Some people think that you need an expensive camera or an elaborate setup to photograph holiday lights, but in truth, you can work wonders with a standard point-and-shoot and a little knowledge of how to balance light.
Flash Not Necessary: When it comes to photographing the season’s lights, the decorative version may be all you need for proper illumination. In fact, when it comes to Christmas trees and other indoor decorations, a closely positioned flash can overpower the scene and create a washed-out effect. It’s often better to try photographing the lights first and examine the results. Oftentimes, the holiday lighting is more than capable of standing on its own and actually shines better when left alone.
Incorporating Ambient Light: Photographing holiday lights means keeping track of the diminishing ambient light—most notably, the sun as it sets. You’ll get the best results photographing lights BEFORE it gets dark. During the dusk period, you’ll find a nice balance of diminishing ambient light contrasting with the holiday lights, which means you’ll be able to see more objects in the background.
Try Tungsten: Set your custom white balance to tungsten, just as you would if you were photographing something indoors without using a flash. Holiday lights are balanced for tungsten lighting and this will give your images a warm contrast between the sky/background and the lights.
Bring Your Tripod: Using a tripod is especially important in shooting holiday lights. It will provide stability, which is particularly critical with low-light photography, and will keep your shot properly framed as you continue shooting as the evening light transitions to black.
Take Ten Shots (Over Ten Minutes): Once you have everything set, begin taking a photograph every minute or so. Your eyes may not register the gradual changes so track the time with your watch or cell phone. Then, shoot every minute or so over a 10-15 minute period. You’ll see the changes in evening lighting as you scroll though your shots.
There’s no one right answer when it comes to photographing holiday lights, and this is actually a good thing. Each situation is different, so feel free to apply these tips and then experiment based upon the results. There are few things more fun than an impromptu holiday photo safari, so grab your gear a bit before twilight and enjoy the experience!