Tis The Season Part 2

Christmas Lights

The first part of my story talked to basic indoor photography of holiday lights. Now let’s move outdoors. Here we see elaborate lighting and decoration on houses, stores, and streets. Again, if you want to capture the lights themselves, don’t use your flash.

First, let’s talk about equipment. What you need is a camera and ……that’s it. For certain situations you will need a tripod and a timer or remote trigger.

John Kain Christmas Photograph

The problem with the vast majority of Christmas lights photos is that most people wait until way too late to start shooting. After it gets completely dark, you can either have the lights or the surroundings properly exposed. But not both. Today’s DSLRs allow you to make some adjustments to compensate for the low light but most point and shoot (PAS) cameras do not have all the fancy adjustments.

If you were to shoot the lights in the middle of the day, you may get a great landscape shot but a lousy light shot. The trick is find the sweet spot (actually there is a whole range of sweet spots) where the ambient light and the Christmas lights balance. The primary sweet spot is the Blue Hour. The blue hour really makes the lights pop out at you.

John Kain Christmas Photograph

When I say there is a whole range of sweet spots, do a test run and shoot a test shot every minute or so. At first, you’ll be exposing for the sky and the lights will appear unimpressive. Checking the back of your camera after each shot will allow you to see the swing in light changes. The human eye has the remarkable ability to compress a large dynamic range into a scene your brain can process. Your camera cannot, So we fake it out with multiple shots and bracketing to get as close as possible to what your eyes see. Always remember, LCD screens on cameras lie. It is an interpretation the camera has made based on your choices and what you see may not be what you get. Again, several shots are needed to make sure. Once you load your files to a computer and you see them on the big screen, you may say “That doesn’t look like what I saw!”. So my point is this, you see a shot, the camera takes the shot, and your brain thinks both are correct! NAH!!

Somewhere in between sunset and full dark, the Christmas lights and the ambient light will start to mix beautifully. You’ll have about a 10-minute window which will give you a nice series of subtly different lighting variations. Remembering to keep your camera as still as possible, shooting lots of frames through the mix light. If possible use a tripod and timer. Without the ISO adjustment capability in a PAS, the timing gets longer and the necessity for a tripod grows.

Next adjustment you will need to make is White Balance (if possible). Though most lights are incandescent, you may find 5000 to 5500K (Kelvin) to be to yellow. I recommend you start with Tungsten, 2800K. I have found with the switch to LED lights 2300-2500K work the best. If your camera allows for manual WB adjustment, use it. If not, you can always mess with color in post processing!

So here are some of my trade secrets (well actually they are not totally mine)

  1. Scope out the areas you want to shoot ahead of time. That way you can be prepared for any situations and you will not be surprised. The family and I like to drive around and look at all the decorations and I generally take note of a couple of places to shoot. Places are getting fewer and far between, probably because of the economy or just the changing times, so last year I concentrated on the new lights at on the San Antonio Riverwalk.
  2. Arrive early. Arriving around sunset will give you time to plan your shot before the good light happens. You may have to ask your subject to turn the lights on early – most people don’t flip them on until the good light is already gone.
  3. Compose your photo in such a way as to include as much sky as possible in the background. Shooting from a low position can help. Even better: If you have your choice of shooting direction, shoot into the afterglow of the evening sky.
  4. Once you get your picture framed, set your camera’s white balance for “tungsten,” as if you were shooting indoors without flash. As a bonus, the tungsten setting will turn your afterglow sky royal blue once your light balances out. The sky will look great – and your lights will gleam crystal white — or whatever color they are supposed to be!
  5. A light foreground like snow (not in San Antonio) or water can give nice foreground interest. See what you can find. In a pinch a reflective car roof will do.
  6. Use a tripod or a beanbag to steady your camera. You’ll be shooting in the range of a quarter second to a full second at twilight. If shooting with a phone or PDA, use both hands to brace the phone against something solid. (Note: They now make tripods for phones and the other day I saw lens attachments and remote triggers for iPhones. Pretty soon, DSLR’s will go the way of film!!)
  7. Finally, wait for the magic to happen.

Remember, your eye is constantly adjusting to compensate for the dropping light levels, but your camera will record them differently from the way that your eye sees them (you can see a much greater contrast range). This year I am going to try some HDR shots to help with that contrast shift and bring out some of the darkened areas and reduce any possible blow-outs. For some of you HDR aficionados, I plan on doing 5 shots with 1/2 to 3/4 stops per shot. I tried to do some one-stop-shop HDR software conversions and it just doesn’t look real!

Remember, with digital, the more frames you shoot the better chance of getting that one perfect picture is far greater than the old days. However, you do not have much time so don’t waste it. You can delete the bad shots later. Some of the photos I have here are not the best but the progress through the time swing from light to dark!

John Kain Christmas Photograph

One final comment; Once you are all done shooting, put your stuff away and look around! Soak in the magic of the Holidays!

Good Shooting!

About The Author

John KainJohn Kain is a retired Architectural Engineer with a passion for photography. As an avid gardener, he loves to photograph the flowers in his yard or any place he can find them. His roots in architecture have taken him into real-estate photography for a friend.

As a silversmith, he also designs and creates jewelry using natural stones like turquoise and agates mounted in sterling silver.




  1. Joyce CampJoyce Camp12-04-2012

    Another great article thank you!
    You mentioned using a bean bag! Never heard of this .. what do you do with it?
    We are going to Overly’s (set up in a fairground) to see their light display later this week. You have to drive around to see them and usually can’t stop have to keep moving slowly. Any suggestions on getting photos?
    Joyce A Camp

    • John KainJohn Kain12-05-2012

      Joyce, I use the beanbag for the exact reason you describe. While driving around you can stop for a few seconds and look at the lights. I take the bean bag and put it on the window opening and set the camera on it. It becomes a portable tripod. If it is not to cold you can drive around with your window down. It works with any camera that has a timer. Set the timer, put the camera on the bean bag and push the button. When I was doing that kind of photography, I like to sit in the back seat. That way I could shoot on either side. Have fun!

Leave a Reply