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Christmas Photography At Night

by Catherine Ramsey (follow)
Blog (393)      Tutorials (61)     

Whether you’re a child or a child at heart, Christmas is a very fun season to be a photographer. We've previously blogged about the many different Christmas details that can be creatively photographed, if you need some ideas and inspiration.

But Christmas is also a great time of year to take your night photography skills to the next level, because of all the amazing Christmas lights that are on display, in the city, in suburban neighbourhood streets where every house is decorated, and of course, the ones on your own tree at home. Read on for some tips and tricks to get great results with night time photography at Christmas.

Avoid camera shake

One of the first things we teach in our Photoh night photography classes is how to avoid camera shake. There’s nothing worse than getting home from a night shoot to see that the photos you've taken are blurry. Basically, taking sharp photos at night comes down to two things – the stability of your camera, and the shutter speed you choose to use. It's best to use a tripod when shooting at night, to allow you to use whatever shutter speed your heart desires, but there will be times when you don't have that option.

Fortunately it’s possibly to take perfectly lovely nighttime photos without a tripod, as long as there’s a fair amount of ambient light – or in this case, Christmas lights.

However you need to make sure that you’re shooting above 1/50th shutter speed (even 1/60th just to be safe). If you go below this, it will be nearly impossible to ensure a sharp photo, because the slight shake of your hands as you hold the camera will create blur.

You’ll probably also find that at this shutter speed, your photos are still quite dark. If you’re using a high aperture number, you may need to lower it to as much as f5.

Finally, if you’re still struggling with getting adequately lit photos, you can boost your ISO. But be careful not to use too much or to use it unnecessarily, as you will introduce digital noise to your image, which will lower the overall quality. Always adjust the ISO last, out of all your settings.

Long Exposures

If you’ve opted to use a tripod for your Christmas lights photography outing, no doubt you’ll want to try some long exposures. You be able to play freely with your settings, because you won’t have to worry about camera shake, and may not even need to move your ISO past 100, giving you optimal quality in terms of noise interference.

If you’re shooting a fairly large scape that includes buildings, streets or tall Christmas trees, I would suggest using a higher aperture number, to ensure that everything is in focus and that the twinkly lights appear super sharp, approximately f8.

If you’re planning to leave the shutter speed open for a fairly long time, such as 1 second or longer, (which will display on your camera as 1”) you may want to choose an even higher aperture, such as f16 or more. Remember, the more you can increase your aperture, the sharper your lights will appear, as you can see in the photo below:


Once you’re happy with your ISO and aperture selections, you need only adjust your shutter speed to suit. From there simply continue to make this longer – 5”, 10”, 15” - until you have as much light as you need.

Shooting at Twilight

By starting your Christmas night shoot just after sunset, not only do you get the sparkly gleam of the Christmas lights, you'll also get the glow of the sun disappearing below the horizon, making for an extra magical Christmas scene.

Get experimental

1) Out of focus lights/bokeh

Bokeh adds a dreamy, whimsical effect to Christmas photos. We've touched on all the different types of bokeh in a previous post, but when shooting it at Christmas it's about finding the right depth of field between your position and the lights in the scene to capture the blur effectively.

You can do this by shooting with manual zoom and purposely blurring your focus, or by focusing on a nearby foreground subject while using a low aperture number, much like in the photos below.



2) ‘Exploding’ light effect

You’ll need a tripod and a zoom lens for this type of photo. When shooting a light scene during a long exposure (around 5 seconds is perfect) with manual focus, if you turn your lens’s zoom ring slowly it will create a unique, abstract light effect, almost like an exploding firework, like in the photo below.

Image taken by Dek Wright

Shoot during all of December

Find out all of the events and lights displays are happening in your local area this Christmas and try out these skills as often as you can. You don't want to miss the opportunity to photograph some truly beautiful scenes that are only featured once a year.

Organisations that create the light displays, such as councils, or department stores or event planning companies, might even want to buy your images to use for their own marketing purposes or social media, if they are look professional enough.

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