You don’t have to live in a big city to see attractive Christmas lights, every little village seems to have at least one household that makes that extra effort each year and puts up some outdoor lights.

They’re great photographic subjects and if you play your cards right you might get a shot or two that can be turned into Christmas cards for next year. Let’s take a look at how to get it right.

When to photograph Christmas lights?

The best time to photograph Christmas lights is a short time after the sun has gone down, when the sky is a dark blue rather than inky black. Shooting at this time lifts the image a little, making the sky more interesting and enabling a bit more detail to be seen.

How to photograph Christmas lights at night

For the best results you should mount your camera on a tripod and use a low sensitivity setting, but with a modern digital camera you can usually get away with bumping up the sensitivity (ISO) to allow you to use a shutter speed that’s fast enough to allow you to hand-hold the camera. Try ISO 1600 as a starting point and adjust as necessary.

A wide aperture setting will allow you to keep the sensitivity (ISO) down, but bear in mind it will restrict the depth of field so you need to focus with care.

How to photograph Christmas lights with bokeh

Christmas lights can look very attractive in the background of images shot with a wide aperture because the bokeh means they are rendered as soft orbs of light. It’s particularly effective for portraits.

Throwing the light sufficiently out of focus requires a very wide aperture, close focusing or a telephoto lens or a combination of the three. Find a good subject, go in close and focus carefully, use a wide aperture and look around the background to check that you’ve got an attractive arrangement of lights.

Portrait with Christmas Lights in the background

Using flash when photographing Christmas lights

While you wouldn’t want to use flash to photograph Christmas lights as the main subject, it can be useful when you’re shooting a portrait with Christmas lights in the background.

Because flash intensity falls off very quickly the further away the subject is, the light will only illuminate your subject in the foreground.

Which white balance to use when photographing Christmas lights?

Using the daylight white balance setting will bring out the colours of Christmas lights, but it’s worth trying the automatic white balance setting if there’s a strong colourcast. Whichever option you go for, shoot raw files to give you more data to work with at the processing stage.