Tips on Shooting Christmas Lights


(Original title: North Pole Without The Snow)

I went over to Melanie’s house last night to shoot some long exposures of their Christmas lights, which made the neighbour kids curious enough to come out and ask me what I was doing. (A shadowy figure with a tripod and glowing LCD screen? A little conspicuous in a cul-de-sac.)

But what I SHOULD have done was bring my digicams with video, because their Christmas lights are all set with timer to music. I set the camera manually to try and capture enough of the lights that were blinking with the Christmas tunes. These are both 15 second exposures at f/11, ISO 800, with a tripod. You can do the same thing with your point-and-shoot digicam, but with some models you might have limited exposure (shutter speed) time. The settings vary between cameras, but you absolutely need a tripod for this. Failing that, something to put your camera on top of, like a mailbox. Plus super steady hands and something like a dishcloth between your camera and the mailbox. And don’t breathe. (See what I mean about needing a tripod?)

Nearly all digicams let you set both aperture (f-stop) and shutter speeds manually (or at least one of these) and ISO, so select a higher aperture in your camera’s range, around f/8 or f/11, and choose a shutter speed of at least 10 seconds. The brighter your light source, the less exposure time you’ll need. The further away you are from your light source, the more exposure time you’ll need.

You might wonder, then, “But why the higher f-stop?” (Smaller aperture, or hole for light reaching your camera sensor.) Because it brings out more detail in the lights, and with constant lights, gives them that sparkly light effect. Melanie’s house has blinking lights, so I can’t use these pictures as a sparkly-effect example. Here’s an example from Philadelphia, but for more sparkle you need a stronger light source, like a street light. Here’s a better example from Philly. I’m across the river, and it’s a 30-second exposure, f/40, ISO 400.

If you can’t go to ISO 800 or higher, increase exposure with longer timing (eg., 20 seconds) or wider aperture (smaller numbers like f/5.6, f/4, f/3.2, f/2.8). With average point-and-shoot digicams ISO 800 is already pretty grainy, so if you’re going to experiment with one thing set your aperture (f-stop number) as high as it will go (f/8, f/11, etc.) and keep it there, then shoot several frames with different shutter speeds: try 10 seconds, 15 seconds, 20 seconds, etc. If it’s still too dark or it’s blurry because you can’t hold still enough, widen the aperture (smaller numbers like f/5.6, f/4, f/3.2, f/2.8) with a time you can manage (5 seconds?). Depending on where you live, you might need a COAT, too, or another warm body to huddle with while you hold as STILL AS POSSIBLE. If you have any questions, write it in a comment and include your camera’s make and model so I can research it for the answer — it will help others, too!

Good luck and happy shooting 🙂