How to photograph christmas lights with image of girl by tree

It’s that time of year and we all want to get great pictures of our indoor Christmas decorations, especially the beautifully decorated Christmas tree.  Photographing anything indoors presents its own challenge, but photographing a lit Christmas tree is especially daunting.  But have no fear, I will walk you through it and leave you will some tips that will make it easier.  

Standard Kit Lens

I first want to walk you through using a standard kit lens.  This is the lens that most likely came with your camera.  The limitations on this lens are how large the aperture can be open (or how low the f-stop number can go).  On a kit lens the lowest is around f4.0.  The key to getting great Christmas light pictures is to bump up your ISO.  That being said it really depends on the type of photo you want. 

In the pictures below, I was going for more of a silhouette feel of my daughter.  As you can see, I achieved this two different ways.  The first was to keep my ISO at a reasonable level of 1600 so I didn’t introduce a ton of noise.  So with an aperture of 7.1, the shutter speed needed to be really slow at 0.3 seconds.  This works with my daughter because she is old enough that when I tell her to stand still she will.  If you have a particularly jittery subject, this method won’t work.  In the second photo, I maxed out my ISO at 6400 (most beginner camera won’t go much higher than this).  This allowed me to raise my shutter speed a touch to 0.1 seconds.  

One thing to note is that I could have increased my aperture size to 4.0 to be able to raise the shutter speed even more.  But that would not have produced the silhouette effect and the depth would have been more shallow, meaning the whole scene would not have been in focus.  

How to photography christmas lights

Prime Lens

If you have a prime lens, you have more room to play with in terms of aperture and can take different types of photos.  The photos below were taken with a fixed 50mm lens with an aperture allowance of f1.4 at its highest.  The one downside to the 50mm lens when shooting indoors is that it can be tough to get the photos you want because there is no zooming in and out.  

For the Christmas light photos below, I wanted to highlight her face looking at the lights.  For this, I needed a ton more light coming into the camera which is why the aperture is more wide open for the first photo.  I still added a considerable amount of ISO to allow enough light into the camera.  

For the second photo, I wanted to show you that when I increased my aperture to allow more overall focus, I also had to increase my ISO to get the same amount of light.  

How to shoot Christmas Lights with a fixed 50mm lens

As you can see, taking photos in any lighting condition is a numbers game.  You are trading off between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to get the exposure that you want.  I have listed below the steps you need to do, to help you get the Christmas light photos you are looking for.  

Steps to Take Christmas Light Photos

  1. Turn off all lights except the Christmas tree lights
  2. Mount your camera on a tripod.  This is a must in any low light photography.  (If you don’t have a tripod, use any steady surface)
  3. Set your ISO to 1600 or higher but remember the higher you go the more noise you are allowing.
  4. Choose your aperture based on the depth you want in the photo but don’t go higher than f7.1.  Anything higher will not allow enough light into the camera.
  5. Set your shutter speed according to the exposure meter to get a properly exposed photo.  This may be really slow depending on the settings you chose for ISO and aperture.  
  6. If you need to adjust your ISO or aperture to get the proper exposure, do so in increments.  The key to remember is lowering your f-stop will allow more light and increasing your ISO will allow more light.  It is all a trade-off.

I hope this has helped you get those photos that you want.  If you have any questions don’t hesitate to leave me a comment below.  If you want more help with your photography, you can also check out my beginner courses here:  Beginner Photography Courses.

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