Tips & Tricks #2-Xmas Lights


City & County Building, Denver, CO. Fish-eye lens photograph taken from tripod mounted camera on ledge of 3rd floor.

Christmas Light Photography provides several challenges including keeping you and the camera warm ~ at least in Colorado. I’d guess that desert cactus and beachfront palm tree lighting wouldn’t present this challenge.

Another photography caveat to remember: What your eye/mind see and what the camera can record are two very different things. I’ll post in greater detail about this intriguing subject later. Basically it’s tough to capture detail in Christmas lighting and detail in darker parts of the scene, like the house or building the lights are attached to. Same thing happens at a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Tough to capture detail in the sun and colorful sky and nearby scenery in the same image.

Knowing that:


Photograph taken on assignment for Time Magazine. Shot from open hotel window across the street. Camera was tripod mounted on window ledge.

1. Try shooting your images before its totally dark ~ at dusk when there’s still some blue in the sky.

2. Snow on the ground can work in your favor as a reflector, adding some brightness to buildings and trees.

3. These photographs require longer exposure times and a sturdy camera support is required. No tripod? No problem as you ingeniously look for other solid objects to support the camera. The street or sidewalk are great for this. Hood or trunk of your car might work. Rocks, low retaining walls are 2 other possibilities.

4. Once the camera is steadied, try using the self-timer to trigger it. It’s a much steadier way to make an exposure than direct “button pushing” of the shutter release with your finger. Since we’re shooting a non-moving object, the delay of the self-timer won’t cause us to lose a decisive moment.

5. I’ll always suggest that you take several shots, don’t be shy with this. Even tripod mounted cameras can be bumped or pick up ground vibration blurring some of the exposures.

6. Turn off any flash on your camera for some of the shots, then turn it back on to see if it provides any fill light. It usually won’t because the built-in flash units on cameras are only effective to a distance of 6-10 feet and will never put light on a house 20-50 feet away.

7. Auto focus can be fooled with this photo subject, so be sure the focus box at the center of your viewfinder is not aimed at a totally dark spot in the background. If possible, use a manual focus setting to focus on lights that are central to your framing.

Staver_Morman-Temple8. The more lights in the photograph the better it’s going to look. In all honesty, the shot above of the Temple in Salt Lake City is boring as a Christmas Light image because there aren’t many lights in the scene and none on the building itself. The horizontal version is striking because of the sunset.

9. Now bundle up, get out there in the neighborhood, find the brightest house, and fire away.

10. When you think you’ve got the shot and/or your fingers freeze come on back, sip a glass of wine or a hot chocolate, look at your photographs. Here’s the cool part: if you’re not happy with the images you can go back and try again, doubtful your subject has moved 🙂 !

Denver’s City & County Building is well known for it’s spectacular lighting, mostly because it’s such a large building. Its facade is a light color so the lights reflect off of it much better than they do the Temple in Salt Lake (compare for yourself).

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