How to Photograph Holiday Lights

The holiday season definitely puts us all in a brighter, more festive mood, especially due to the fact that, everywhere we look, we see a fantastic display of twinkling lights, trees, and other holiday decorations. With front yards, windows, roofs, and pretty much the entire neighborhood decked out in elaborate light displays, photographers and camera enthusiasts of all skill levels are sure to want to capture these beautiful lights in all their sparkling glory.

Decorative string lights make for a good photographic subject (and background!) due to the wonderful colors, as well as their ability to create the most dramatic and playful bokeh effects. However, photographing holiday lights can be quite tricky as they often need just the right exposure so that the colors don’t wash each other out.

To help you get started, below is a list of essential equipment and tips to help you shoot stunning pictures of holiday lights.

Essential Equipment for Holiday Light Photography

Facade of house with abundant holiday decor and christmas lights

First, you’ll need a couple of things that will help you capture images that really bring out the beauty of those decorative light displays. Here is a list of the photographic gear (as well as a couple of add-ons) to help you take your holiday photography to the next level:

  • Manual Camera
  • Macro and Wide-Angle Lenses
  • Tripod
  • Cross Screen Star Lens Filter
  • DIY Bokeh Card

Manual Camera

Nikon D750 DSLR Manual Camera

Manual mode is definitely the way to go when photographing string lights, which is why you need a camera that allows you to tweak your manual settings (specifically your ISO, aperture, and shutter speed) and use interchangeable lenses that can supplement your shooting needs. A manual camera will allow you to set the perfect light sensitivity level (ISO); adequate exposure time (shutter speed) to capture the full glory and rich colors of the display; and aperture settings to achieve your desired depth of field.

Both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are great for holiday light photography. The Nikon D750 DSLR Camera($1496.95), for example, offers a wide range of manual camera settings aside from having a powerful 91,000-pixels RGB sensor and 3D Color Matrix Metering System that delivers high-quality images with vivid colors.

Macro and Wide-Angle Lenses

Sigma 105mm Macro Lens Sony Carl Zeiss Distagon 35mm Wide-Angle Lens

While beginners can do just fine with their camera’s default walkaround kit lens, you’ll need special lenses if you really want to capture professional-quality photos of decorative string lights. We suggest you get a macro lens, if you want to take impressive close-up shots of those holiday light bulbs, and a wide-angle lens, to capture more of the scene or subject in your frame even while shooting at a fairly close distance—both preferably with wide apertures for luscious background blur.

A macro lens like the Sigma 105mm Macro Lens ($569) allows you to capture a sharp, life-sized image of a subject at 1:1 magnification and at just 12.3 inches away from your lens. Its Optical Stabilizer (OS) ensures steady handheld close-up shots while its Special Low Dispersion (SLD) lens and high refractive index SLD lens correct distortions and aberrations for more accurate images.

The Sony Carl Zeiss Distagon Wide-Angle Lens ($1498) has a focal length of 35mm, which is perfect for snapshots, indoor portraits, nighttime outdoor scenes, landscapes, and more. It’s also great for achieving that stunning bokeh, thanks to its f/1.4 aperture and 9-blade diaphragm. It’s definitely a good wide-angle lens option that you can use all year round for many other photography applications.


MeFOTO RoadTrip Aluminum Travel Tripod

A trusty tripod helps you achieve a successful long exposure shot of holiday lights at night. This important piece of equipment will stabilize your camera and avoid the motion blur often caused by handheld shooting, thus ensuring sharper images.

The MeFOTO RoadTrip Aluminum Travel Tripod ($178.84) is great if you want a tripod that can also be converted into a monopod for semi-handheld shooting sessions. Its sturdy legs can be spread independently for angling preferences, and it comes with a ballhead with a bubble level, separate head, and pan locks, and a 360-degree pan index for perfect and easy panoramic photos for image stitching.

Cross Screen Star Filters

Adorama 40.5mm Four Point Cross Screen Star Filter

To manually create a starburst effect, you’ll need to stop down to a smaller aperture of at least f/18. In cases when you want to use a bigger aperture to allow for more light to enter the lens, you can still achieve that starburst effect with Cross Screen star lens filters. These special effects filters are etched with crisscross patterns that diffract light to produce star effects with different numbers of points (2 to 12), patterns, and color streaks.

The Adorama 40.5mm Four Point Cross Screen Star Filter ($6.95) is an affordable tool for giving your light sources that “X” sparkle in every shot, even when shooting long exposures. It’s great for shooting both nighttime outdoor lights, indoor light displays, and even sunsets.

DIY Bokeh Card

DIY bokeh card for lens

Have you ever seen photos with those colorful, heart-shaped bokeh lights? If you’ve ever wondered how to achieve that effect, then we’ve got the answer for you. All you need is a piece of black cardboard, a hobby knife, and a pair of scissors. Once you have these tools, you will simply need to create a circular shape to serve as a lens cover, cut out your desired shape in the middle, and make sure the customized hole is placed right in the middle of the lens when you start shooting.

With your own customized bokeh card, you can create different bokeh shapes for your holiday lights! The cool thing about it is that you can instantly see the effect as you shoot—and it’s cheap, too!

10 Tips for Photographing Holiday Lights

City filled with Christmas lights during the holiday season

Ready to start shooting? Capture those colorful and elaborate string light displays with these helpful photography tips:

  • Find a good spot
  • Shoot during twilight or dusk
  • Skip the flash
  • Rely on metering modes
  • Utilize slow shutter speeds
  • Tweak the ISO for brightness
  • Experiment with different apertures
  • Switch to Tungsten white balance
  • Add sparkle to your photos
  • Capture custom-shaped bokeh effects

Find a Good Spot

Dining table set up for Christmas dinner

Choosing the right spot is essential to your composition. When shooting indoors, make sure to pick a spot that gives you ample ambient lighting (if needed) and allows you to incorporate other festive elements.

On the other hand, shooting big outdoor venues with extravagant holiday displays gives you plenty of options—but it can be quite overwhelming. Instead of taking pictures of everything, look for popular hot spots and unique displays that really showcase the holiday season. Carefully consider which ones are best featured as a whole set, such as a fully adorned hotel lobby, or by itself, such as the traditional Rockefeller tree in New York. You can also choose to feature the light decorations as a background for a separate main subject, such as a group of carolers or a solitary Santa Claus impersonator.

As the holiday season approaches, you’re sure to have plenty of subjects and scenes to choose from!

Shoot During Twilight or Dusk

giant christmas tree with lights shot during dusk

Shooting at nighttime is a good way to really bring out the beauty of holiday lights. However, instead of shooting when the sky is pitch dark, adjust the time of your shoot and take photos at twilight or dusk. At these times, the sky should have a much softer blue glow, giving your photos more photographic texture and color. You may achieve the same effect when doing nighttime long exposures as it naturally brightens the color of the sky, but you also run the risk of overexposing your lights.

Skip the Flash

Hanging Christmas lights with bokeh background

When shooting lights of any kind, it should go without saying that you definitely need to ditch the camera flash. Not only will it be useless, especially when shooting from a great distance, but it can wash out the rich color and reveal unnecessary details (like wires and cords) that can distract viewers from the beauty of the lights in the image.

The only reason for you to use flash (just the right amount, and from an external flash) is if you need to provide fill light for a different main subject, such as for portraits where the lights will serve as your background. Otherwise, keep your flash off.

Rely on Metering Modes

two children in pajamas admiring christmas lights on the tree

Metering is a process wherein your camera “reads” the amount of light that enters the camera to determine the appropriate shutter speed and aperture to use for the surrounding environment. It helps speed up the process of capturing a well-exposed scene, as opposed to manually guessing the correct exposure settings based on a couple of initial shots.

For holiday light photography, try using the Matrix Light Metering (Nikon) or Evaluative Metering (Canon). This metering mode reads the overall scene lighting using dozens of metering points, making it perfect for determining the optimal exposure settings for a wide range of unpredictable holiday light displays.

Utilize Slow Shutter Speeds

Family under bokeh of Christmas lights during the holiday season

When capturing photos of LED holiday lights, you may end up with a black frame or a few missing lights. This is because they tend to flicker ever so slightly, but we don’t notice it as well as cameras do. You can avoid capturing uneven lights and take more consistent photos by using slower shutter speeds of at least 1/125th of a second.

Keep in mind that you will most likely need to shoot with a tripod to prevent motion blur.

Tweak the ISO for Brightness

Girl under thousands of blue lights

Using high ISO settings when taking nighttime shots will add digital image noise, make sharp details appear fuzzy, and degrade the quality of your images. However, it’s still a useful camera setting for giving your images that boost in brightness. To be safe, start with your camera’s base ISO, which should be about 100 to 200. If it’s still too dark, keep going up a notch. But before going higher than 400, make sure that you’ve explored other options—like using the slowest possible shutter speed and the widest aperture that you can afford to use without affecting your desired output.

Experiment With Different Apertures

Mother and daughter adding final touches to the Christmas tree

Your camera’s aperture setting is capable of giving you wonderful images with varying depths of field (or focus areas) and creamy background blur with holiday lights, among others. Experiment to achieve your desired results. For general string light photography, an aperture of f/8 is ideal for achieving a standard amount of sharpness, depth of field, and background blur. A lower number will give you a smaller focus area and blurred out lights (often as colored circles), while a higher number will keep more of the scene in sharp focus.

Switch to Tungsten White Balance

London’s famous department store all dressed up for the holidays

The Tungsten white balance setting, alternatively referred to as Incandescent white balance, is ideal for photographing LED holiday lights, which are often made up of incandescent bulbs. Using this specific white balance mode will allow you to color correct the lights by removing the yellowish or greenish tinge caused by the warm yellow from the usual Auto or or Daylight white balance settings. It will also give the skies a beautiful turquoise hue.

To be safe, you can use the Auto white balance and just shoot in digital RAW format, which allows you to customize your white balance (as well as other exposure settings) later on during post-processing. This way, you won’t have to worry about choosing the wrong white balance setting while shooting.

Remember though that using flash for a subject while on a specific white balance mode can give your subject a different color cast, since it’s likely that the flash and your ambient lighting won’t match in terms of color temperature. For example, when using flash while on Tungsten, your foreground subjects will have a more bluish color cast. You will need corrective warm or cool color gels—or, in this case, a CTO gel (Color Temperature Orange) with the appropriate strength to add enough warmth to your white flash—to achieve a more balanced and natural-looking image.

Add Sparkle to Your Photos

Christmas tree decorations and lights with Starburst effect

Utilizing the smallest apertures possible and letting very little light through the lens will create starburst or multi-point star effects in place of bright ambient light sources. This is due to the exaggeration of the shape of the aperture. For best results, try taking photos of a tree, street lamps, and other bright point-lights at night with an aperture of f/18 or smaller.

To achieve this star effect without being forced to stick to a small aperture, use your Cross Point star lens filter when taking photos of lights to add stunning sparkle effects to every photo.

Capture Custom Shaped Bokeh Effects

DIY heart bokeh out of christmas lights

The usual circle bokeh in holiday lights photography can be customized to virtually any shape you want. All you have to do is create different stencils of a heart, star, or even a tree and turn it into a DIY bokeh lens hood (scroll back up for the video tutorial).

For best results, some people suggest creating a lens hood with a much wider rectangular hole and create separate rectangular card stencils that you can hold up in front of your lens. This also allows you to move the card while shooting to achieve your desired bokeh effect instead of keeping it stationary by taping the card to the front element of the lens.



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