How to Photograph Christmas Lights and Other Holiday Events

Learn to Capture Striking Pictures During the Christmas Season

by Kerry Drager

Merry Christmas BetterPhoto!
Merry Christmas BetterPhoto!
© Barbara K.
All Rights Reserved

Look for Photos of Christmas Lights, Family, Santa , Decorations, Etc.!

Just consider some of the subjects that BetterPhoto photographers have captured: Shots of kids and cats dressed up like Santa, colorful images of Christmas bows and wrap, and of course, pictures of Santa himself. And not all successful images are in color - some are in glorious black-and-white too!

Also, plan to have lots fun. In fact, BetterPhoto shooters have made soooooo many awesome images that elicit a smile, an out-and-out laugh, or an "ahhhhh, that's cute" reaction. For example, check out these photos, all past contest winners or finalists: "Looks Like Naughty", "One Last Merry Christmas", "Lukas", "...uh, A Little Help Here?", "Holiday Spirits", "My Holiday Helper", "Santa Paw's!", "Happy Holidays from Danielle", "Ho ... Ho ... Ho", and many others.

The key to holiday success? Experiment, with different subjects, perspectives, and compositions. The only hard-and-fast rule for photographing the Christmas festivities seems to be this one: Keep your camera close at hand! See them at BetterPhoto's Christmas Photographs gallery.

Under the Mistletoe
Under the Mistletoe
© Kelly S. Cockerham
All Rights Reserved

Creative Ways for Photographing the Holidays

Don't miss BetterPhoto founder/photographer Jim Miotke's excellent article - Top Ten Tips for Better Holiday Photos - with techniques to make great pictures of Christmas, Hanukkah, or any other mid-winter holiday. Some highlights from Jim's guide:

Compose Creatively and Move in Close
Whether you are photographing the symbolic subjects of the holidays or your friends and family, look for interesting camera angles and viewpoints. Then place your subject off-center, and move in tighter - i.e., focus on the essentials, leave out the distracting extras.

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later
Especially if your subject is a child opening a gift - or playing with a gift for the first time - the scene can change in a split second. There is often just a few brief moments when that "magic spark" appears. So be ready, and keep shooting!

Use Flash Outdoors
Flash need not be relegated to indoor, night photography. Even in bright sunlight outdoors, forcing your flash to fire often means the difference between a so-so snapshot and an eye-grabbing masterpiece. The reason: bright day flash will fill in the shadows and even out harsh contrasts. Incidentally, bright overcast is great for photographing portraits - due to pleasantly soft-and-even light.


Happy
Happy
© Julie Turner
All Rights Reserved

Getting Artistic ... Also, Planning Your Strategy

Look for Reflections
Add an artistic touch to your holiday photos by capturing reflections rather than the object itself. Keep an eye out for interesting splashes of color, reflected from Christmas lights and other holiday decorations. This is one time when rainy days are your friends - puddles in the street can be a perfect source of abstract images.

Blur, Swirl, and Zoom Those Christmas Lights
Tired of the same old Christmas tree photos? Try something new by setting your camera to a slower shutter speed - anywhere from 1/2 second to 2 or 4 full seconds. Then purposefully move the camera while taking the picture. The result: A colorful and abstract blur of Christmas lights.

Plan Ahead: Charge Batteries, and Clear Cards or Buy Film
The last thing you want to have happen is to get all set up for the family portrait or holiday photo and then realize you forgot to charge the battery! In addition, offload and archive your images so you can free up space on your flash memory card. If you use a film-based camera, have an extra roll or two of film available.


Exposure Tips for Photographing Christmas Lights

Here's expert advice from a previous BetterPhoto Forum post on how to prevent Christmas lights from overexposing and blowing out:

"Your camera meter sees the dark green tree and these little light bulbs, and in trying to determine the best exposure, ends up blowing out, or overexposing the light bulbs. Often, the only way it works is to use supplemental strobes and light boxes. Or use your on-camera flash as a fill light. Put your camera on the tripod and compose your picture. Take some test shots on M for manual, not P or A. Adjust your shutter speed and/or f-stop until the Christmas lights look great. Most likely, the rest of the tree will be very dark, and now you use your flash to open up those areas. Turn on the flash on your camera and shoot another. If it looks too "flashed", then go into the menu and reduce the flash output starting at -1; then if you need more, try -1.3, -1.6, -2. Hopefully, something in there will work."

And, from the same Q&A thread, these exposure thoughts from BetterPhoto member Doug Elliot: I have been working on a project for our local CofC. I am shooting outside lights. I use a tripod and shutter release, and meter for the lights. I shoot in manual mode, tungsten mode for white balance, and Raw. I also bracket my shots.


Holiday lighting
Holiday lighting
© Barbara Kehoe
All Rights Reserved

Great Resources for Photographing the Holiday Season

BetterPhoto articles:
- Top Ten Tips for Better Holiday Photos
- Holiday Idea: BetterPhoto Gift Cards!
- Snow Photography: Big Bear Lake Skiing, Aspen Snowboarding, Etc.

BetterPhoto Galleries:
- Christmas Photographs
- Winter Scene Pictures and Snow Photos

BetterPhoto Forum Threads:
- Photographing Christmas Lights
- How to Shoot Christmas Lights
- Indoor Christmas Photos

Excellent Instructor Insights blog by Richard Lynch:
- Making Your Own Holiday Card


About Author / Instructor / Photographer, Kerry Drager
Photography Instructor: Kerry Drager
The content manager and course advisor for BetterPhoto.com, Kerry Drager is also the co-author of two books: The BetterPhoto Guide to Creative Digital Photography (2011) and The BetterPhoto Guide to Photographing Light (2012). In addition, he teaches photography online at BetterPhoto's digital photography school.

Be sure to check out Kerry's Pro BetterPholio website - www.kerrydrager.com.

Also, he is the author of Scenic Photography 101, the photographer of the photo-essay books The Golden Dream: California from Gold Rush to Statehood and California Desert , a contributor to the books BetterPhoto Basics and Daybreak 2000, and a co-photographer of Portrait of California. In addition, Kerry was profiled in the April 1994 issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine and in Vik Orenstein's 2010 book The Photographer's Market Guide to Building Your Photography Business, and his website was showcased in the January 2003 issue of Shutterbug magazine. Plus, his work has appeared in magazines, Hallmark cards and Sierra Club calendars, and in advertising campaigns for American Express and Sinar Bron Imaging.

Also follow Kerry on Facebook, where he posts photos several times a week that include shooting tips.

Kerry lives with his wife, Mary, on California's Central Coast, with their three Newfoundland dogs, four cats, and a mixed terrier.