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Eight Top Tips for Photographing Christmas Tree Lights

Eight Top Tips for Photographing Christmas Tree Lights

The Christmas Tree is a focal point for the winter season, indoors and out. Many people have a tradition of cutting down the perfect tree, hanging special ornaments on it, and adding the perfect lights for a memorable holiday.

Whether going out to admire outdoor lights or just appreciating a humble tree at home, it is worth learning a few photography tips to help capture the beauty of season. Here are eight top tips to photograph Christmas tree lights indoors, outdoors and creatively.


1. How to photograph Christmas tree lights indoors

A tree is most memorable for it’s lights. Set the mood by photographing later in the day, or when the room is dimly lit. This will enhance the appearance of the lights and make them the primary focus.

Next, use a fast lens with a very wide aperture. The best choice is a 50mm f/1.8 lens. They are readily available for major camera manufacturers and there are also generic brands that make strictly manual lenses for about $50. My advice is to get a professional known brand. I use Canon, the lens is about $125 and one of my favorite lenses. It creates magical bokeh, the blurry soft out-of-focus effect – really easily.

Christmas tree by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Christmas Tree by PublicDomainImages from Pixabay

2. How to take pictures with Christmas tree lights in the background

There are a couple of ways to do this. The easy way is to photograph an object close to you, like an ornament or a gift box, some cookies – a festive prop. The further away the tree is, the softer the lights will become. The room should have some ambient light.

Ideally, set your ISO as low as possible (ISO 100-200) to avoid extra noise and put your camera on a tripod. Use Aperture Priority Mode “A” and wise aperture (low f stop); set f/stop to 1.8; depending on how dark the room is will determine how long the shutter will be open.

Here are four examples using different apertures:


web xmas lights 1 6th f1.8 iso100

50mm lens, 1/6 sec, f/1.8, ISO 100

web xmas lights 0.5s f4 ISO 100 lights on

50mm lens, 0.5 sec, f/4, ISO 100 lights on

web xmas lights 1s f4 ISO100

50mm lens, 1 sec,  f/4, ISO 100

web xmas lights 3.2s f8 ISO 100

50mm lens, 3.2 sec, f/8, ISO 100

Finally, don’t forget to check your white balance. If Auto WB is not working, try switching to Florescent or Tungsten, depending on the type of lights.  LED lights tend to cast a cool hue; traditional lights are warmer.

The more experienced way to photograph lights on a tree is to use manual mode.  Because of the dark room and bright lights, the camera may have trouble making the correct exposure.  On manual mode, aim for a low ISO and wide aperture. If you focus manually, you can create the blurry effect without an object in the foreground. Again, the tripod is essential.

3. How to photograph Christmas lights outdoors

First of all, time of day matters a lot. Do not wait until it is dark. Get setup so that you are shooting just after sunset, where there is still some color in the sky.

Here’s the clicker: when it’s pitch dark outside, the camera will either expose for the lights, making them appear to be floating in nothing, or, will expose for their surroundings, which will make them appear too bright with no color.

A tripod is needed for long shutter speeds. ISO will need to be bumped out to about 400. Otherwise, the shutter will be open for way too long. Start with an aperture of f/8, especially if you are capturing a scene such as an outdoor market, street lights, etc.

web xmas lights 1.3 f11 ISO100

Time of day matters when photographing lights outdoors.  Here, you can see exactly what time it is!

Canon 18-135mm, 1.3sec, f/11, ISO 100


4. How to create a light trail zoom effect from Christmas Tree lights

web xmas lights 5s f6.3 ISO100 zoom

This is a fun way to photograph lights. For this effect, you will need a tripod and a zoom lens. The shutter needs to be open for at least a second.

In order to get everything in focus, use Aperture Priority mode and a low aperture, start with f/16 and experiment to f/20. ISO is low, at 100.

Frame the tree, press the shutter, and slowly – and most importantly – steadily zoom in or out. This will take a few tries and the zoom usually goes a little smoother in one direction than the other. You don’t need a huge turn, either.

For this photo:

Canon 18-135mm, 5 sec, f/6.3, ISO 100 zoom

5. How to create a light painting spinning effect from Christmas Tree lights

Unless you are lucky enough to having a rotating tree, this effect will work easier for smaller trees with battery-operated lights. Make sure that you have a decent amount of lights.

For this experiment, I used two sets of battery-operated lights on a one foot tall tree and placed it on a lazy susan.

It may be easier to use the TV setting,  which is Shutter Priority. You will need about two seconds. Using a 50mm lens, set TV for two second exposure at f/8 and ISO 100. The settings where tweaked in post in order to get a totally white background.

To get this effect:

Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens, 2 sec, f/11, ISO 100


spinning tree lights

6. How to make and use lens covers to create shapes in bokeh

If you are really good at using an Exacto knife, you can get really creative with this effect. Or, you can purchase a kit with pre-cut shapes. Otherwise, if this is new for you, keep the shape simple.

You will need cardstock or foam sheet. Measure the circle by using the widest aperture lens that you have. With the 50mm lens facing down, use a pencil to outline the diameter of the lens. Make a few of these.

Fold the circle in half and cut out half a shape, for instance, a heart or triangle with stem for the tree. Use painter’s or masking tape to place over the lens, or, if you cut extra tabs around the circle, use a rubber band.

Set the aperture to f/1.8, ISO 100, and photograph lights. Each light will take on the shape of the cutout. Larger lights will produce bigger shapes. More lights will produce more shapes.

bokeh masters

Bokeh shape over lens

star bokeh

7. How to get ready-made starburst effects on Christmas Tree lights

A cross screen (AKA Star Lens) filter will create a dramatic flare or “twinkle” effect. There is a number on the filter, such as 4, 6, 8, which indicates how many rays are produced. 

web xmas lights 3.2s f4 ISO200 star

Canon 18-135mm, 3.2 sec, f/4, ISO 200 6-star filter

Diagonal lines are cut into the lens to produce the effect. Make sure to get the correct filter size for your intended lens. Each light will be transformed into a star.

For the image on the right:


Canon 18-135mm, 5 sec, f/6.3, ISO100 with 6-Star Filter

web xmas lights 5s f6.3 ISO100

8. Use other elements to create a balanced composition of your Christmas Tree

Finally, create a stronger composition by photographing people, presents, or pets in the picture. Perhaps the tree is in a beautiful room with a fireplace, or near a huge picture window and it’s snowing outside. As long as it adds interest without distracting from the tree, which is the main subject of the image, feel free to include it.



Whether you are inside or out, there are plenty of ways to creatively photograph Christmas Tree lights. Whether the tree is spinning or you are turning the zoom on your lens, try some new techniques to capture the lights on a Christmas Tree.


What are your favorite ways to photograph Christmas Tree lights? Let us know in the comments below.


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