Secrets to Photographing Christmas Lights

December 15, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

One of my favorite times of year is Christmas but for photographers it can be one of the most challenging for one reason: photographing Christmas lights! When I started out doing Christmas mini sessions I had a lot of research to do to make sure my lighting was just right. There wasn't much information on the web about proper exposure of Christmas lights (with people in the foreground) which led me to a lot of trial, error and frustration. I've included the two pictures above because they both present unique challenges.

Many studio-style Christmas pictures I came across merely left the tree lights turned off, leaving a colder feeling to an already chilly month. To me, the lights on the tree are what makes Christmas so magical, and I wanted to be sure to capture that glow perfectly! To achieve this, I learned I first had to properly expose the background, and in this case it was the tree. In my image on the left (above), my settings were using a 50mm prime lens at ISO 160, f/1.4, and 1/160 shutter speed. However, now I had the issue of the subject being underexposed. To achieve this, I simply added a single strobe in an umbrella. In the same photo on the left I had a single Profoto D1 set to 6.5 and bounced it off the wall behind me to create a softer glow. Problem solved for the picture on the left! 

The image on the right had its own set of issues. When I first saw a similar picture on Pinterest of a baby tangled up in glowing Christmas lights I had to recreate it for myself! However, each time I would turn off any external lighting and only light the scene with Christmas lights I would get red spots all over my image (see example below).

Although for this particular picture I was able to edit them off in Lightroom, I went on a quest to find the culprit. With very little information on the web, I consulted a trusted photo forum and I was able to discover that my problem was as simple as removing the protective UV filter I had screwed onto the end of my lens! I have used these protective filters from day 1, never thinking they could cause any sort of shooting issues. While they are practical for many uses, in my case they actually trapped lower frequencies of light which bounced around between the layers of glass before escaping. Who knew removing the filter would be such an easy fix! 

With a little practice, you too can take magical Christmas photos with a little less difficulty and you can save your holiday frustration for detangling the lights! 



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