10 Tips and Tricks for Photographing Holiday Lights and Candles


Besides getting awesome gifts from your B&H wish list, one of the best parts of the holiday season is the beautiful lights and candles that seem to decorate every neighborhood, shopping area, and home.

As stunning as some lights are to see, they can be even more fun to photograph. Here are some tips on how to make the most of your captures of holiday lights.

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!

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

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. 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 more than 1,000 different star effects filters of all sizes and characteristics. If you thought these were a bit gimmicky, check the list of manufacturers that make star effects filters and you will see all of the industry’s top brands. You can use filters that feature 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), and Vector Stars for different starburst effects.

Four points, six points, eight points fun! What is your favorite number?
Candles are photogenic, even without star filters.
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, or other Lensbaby lenses, they are all right at home with holiday lights.

You have unlimited creative effects with different Lensbaby lenses and holiday lights.
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.

Grab your favorite bokelicious lens and make some dramatic bokeh compositions. But, to make your images stand out from the crowd, feel free to play around with the special shapes and effects afforded by the DIYP Bokeh Masters Kit. Simply place a cutout over the front of your lens and shoot toward the light to reproduce the shape of the cutout in your images. The kit also comes with blank discs to create your own shapes.

New this year is the Lensbaby Creative Bokeh Optic. Similar to the DIYP kit, you attach the lens to the Lensbaby Optic Swap System and swap out plates to customize your bokeh. Combined with the tilting and twisting Lensbaby mounts, your creative options are unlimited.

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 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. The tiny Lomography Light Painter is the perfect tool for this, with its three LED lights and eight different color modes. As a bonus, it makes for a great keychain light whenever you need extra illumination. Also, check out our review of the “inspection beam” COAST flashlights here.

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, it slowly cools. As it cools, it still produces light and, at 60 Hz, you perceive continuous light. However, other types of lighting—fluorescent or LED, for example—do not have filaments that are slow to react 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, try to use slower shutter speeds to allow the light source to be captured when illuminated.

A fast shutter speed may catch the lights in their off-cycle or 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)!


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


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. 

Hey Andrew,

Thanks for the props!

You make a great point, but not all lenses are great at producing diffraction spikes (also sunstars, sunbursts, etc)...and sometimes stopping your lens down that much will start to induce softness due to diffraction. For more information on diffraction spikes, check out this article: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/create-compelling-star-effects-sun-stars-starbursts-photos


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. :)