How to Photograph Holiday Lights

How to Photograph Holiday Lights

Reprinted with permission from the
New York Institute of Photography website at

'Tis the season to be jolly! The season of lights - from Christmas trees to Hannukah candles to decorative house lighting. Lights...lights...lights to cheer up the long dark nights of winter. According to the New York Institute of Photography (NYI), the world's largest photography school, your pictures can capture the magic of this lighting if you apply just one simple professional "trick."

For example, how can your pictures capture the colorful glow of the lights on a Christmas tree? The "trick," according to NYI, is to turn off your camera's strobe! That's the key: Turn off your strobe. Because otherwise the bright strobe light will overwhelm the subtle tree lights in your picture. Similarly, NYI recommends that you turn off your strobe whenever you want to capture any subtle light source - from Christmas trees to Menorah candles to decorative house lighting to those wonderful tree outlines produced by tiny white bulbs.

Of course, certain things follow from this: When you turn off your strobe, you won't have enough light for split-second exposure. Your automatic camera will compensate by opening the shutter for a longer time - maybe a second or longer. Let your camera's built-in meter decide automatically.

But a very long exposure will become blurry if either the camera moves or the tree-lights move, or both. To minimize this risk, NYI recommends two further steps: First, use fast film - for example, ISO 800. This will cut down the duration of the exposure. Second, steady your camera. Handholding just won't do. Use a tripod if possible. If not, place the camera on a solid surface, such as a tabletop, or brace it against a wall.