Skip to main content

Photographing Christmas Lights

Christmas Light Display
Christmas Light Display
©Allen Birnbach

Photographing Christmas light displays can be lots of fun. There are lots of creative variations on a theme in play here, so go out and explore your neighborhood. Or, plan ahead for your next year’s Holiday card by shooting your own display. Here’s what you need to know.

Generally, people wait to shoot until it is dark out, but that is too late. The Christmas lights may reproduce well in the photograph, but all the other detail in the image will be lost. The goal is to match the correct exposure for the lights with the ambient light at dusk so there is detail in the lights, and detail in the buildings and sky as well.

That means that you want to get to your location right around sunset, do your scout, and find the spot you want to shoot from. I’d suggest bringing a tripod, since the exposures can be from 1 second to 5 seconds long, depending on the situation, with an ISO of 100. If you don’t have a tripod with you, you could hand hold, but be sure to use a high ISO so you keep your shutter speeds up above 1/60 second. Maybe look for a surface to brace your camera against, like a wall or tree.

The best times for making the exposures will be between 10 and 40 minutes after sunset, depending on which direction you are looking.  You’ll know you are done when the sky is black, and the separation between it and the buildings are lost.

For a more detailed explanation about photographing Christmas Lights, and other photography tips, check out my blog at