10 Tips and Tricks for Photographing Holiday Lights and Candles

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Photographing holiday lights and candles is one of the most fun holiday adventures any photographer can have and a great way to explore and enjoy the festive lights in your neighborhood and home.

Here are some tips on how to make the most of your captures of holiday lights while you wait to receive gifts from your B&H wish list!

1. Use Low-Light / Night Photography Techniques

The best time to view holiday lights is when the lights go down (indoors and outside). Therefore, you will benefit from the tried-and-true practices of night photographers when capturing holiday lights. Basic things like using a tripod and a remote shutter release will help you get the best photos of the lights.

For a great list of night photo tips, click here, and for tips on focusing at night, click here. If you need to get outfitted for holiday-light photography, click here.

2. Plan Your Shots

Depending on where you are shooting, it might be best to photograph scenes with outdoor lights around dusk. Why? Ambient light can help your image. If you are photographing a home or building that has beautiful holiday lights, capturing the scene when there is still some light in the sky will allow you to better include the surrounding terrain like trees, bushes, other structures, and the sky. Shooting the same scene in full darkness may have your photograph looking like lights around a dark building under a dark sky in front of a dark tree (if you can still see the tree).

Urban environments are a bit more forgiving for late-night holiday light capture.

Fulton Mall, in Brooklyn, NY, looking great for the holidays!
Fulton Mall, in Brooklyn, NY, looking great for the holidays!

3. Flash Off

Please turn off your flash when photographing holiday lights. If you’re photographing outside, your flash will likely not be powerful enough to illuminate a scene and, indoors, it may brighten everything around the lights. Of course, if you are taking photos of a holiday tree and you want to see the whole tree, a flash might be necessary. But, if you are photographing lights, you usually need not bring your own lighting.

An intersection of holiday lights
An intersection of holiday lights

4. White Balance

I am a big fan of shooting raw capture and using auto white balance. You can certainly change your white balance at capture, or change it in post-production (if shooting raw), but it is really up to the photographic artist when it comes to how to add or subtract color casts from the scene, and/or neutralize the tones and hues. If you just want to shoot and worry about color casts later, select automatic WB and shoot raw.

5. Gear: Star Filters

A lens with an adjustable aperture diaphragm can create “star effects” surrounding points of light in your image. Many of today’s lenses, and their aperture diaphragms, are designed to reduce the definition of their diffraction spikes (also called sunstars, sun stars, sun flares, or starbursts) and I explore that in this article.

Four points, six points, eight points fun! What is your favorite number?
Candles are photogenic, even without star filters.
Candles are photogenic, even without star filters.

But, one quick way to get the effect, and have some creative fun with it, is through the use of a “star and streak effects filter”. Currently, the B&H website carries almost 1,000 different star effects filters of all sizes and characteristics. If you thought star filters were a bit gimmicky, check the list of companies that manufacture these filters, and you will see all of the industry’s top brands. These star filters come in different flavors—producing two-pointed streaks, or four-, six-, eight-, and 16-point effects. Also, there are filters with names like Hollywood Stars, Hyper Stars, North Stars (see top shot in this article), and Vector Stars for different starburst effects.

There are times when a star filter would be redundant.
There are times when a star filter would be redundant.

6. Gear: Lensbaby

There are a few funky lenses on the market, but none as well-known and regarded as the Lensbaby family of unique optics. Photographers use Lensbaby lenses for everything from super-serious professional work to just plain fun. When it comes to holiday lights, Lensbaby is a great catalyst for creative fun with lights. Regardless of whether you are using the Composer Pro, Velvet, Spark, Twist, Omni, or other Lensbaby lenses, they all make great optical tools for capturing holiday lights.

You have unlimited creative effects with different Lensbaby lenses and holiday lights.
In orbit over a colorful planet with Lensbaby
In orbit over a colorful planet with Lensbaby

7. Gear: Bokeh Shapes

Holiday lights and bokeh are a photographic pairing akin to selfies and Instagram. You cannot avoid it and it is sometimes easy on the eyes.

Bokehawsome. Bokehtheral. Bokehrama.
Bokehawsome. Bokehtheral. Bokehrama.

Speaking of Lensbaby, its Lensbaby Creative Bokeh Optic features changeable plates that you can swap inside the lens to customize the shape of your bokeh. Combined with the tilting and twisting Lensbaby mounts, your creative options are unlimited.

For a fun do-it-yourself project, cut out any kind of shape you desire (star, heart, numerals, smiley face, etc.) on construction paper or cardboard, hold it in front of your lens, aim the camera at some holiday lights, and watch the bokeh take the shape of your cutout! This is a cool and fun holiday project for the whole family.

Use the cutouts from the DIYP Bokeh Masters Kit or make your own!

8. Gear: Bring Your Own Lights

Another way to experiment with your holiday light photographs is through light painting. Simply add light to a scene using a flashlight, super-portable keychain light, or other kind of light or lantern. You can also do light writing on your image to send a holiday message or just make cool swirls across the frame. Dive into our flashlight selection and look for multi-colored lights that can add to the creative process. Also, check out our review of the “inspection beam” COAST flashlights for precision light painting.

The star filter’s grid shows up in the bokeh.
The star filter’s grid shows up in the bokeh.

If you want to add colored flood lighting to a scene, the app-controlled Luxli Viola2 5" On-Camera RGBAW LED light can put out a ton of light and the color can be adjusted through a huge range of RGB hues from 3000 to 10000K. These are perfect for adding mood to a scene through color, or for color casting your subject, foreground, or background. If you need more light, check out the Viola’s big 10" brother, the Cello. The possibilities are unlimited.

9. Beware: Flicker

Did you know that lighting is constantly flickering? In the United States, electricity cycles at 60 Hz. With incandescent lights, when the filament is electrified, it glows. When the power is shut off, the filament slowly cools. As it cools, it still produces light—think of the glow from a lamp after you turn it off—and is re-energized to produce light. At a relatively rapid 60 Hz, you perceive continuous light.

However, other types of lighting—fluorescent or LED, for example—do not have filaments that are as slow to react as an incandescent bulb and they cycle on and off at rates determined by their electronics. The human eye cannot detect the flicker, but your camera certainly can and you can see strange flicker effects using live view on a DSLR or through an electronic viewfinder.

When photographing holiday lights, you need to use slower shutter speeds to allow the light source to be captured when illuminated because a fast shutter speed may catch the lights in their off-cycle or mid-flicker—producing unwanted effects in your image. Some modern cameras can adjust the shutter firing time to avoid flicker, but a slow shutter speed always does the trick if your camera does not have that feature.

At 1/500 second, many of these LEDs were caught mid-flicker.
At 1/500 second, many of these LEDs were caught mid-flicker.

10. Tricks: Unleash Your Creative Side

There are beautiful photos of holiday trees with spectacular lights and there are beautiful photos of wonderfully lit homes and buildings. However, when you’re composing images of holiday lights, feel free to get super creative. Change lenses, zoom in and out, intentionally blur, light paint, add light, mask light, etc. There is no need to capture a holiday-light photograph like everyone before you—put your own personality into the image and have fun experimenting with your camera (and the lights)!

Zoomin’
Zoomin’

What tips and tricks have you found great for photographing holiday lights? Let us know in the discussion section, below! Happy Holidays!

14 Comments

Thank a lot for this very informative article. This is a subject I wanted to know more about already for a long time. I try your tips and tricks. Have fun....

Thanks, Henk! I hope you have fun as well! Holiday lights make for some cool photo opportunities!

I'd like to recommend instead of getting star filters (though by all means, buy their stuff, B&H is great), use a tripod and shoot between f/16 - f/22 and you can get the same effect. 

Zoomin! So fun! I tried this at Disneyland at night to great effect. With the right subject and framing it really adds to the magic.

Keep on making magic, Katie! Thanks for reading!

Just wanted to say thanks for another good article. I personally like zooming in or out with long exposures. I try it both ways for differnent effects. Thanks also to everyone at B&H for the time and effort put into all the explora articles. I really enjoy them and learn alot. Happy Holidays to all.

 

Hey Sam,

Thank you for the kind words! We are glad that you are enjoying our content! Keep on shooting and zooming!

3. Flash Off.
I am amused by those at concerts and sports stadiums or arenas that shoot flash. More than likely, they're not going to reach beyound 8 rows in front of them.

Oh, trust me, Ralph, don't get me started on that soap box!

I agree.  Its a lack of knowledge or common sense.  I recently shot a photo of the moon and had a long conversation with someone who thought it must have been taken with a flash.  However hard I tried he just couldn't get that a flash couldn't light up the moon. So sad.

I guess you could tell them that your flash is a fusion powered speedlight in continuous-light mode located at the center of our solar system. :)

That sounds like my late neighbor.  She was nice, but . . . I think she had to read envelopes in order to figure out where to place the stamp!

Ha! The "Place Stamp Here" block was always helpful to me. :)