December is a beautiful month for photography in the North, especially in areas that celebrate Christmas. Despite being the darkest month of the year, you have a great variety of subjects to photograph, from the night sky and city lights to the first snowflakes and winter mist. And, of course, there are all the Christmas lights!
The tricky part in December isn’t finding subjects, but rather composing and shooting them. The darkness can make photography more difficult, and good composition can seem impossible with bright, chaotic Christmas decorations. Christmas lights can be particularly hard to shoot since they combine both challenges. You have to shoot with difficult lighting and clutter.
How can you create a simple, compelling picture under these conditions? Though challenging, it’s not impossible, even for beginners. Here are some techniques and compositions you can try out to get beautiful images of Christmas lights.
Inspiration for Pictures of Christmas Lights
First off, you’ll need to use the right camera settings for your scene. These settings will depend on what you’re shooting (e.g. movement vs. no movement) and how low your lighting is. But typically, your ISO, shutter speed, and aperture will be adjusted to account for low light and increase the quality of the image. In any case, you’ll want a tripod (or a solid surface for your camera) to minimize blur.
Camera settings are only a small part of the challenge, though. The real trouble comes with composing your scene so your photo won’t be too cluttered. All of the following ideas can help you overcome that issue.
Find an angle with symmetry.
Symmetry is an excellent technique for anything that’s a little overwhelming, whether that’s a grand building, the lovely aurora borealis, or a crowded display of lights. The symmetry makes the scene easier for viewers to take in because it creates a sense of organization and clarity.
Experiment with light trails.
If you’re in a city or town with busy streets, shooting Christmas lights can be difficult with cars and buses getting in the way. But instead of giving up, try creating light trails in a long exposure.
It may seem counterintuitive to capture light trails with moving cars and Christmas lights since both are bright, but the resulting images can look fantastic. The blurred streaks of light can draw viewers into the picture and simplify the scene by blocking distractions.
Create a bokeh background
Bokeh is one of the most common techniques photographers use with Christmas lights. That’s because bokeh can turn crazy holiday lights into a peaceful background, beautiful with nearly any subject. You can shoot lovely portraits, city scenes, or still life photos with this easy technique.
For more bokeh inspiration, check out these 40 beautiful examples of bokeh photography.
Try a double exposure.
If you want to try something new with bokeh, experiment with double or multiple exposures, combining bokeh Christmas lights with something else. It’ll give you a similar soft atmosphere as a regular bokeh photo, only instead of being in the background, the bokeh will be layered on top.
Embrace the darkness.
A lot of online tutorials for photographing Christmas lights recommend going out around sunset and shooting during the Blue Hour, before it’s completely dark outside. Then, you’ll have a pretty blue sky and more lighting to capture details, yet also enough darkness to show off the lights.
However, if you miss this short window of opportunity, you can still get interesting photos if you work strategically with the darkness. Instead of trying to capture the atmosphere of the scene, you can focus purely on the lights, shooting abstract bokeh photos or the outline of decorated buildings. You can also look for bright windows and capture their warmth against the dark night.
Shoot a portrait with the lights.
Shooting something specific – such as a portrait – is an easy way to simplify your image. It gives your viewer a clear subject to focus on. Even if there are a lot of Christmas decorations, you can create a simple image by choosing one thing or person to photograph.
As already mentioned, portraits can look beautiful against a bokeh background of Christmas lights, but there are also other ways to use holiday lights in portraits. You can use their soft glow as lighting and include them as a prop, especially in portraits of children.
Capture the lights’ glow against the snow.
Snow can add to the holiday atmosphere of your photo while also boosting the glow of the Christmas lights. It will act as a reflector, bouncing the light and allowing you to photograph more of the scene, even when it’s completely dark outside.
Or reflected in water.
Like snow, water reflects the glow of Christmas lights, so you can capture more details in a scene. But unlike snow, water can reflect more than light alone. If it’s not too dark outside, you can photograph buildings, boats, and other subjects reflected in the water along with the Christmas lights.
Find an incredible Christmas tree.
As beautiful as other Christmas decorations can be, Christmas trees decked with lights are still the centerpiece in many homes and public spaces. Some are so tall and impressive, a large area is set apart for them alone.
These grand trees lit with Christmas lights are great subjects because they’re easy to compose with simplicity. Whether they’re filling the frame or standing on the side, they will attract the viewer’s attention and give your photo a clear focus.
Take a close-up.
Christmas lights are often photographed at a distance, so you can see their glow but not all the wires. However, getting up close and showing the wires won’t necessarily make your image less beautiful. In fact, it can even make your image more eye-catching, since it’s easier to compose a string of lights than a large, crowded scene.
Many of the above photos were selected from our wonderful community of photographers, both on Flickr and through our newsletter. We had a photography challenge for the subject “Christmas Lights,” and a lot of the ideas and images here came from that challenge.
To participate in future photography challenges, sign up for our newsletter, and you’ll be the first to hear about them!