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Photographing Outdoor Christmas Lights

Antique Christmas Lights Before electric Christmas lights people would place candles on their Christmas Trees to light them up. In 1895 President Cleveland requested that the White House family Christmas tree be illuminated by hundreds of multi-colored electric light bulbs and by 1923 they were lighting the National Christmas Tree with thousands of lights. At first, string lights were reserved for the wealthy and required a professional wire man to install them. In 1903 General Electric began to offer pre-assembled kits of Christmas Lights but it wasn't until the 1920's when lighting your Christmas tree with electric lights became popular and affordable.

White Balance Button The first Christmas Lights were little incandescent light bulbs wrapped in a colored gel. This made it easy to photograph the lights for correct color hue by using tungsten film. With modern digital cameras you simply have to set the white balance to the tungsten setting. Using Automatic White Balance (AWB) or a cooler white balance such as sun, cloudy or shade will cause all the incandescent bulbs to have a yellow/orange hue.

Tungsten White Balance Symbol Pretty much, every digital camera has a white balance control. If there is not a button on the camera, then use the function button or the menu button to find your white balance settings. If your camera has a Program mode you will probably need to use this mode in order to gain access to the white balance settings. The tungsten setting usually has the symbol of a light bulb. Use this setting to achieve the best colors from Christmas lights.

LED Christmas Lights

Tungsten lights have a color temperature of about 3200 degrees Kelvin. Modern Christmas lights are now utilizing LED technology. LED lights come in a large range of color temperatures anywhere from 2700 degrees to 8,000 degrees Kelvin. Most Christmas lights are between 3200 and 5000. It is still recommended that you use the tungsten white balance setting even when photographing LED Christmas lights. The colors will be very crisp and the sky will be very blue. If your white LED Christmas lights look blue in your photograph then you have lights that are very high on the Kelvin scale, about 8,000 degrees. You'll have to use a cooler white balance setting such as sunny or cloudy to make them look white.


If you are photographing Christmas lights outdoors it is safe to assume that the lighting conditions will be low thus forcing your automatic flash to pop up when your camera is in automatic mode. Unless you are using some of your flash's advanced options (explained in the slow sync tutorial) the flash will ruin your Christmas light photographs. At this point, the best option is to turn off the flash. On many cameras you have to use (P)rogram mode to turn off the flash. In this low-light situation with your flash turned off, the shutter speed will be slow and hand-holding the camera will cause motion blur. You will need to use a tripod.

Christmas Light Orange County Arboretum Early lighting

four thirty pm At 4:30pm the sun has dropped below the horizon but is still lighting the sky. In this lighting objects in the background will be bright and obvious but should still show that it is dusk and not the middle of the day. You may have to underexpose the image slightly to get this look. You may have to stay with sunlight white balance at this stage or your background objects will be very blue. Placing lights in the foreground will offset the underexposed background and brighten the photo up. In this lighting, clouds will have a lot of detail and various lighting textures for a nice uneven blue/gray back drop.

Christmas Light Orange County Arboretum Blend foreground with backgrounds

Blend foreground objects with background objects for a good composition.

Blue Light Hour Blue Light Hour

five o clock Blue Hour refers to the time after the sun goes below the horizon and the sky goes into deep blue for a while just before it gets dark. This is the best time to take night photos, especially of Christmas Lights. At this time you will achieve those deep blue skies in your photos. The "Blue Hour" does not last for an entire hour as the name suggests. You only have about 15 minutes to capture this beautiful lighting. So be ready before the sun goes down, and then wait.

If using tungsten white balance the blue sky will become very blue. Background objects will be darker and begin to lose their detail so the blue cast from tungsten white balance may not affect the image. If it does, try to avoid background objects or wait for the sky to get a little darker. If there is still a lot of light from the sun or a warm tint is desired, then tungsten white balance may produce too much blue. In this case use the sun white balance instead. Use tungsten when the sky is dark.

Christmas Light Star Burst Gray Skies

five o clock When light from the sun is just about completely gone the blue light effect will turn to a dark gray but you should still see some details in the clouds. Adding a full moon or other man-made lighting will create some very interesting lighting effects.

At this point, choose the best white balance for your Christmas lights. If shooting tungsten lights, use the tungsten light balance setting. If shooting LED lights, use sun white balance.

When the moon is in your photograph, chose sun white balance. The moon will be white while incandescent lights will be warm for a good contrast.

Christmas Light Orange County Arboretum Star Burst Effect

Another important change you may have to make is to place your camera into full manual. Adjust the aperture to control the brilliance of the lights. Adjust shutter speed to control the background objects.

To achieve a star-burst effect on the lights, use a much smaller aperture setting such as f16. For more information about star-burst effect, read the long exposure tutorial.

Christmas Light Orbs Black Backgrounds

five o clock Once the sun is completely down you can capture those images with pure black backgrounds. Use full manual mode and shutter speed to create a background with no detail. In automatic mode the camera will always try to make everything look like a bright sunny day. That's why you need to underexpose in manual mode.

When photographing any lights, set the meter mode on the camera to center weighted. Using matrix meter mode can give unpredictable results.

Christmas Light Orbs Large Orbs

The large orbs that out of focus Christmas lights make can become very attractive photos. Creating the effect is easy. Use the largest aperture your lens is capable of. This works best with prime lenses with apertures of 2.8 or larger but any lens will do. Focus on something up close to the camera. If using a zoom lens, zoom all the way in. The lights in the background will blow up as out of focus orbs of light.

If the lights in your photo are bright and blotchy check your ISO. Make sure it is set down low as close to 100 as possible. Also, try speeding up the shutter speed a little. Find interesting subjects to photograph with lights in the background.

If the image is too bright and you want to darken the unlit objects in your photo so only the lights are visible, try using full manual mode. Here you will have full control of the exposure.

If you have people or other unlit objects in your photo, use slow sync flash. Slow sync is explained in the Indoor Christmas Lights tutorial and the Slow Sync Flash tutorial.