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Christmas (Holiday) Lights


Camera Support


You'll need a tripod.

If there are people walking by, protect them and your camera by putting something (blinking bike LED, garland, or  ?) at the base of a tripod leg that's in their path.

If there's a wind, block it from reaching the camera by standing in its way.

Tripod Substitute

If you don't have a tripod, you can use a bean bag set on a newspaper vending box, parked car (old, without car alarm, or other surface.

A bean bag is simply a sealed plastic bag filled with uncooked and dried beans or rice, or Styrofoam packing peanuts.

Tripping the Shutter

Pressing the shutter release with your finger may cause camera shake.

Use a remote release or the camera self timer.

If you've never used the above features before, be sure to practice how to use them before going out into the cold and darkness.


Don't use your flash.

Point-and-shoot Cameras

If you're using a point-and-shoot camera, you may have a button with a lightening-bolt icon.

Press the button until you see, on the LCD screen, the lightening-bolt icon with a slash through it.

The flash will not fire.


If you're using a digital SLR (DSLR), use the shutter-priority exposure mode (S or Tv).

If you use Program, or one of the exposure modes denoted by icons, such as Night Landscape, the flash will probably fire.


The automatic exposure system will be confused by the large areas of darkness in the scene.

Your photographs will be overexposed.

You have several alternatives.

Exposure Compensation

There's a feature on your camera called exposure compensation.

Look for a button with a +/- icon, or check your camera instruction manual.

Experiment with different amounts of over- and underexposure.

Manual Exposure

You can use the manual exposure mode (M).

Start with the settings below.

Then, experiment with exposure compensation.

ISO values are in the left column.

Lower ISO settings produce more accurate color, better blacks, and less noise.

The drawback is much longer shutter speeds.

  f/1.4 f/2 f/2.8 f/4 f/5.6 f/8 f/11 f/16 f/22
1600 125 60 30 15 8 4 2 1" 2"
800 60 30 15 8 4 2 1" 2" 4"
400 30 15 8 4 2 1" 2" 4" 8"
200 15 8 4 2 1" 2" 4" 8" 15"
 100 8 4 2 1" 2" 4" 8" 15" 30"


If your camera can display histograms, check to make sure your photographs aren't overexposed, a vertical line on the right side of the histogram graph.

Night Scene Mode

Your camera may have a exposure mode for night photograph.

Double Exposure

If you're able to turn the lights off, take one set of photographs with the lights off, after sunset.

Then, take another set of bracketed photographs later with the lights on.

Combine the best exposure of each session using Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.

Don't bump the tripod between exposures!

If your DSLR has a grid in the viewfinder, jot down where the lines of the grid match up with the scene.

Then, if the tripod is bumped, you can realign the camera.


ISO is a measure of how sensitive the camera sensor is to light.

A low ISO number means that the sensor is less sensitive to light.

Use an ISO between 100 to 400 to avoid getting noise (anomalous B&W and colored specks).

Any noise will be prominent in the darker parts of your photographs.

White Balance

Conventional Lights

Use the tungsten white balance setting, a light bulb icon.

This will also make an blue left in the sky more blue.

If you're in a city, the street lights probably use sodium vapor lamps, which are somewhat similar to tungsten lights.


Use the automatic balance (AWB) setting with LED lamps.

Raw Files

If you're using a DSLR, you may be able to save your photographs as JPEG and raw files.

You can adjust the exposure and white balance more easily with raw files.

Focal Length

Often, there are Christmas lights close to the camera, and lights in the distance.

You can blur the distant lights more by using a longer focal length.

Zoom the lens, or press the telephoto side of the rocker switch, to add mm's to the focal length.

The amount of blur of distant objects is controlled by the focal length, not by aperture and depth-of-field.


If your camera has difficulty focusing, it's probably because the scene is too dark, or doesn't have enough contrast of tone or color.

Do one of the following.

• Switch to manual focus.

• Point your camera at something in the same plane where you want the focus, that's brighter and contrasty.

Press the shutter release halfway, and hold, to focus the camera.

Then, while still holding the shutter release halfway down, point the camera to where you want to frame the scene and press the shutter release down completely.


If you want to include your family and friends in the foreground, with the lights in the background, try the Night Portrait exposure mode.

The icon for this mode often has a figure with a moon or star overhead.

When using this mode, the resulting photograph is exposed twice.

First, the flash fires, illuminating the people close to the camera.

Then, the shutter stays open longer, to gather the light to record the lights in the background.

Use a tripod.

Otherwise, the lights in the background may show camera movement.

Also, advise the people you're photographing not to move until you say it's okay.

They'll tend to move once the flash fires.

They won't realize that the shutter is still open.

If they move, there may be ghosting around the people.

Animated GIFs

If the lights change, you can photograph each change.

Then, using Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, make an animated GIF.

Each photograph becomes a layer in the GIF file.


Bring a flashlight so you can see your camera controls more easily.


If it's very cold, carry a spare battery in an inside pocket.

If the battery in the camera fails due to the cold, switch the batteries.

Time of Day

The best time of day for night photography is right after sunset.

While the scene will look too bright to your eyes, the scene will start looking like night more quickly for your camera's "eye."

Cameras always increase the contrast that we see with our eyes.


Wet sidewalks and streets will reflect the lights, adding interest to what will be large expanse of darkness.



Don't breath on your camera lens or view finder.


When photographing, and especially when using a tripod, you can easily concentrate only on the photograph and not on your surroundings.

Bring friend to watch for dogs about to urinate on your tripod, or worse situations.