Five tips for taking fantastic photos of Christmas lights

Downtown Madison, NJ decorated for Christmas. Shot at 5 p.m. on a cloudy day with a 3-second exposure on a tripod. Photo by Dan Landau.

The Christmas season is upon us, which means Christmas light displays are popping up everywhere. While Christmas light-festooned houses and trees look beautiful, they can be tricky to photograph. Follow these tips, courtesy of Dan Landau — photographer and Fairleigh Dickinson University PR assistant — and take your holiday photos to the next level:

Shoot in the right light

During daylight Christmas lights don’t stand out to us, but cameras see things differently than our eyes do. At this time of year, the sun sets around 4:30 in the afternoon, meaning that it is usually fully dark by 6 p.m. The best time to photograph Christmas lights is just after sunset — think dusk, not dark.

The sweet spot is when it is dark enough for the Christmas lights to “pop” in the photo, yet still light enough for the sky to turn a beautiful blue. Depending on the weather conditions, this time is roughly about 5–5:30 p.m.

Take your time

Literally, take your time. To adequately capture Christmas lights, you will need to use a long exposure time (perhaps up to 1 second). 

If you’re feeling adventurous, try out the camera’s manual or shutter-priority modes (usually called “M” and “S,” respectively) and experiment with long shutter speeds (1/4 second, 1/2 second, 1 second, etc).  If your camera doesn’t have a have a manual mode, look for a “night exposure” or “low light” mode.

Support is key

Because you will be using a long exposure, “camera-shake” will be a big obstacle if you don’t have anything to support your camera and keep it still. Half a second may not sound like a long time to hold your camera steady, but even the smallest movement of your hands will make for blurry photos. The best way to deal with this is to set up a tripod for your camera. If you don’t have a tripod, rest the camera on the roof of your car, or brace it against something solid.

Don’t be a flasher

Turn off your camera’s flash. The flash will light up the foreground and turn the background into an infinite darkness. Instead, use the long exposure techniques listed above and the photo’s foreground and background will look beautifully exposed and balanced.

Keep on clicking

Zeros and ones are free, so take a lot of pictures. Some of them are bound to be blurry or otherwise imperfect, so when you think you’re finished, take a couple more just to make sure you have a good photo.

After you’ve taken your photos, don’t forget to enjoy the pretty lights yourself!

These tips work on indoor Christmas light displays just as well as outdoor ones, as this photo of the Christmas tree in Hennessy Hall shows. Photo by W. Scott Giglio.

Feature Story from the FDU Newsroom

FDU Office of Public Relations

   (Metropolitan Campus Office)
Dickinson Hall, Room 3365, H-DH3-1, Teaneck, NJ 07666

Dina Schipper,
Director of Public Relations
Fax: 201-692-7019

Kenna Caprio,
Communications Writer
Fax: 201-692-7019

Helen Grill,
Senior General Clerk
Fax: 201-692-7019

FDU Office of Public Relations

   (College at Florham Office)
East Cottage, Second Floor, M-EC2-01, Madison, NJ 08450

Scott Giglio,
Assistant Director of Public Relations
Fax: 973-443-8671

Daniel Landau,
Public Relations Assistant
Fax: 973-443-8671