How to Take Pictures of Holiday Lights That Actually Look Awesome
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How to Take Pictures of Holiday Lights That Actually Look Awesome

Have you ever seen a gorgeous, glowing scene of holiday lights in front of you, only to be disappointed by how it looks when you photograph it? We know it can be frustrating when all those twinkling lights don’t translate in photos exactly as you’d expect. Thankfully, our pals at Photojojo have passed on some advice for making sure your sparkly holiday lights look as stunning in photos as they do IRL, whether with twinkle light indoors or out. Read on for the tips!

Slow It Down

First and foremost, switch your camera to manual mode. This allows you full control over all your settings, such as shutter speed, aperture and ISO. This will better help you manage exactly how your camera reacts to light.

Now on to shutter speeds! The slower the shutter speed (which means lower numbers like 1/15 instead of 1/200), the longer your lens is going to be open to allow lots and lots of light in. This is ideal because the holiday lights you’re shooting are going to end up glowing bigger and brighter! Look at the difference between the two photos below. The one on the left was taken with a fast shutter speed (1/30), which means the lens wasn’t open very long. Therefore the lights look like teeny little dots, which usually isn’t the look you’re going for. In contrast, the shot on the right was taken with a slower shutter speed (1/4).

It’s important to note a tripod is extremely helpful when you’re using slow shutter speeds. Try hand-holding your camera when shooting with a slow shutter speed and you’ll notice that the lights in the shot end up looking really squiggly (which can be a cool effect if that’s what you’re going for). But typically you’ll want a tripod to keep your camera steady so that the lights stay in place instead of streaking through the frame.

Use a High ISO

Ah, but you may not always have a tripod handy. So then what do you do? Like we mentioned above, if you use a faster shutter speed, your shot may not be blurry, but it’s also not going to be very bright. Unless you use a higher ISO like we did for the photo below!

The higher ISO you use, the more sensitive your camera is to light. This means that even without using a slow shutter speed, your camera’s sensor can still capture photos even in a low-light environment. But alas, there is a catch. The higher the ISO you use, the more grainy or “noisy” your photo will become.

But don’t shrug off ISO just yet. A little noise in your shot isn’t always noticeable, and when it is, there are ways to help decrease it during the editing process. Here’s a great explanation of how to use Photoshop to reduce the noise in your shots.

Go Wide

If you’re not using a tripod, another helpful way to minimize blur/camera shake is to use a wider angle lens. This means getting closer to the action than you would have to do with a telephoto lens, but who doesn’t wanna get closer to gorgeous holiday lights?

With a wide angle lens, the movement of your body (because it’s almost impossible to stand 100% completely still) doesn’t get picked up by the camera quite as easily as it would if you were using a zoom lens. Plus this way you can get the entire scene in the shot, which is important if you’re photographing an entire block of pretty lights!

Bokeh, Bokeh, Everywhere 

Now that you know how to use your camera to capture all that twinkle light goodness, let’s talk about some ideas to make your holiday shots even more fun. Let’s begin with bokeh! Bokeh is what happens when your shot is out of focus, turning all your lights into big, brilliant orbs of awesomeness.

Capturing bokeh is as simple as turning off your auto-focus and rotating your lens until the lights bloom into large sparkling spheres. Want to get even more creative? The Photojojo Bokeh Kit comes with filters for your lens that turn your bokeh into shapes like hearts and stars!

Make ’em a Backdrop

Holiday lights don’t always have to be the subject of the scene to make a big impact. Instead, they can sparkle and shine in the background.

Drinking a delish cup of cocoa? Place it several feet in front of your Christmas tree and focus your camera on the mug. The lights in the background are going to be out of focus, and you know what that means: more bokeh! Even if you just have a teeny tree like the ones pictured below, the lights on it will expand and take up enough of the frame to demand attention. Oooh. Ahhhh.

Take a Portrait

When friends and family are gathered together for a big holiday dinner, there’s a good chance you’re all going to want to take some portraits next to the Christmas tree. But it can sometimes be difficult to take a photo next to a tree that’s all lit up and glowing. You’ll want the faces in the shot to be bright and visible, but using a direct flash will ruin the glowing effect of your tree. See the photo on the left below.

On the other hand, forgoing the flash altogether in order to keep your tree looking magical will make the rest of the shot a bit too dark, and you won’t be able to see the smiling face of your model.

Therefore we recommend using something like a flash bounce. Sound familiar? We love it so much that we’ve already mentioned it once before in a recent post! A flash bounce will redirect your flash so that it bounces off the wall or ceiling, creating a more natural-looking light that doesn’t wash out the scene.

We used one for the photo below. As you can see, it lit up the model on the right without ruining the lights on the tree. It’s the best of both worlds!

That’s it! Now bundle up and take a walk around a decorated neighborhood so you can perfect your holiday light photo skills. (Don’t forget your tripod!) Looking for more photo tips? Check out the Photojojo blog!

Post your photos to Instagram and tag us + #iamcreative so we can see!