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How to Photograph Christmas Tree Lights

One of the reasons people love the Christmas season is because all the colorful lights on Christmas trees! Yet, your photos will often fail to capture that beautiful scene. Don’t worry! I’m here to give you a quick lesson that will have you taking beautiful photos of your Christmas tree in no time!

Photograph Christmas Tree Lights With Your Smartphone

Since most people just use their smartphones for their cameras, I figured I’d start with telling you how to use it to take great photos of the Christmas tree.

What You’ll Need

  • A smartphone (duh!)
  • A camera app that takes HDR photos
  • A tripod (optional)

You’ll need a camera app that can take high-dynamic range photos. Fortunately, most smartphone camera apps have that built-in. If yours doesn’t, just search your app store for “HDR” you will likely find tons of those apps. A review of those apps is outside the scope of this post, so you’ll have to trust the ratings in the store.

If you have one of the many tripods manufactured for smartphones, use it. It will stabilize your phone far better than you’ll ever do by hand. Don’t worry if you don’t have one, because chances are you’ll still get good results without it.

HDR

Look in the settings of your phone’s camera app to see if you see any reference to HDR. That stands for high dynamic range.

The problem with the normal mode of your phone’s camera is it’s dynamic range is too small. Think of dynamic range as the “range” the camera can see between total blackness and total brightess. The greater that range, the more dynamic range the camera has.

High dynamic range is a method of taking two or more photos—some properly exposed for the dark parts of the image and some properly exposed for the bright parts of the image— and merging them together into one image with a … you guessed it … high dynamic range (sort of like exposure blending).

Here’s the photos my phone took and the HDR image it produced.

 

Admittedly, those photos aren’t as sharp as I would like, but the end result is passable. If I was using a tripod and not handholding my phone, they would have been much sharper.

Christmas Tree Lights With a Point and Shoot Camera

Honestly, you will probably get better photos of the Christmas tree by using a smartphone, unless your point and shoot has a HDR mode.

You’ll Need:

  • a point and shoot camera with night portrait mode and a self-timer
  • tripod (or some other way to stabilize the camera)
  • cable realease (optional)

If it doesn’t have an HDR mode, look for an icon that looks like this:

night portrait mode icon
Icon by freepik for flaticon

That is for a mode normally called something like “night portrait.” Without going into a lot of detail, it changes some settings for the camera’s built-in flash that should allow some of the tree lights to be seen better.

You will need to use night portrait mode, and to get a sharp photo, you’ll need to use a tripod. If you don’t have a tripod, try to figure out someplace stable to put your camera and use the self-timer as I’m about to describe.

To get the sharpest possible photo, you’ll want to use either a cable release or a timer if your camera has one. This will keep the camera from shaking when you press the shutter button. If you’re using a timer, and you have a choice in how many seconds to set the delay, use at least two seconds, but three to five is  better.

Using a DSLR or Mirrorless Camera

A DSLR  or a mirrorless camera will give you the most options for your Christmas tree photos.

What you’ll need:

  • DSLR or mirrorless camera
  • tripod
  • cable release (optional)
  • off-camera flash or bounce flash (optional)

First, set your camera up on your tripod. More than likely, you’ll turn your camera in a vertical orientation for this shot, but you’re more than welcome to try shooting in landscape. Because you’ll get much more control by shooting in manual, that’s what I’m going to describe.

Without flash

The easiest way to photograph your Christmas tree lights will be without a flash, so let’s start without one.

I usually start, when in manual mode, by setting my aperture. Low light usually requires for a large aperturn (small f-stop number). But for reasons I’ll explain in a bit, you start with a small aperture. I recommend f/18 or smaller. I used f/22, which was my lens’s smallest aperture.

Usually, I next decide on the ISO. When you deal with low light situations, you usually want to use a higher ISO. That isn’t important for me because I’m using a tripod and can leave the shutter open longer without causing camera shake. Because a lower ISO results in a cleaner photo, I’m using the lowest possible on my photo—ISO 50.

Since we aren’t using a flash at the moment and we’re using a small aperture and a low ISO, we’re going to have to use a long shutter time. If you have a mirrorless camera, you can instantly see how altering the shutter speed will affect your exposure. If you’re using a DSLR, use live view and adjust your shutter speed until the preview shows you a result you like. I started with two seconds, but found I had to go up to 30 seconds to get the exposure I wanted.

Using a tripod will stabilize the camera much better than trying to hold it yourself. But there’s still a source of camera shake we should try to eliminate—pressing the shutter button. That’s where the cable release comes in. Using a cable release, we can release the shutter without actually touching the camera. If you don’t have a cable release, use the timer as I described with a point and shoot camera. That will give time for the vibration from your finger to die down before the shutter is released.

Using those steps, I produced the following image:

 

Christmas tree lights without color correction
Christmas tree lights without correcting the white balance

As you can see, Christmas tree lights tend to produce a very warm light temperature. While this does lend itself to the photo, I think it’s a bit too much, so I lowered the temperature to this:

Christmas tree with white balance partially corrected
I partially corrected the white balance in this photo so it would still have a warm feel to it

 

Starbursts

Hopefully, you can see why I wanted you to use a small aperture. With such a small aperture, light sources in the photo tend to get the “starburst” effect. Just click on the photo if you need help seeing it.

Of course, you don’t have to photograph the entire Chrismas tree to get that effect; what matters is the aperture.

Starbursts can be seen around the lights in the close-up photo

 

You may have to play around with your camera’s position. Here’s another photo I took at f/22, and the starburst is nowhere near as pronounced.

The starburst effect wasn't as intense in this photo.

Bokeh

You may not want starbursts. Maybe you’re just a big fan of bokeh. In that case, you’ll want a larger aperture. Because you’re using a larger aperture, you’ll need to use a faster shutter speed. In the last photo, I shot f/22 at 2 seconds with an ISO of 400. When I opened up the aperture, my shutter speed decreased to ¼ second.

 

Christmas tree bokeh

Rear Curtain Sync (Advanced)

This last method is the most advanced, but it doesn’t really have any more steps. This calls for you to have a flash with rear curtain sync capability.

What is rear curtain sync?  Your camera’s shutter isn’t one piece, but actually two pieces. The “front” curtain opens, and that’s when your camera’s sensor is exposed to light. Next, the “rear curtain” falls, blocking light from the sensor again. Normally, a flash goes off when the front curtain opens. With rear curtain sync, the flash is delayed until just before the rear curtain begins to close.

When photographing Christmas tree lights, rear curtain sync allows more time for light to hit the sensor, and then the pop of the flash “fills in” the rest of the details. As a practial matter, this allows you to get the glow of the lights while still filling in the detail of the rest of the scene.

You will want to set up your camera just like you did before. Depending on your flash’s power, you may have to increase the shutter speed to keep from overexposing your photo. As before, you will have to play around with your settings to get what looks best to you.

 

Rear curtain sync allows you to capture the lights' twinkle
Using rear curtain sync, I was able to get the sparkle of the Christmas tree lights as well as details of the surroundings.

Any Questions?

Let me know in the comments if you have any questions.

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