separate it from a cluttered looking overly decorated background, use a wide aperture of f/1.8, f/2.8 or even f/4 if that’s as wide as your lens opens. Focus on your subject and the background will go out of focus. The amount of out of focus blur or “bokeh” is dependent upon the aperture you’re using. The wider the aperture, the more blur or bokeh.

You can get really creative by photographing a handful of colorful lightbulbs by unfocusing your camera’s lens. You’ll want to set the camera to manual focus and turn the lens barrel until you see the look you like. This is the “traditional holiday bokeh” shot. These abstracts will differ depending upon the variety and number of different colors you shoot. 

Another creative technique you can use when photographing a holiday light display is zooming in or out during the exposure. Set the camera to either manual or shutter priority exposure so you can control the duration of the shutter speed and select a shutter speed around 1/15 of a second or slower until you see what you like.

Experiment with white balance to adjust the color tone of your images. Especially when photographing older strands of holiday lights, which utilize Tungsten bulbs (it’s the lightbulb icon) for a warmer hue.. If you’re using a Z series mirrorless camera you can even play around with the 20 Creative Picture Controls for an even more wild look.

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