Christmas Time! How to Photograph Lights

This is  a really great time of the year to get  unique and magical pictures of your kids.  One of the things that adds to the magic, is all the sparkly lights everywhere.   From the lights on the trees, to the neighbor’s vibrantly decorated yard, there are excellent festive backdrops for holiday pictures everywhere.  So why is it that when we try to photograph lights at night they disappear into the darkness?

What Usually Happens (what not to do!):

  1. We see a beautifully lit up scene and position our subject in front of this perfect Christmassy backdrop.
  2. We use our camera’s auto setting, the Auto Flash fires and the lights disappear into the background.

Here’s a shot I took at the weekend which demonstrates what happens when we use flash:

It’s a perfectly exposed shot but we don’t really get a feeling of the atmosphere of the picture.  The background is beautifully lit by fairy lights but when the flash fires it throws the background into darkness.

How to Photograph Lights (do this instead)

So how do we accurately portray the scene as we see it?

  1. Simply set your camera to Night Scene Mode (the icon looks like a little man beside a moon and stars)
  2. Hold steady and shoot!

And here is the result:


What happens in Night Scene mode is the shutter stays open for longer than normal so the ambient lighting in the background is exposed.  Then, the flash fires in order to expose your subject in the foreground.

The result is a well-exposed subject and a perfectly exposed background.  So we get the overall festive feeling of the picture.

Some things to remember when using this mode:

  1. Only use when the background is lit up and the lights are to be part of the picture.
  2. Hold your camera extra steady – that slow shutter speed will result in camera shake if you don’t
  3. Only use for very still subjects.  My model was being unusually poised for this picture!
  4. If you have no subject (person) in shot you could try turning flash off altogether and raising your ISO 

So go and find some cool illuminated backgrounds and take some Holiday pictures using Night Scene Mode.

Happy snapping!

P.S. This is a great method to use to photograph your Christmas tree and your living room when taking your picture for Capture the Magic!  Be sure to read my post on this great way to catch Santa in the Act!

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below

Sheila Finkelstein - December 19, 2009

What a precious picture, Ingrid! and thanks for the info on lighting. I greatly appreciate it. Is it best to use a tripod for the NIGHT setting, or if there’s a lot of light it will be OK. When I try full moon shots with my night setting, it’s kind of blurry.

Ingrid Owens - December 19, 2009

Thanks Sheila!

It is best to use a tripod for shooting with Night Mode because of the slow shutter speed – any camera movement will cause blur.

The moon can be tricky a subject and I’d definitely recommend a tripod for that situation, although you might try just turning off your flash and raising your ISO rather than night mode.(you don’t need the final burst of flash)

I’m planning to do a post on How to Photograph the Moon though so watch out for it very soon. The last full moon we had there was too much cloud cover to take a good shot and I hate to put up a tutorial without first having had recent experience of the shot.

Alex - January 2, 2010

We recently went around to photograph some of the neighbours christmas lights and they were pleasantly surprised when they saw the images on our camera as opposed to theirs as they simply never knew what night mode (or manual exposure) actually was capable of. We also used a tripod to get their lights to show up nice and clear.

Great article. Happy new year!

Ingrid Owens - January 3, 2010

glad to hear it worked out for you Alex! a tripod really can make all the difference.

Jennifer - February 12, 2010

Your post seems to be helpful even to proffesionals! Well done! No, seriously, it helped me as well:) I can’t make do without tripod any more.

Bob Homes - June 13, 2011

Good tips; the flash usually butchers the Christmas lights in my photos too. Also, taking shots of Christmas lights with the focus slightly off makes for a kaleidoscope of swirly colors!

Amy - June 17, 2011

Thanks to your tips I was finally able to get some great pictures outside around my patio lights. I’m so happy.

Janet - July 23, 2011

I never realized just how important a steady hand was when trying to take a sho like this. I just tried it out using a tripod and it has made a world of difference. I had all the tools just not the knowledge to use the. Slowly I am learning. Thanks for the tips.

Ingrid Owens - July 23, 2011

Glad you’re finding them useful Janet. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

Leave a Reply: