Watching the Diwali lights come on one by one, at each house in our neighborhood I couldn’t stop thinking how lights have always been a part of humanity since time immemorial. Ever since man understood how to control fire it became an inseparable part of his life. It is thus no surprise that fire became a part of almost everything that he did. It became, in many ways, a manifestation of his very existence. Man has used fire to ward off the dangers of night. He has used it to make his food more palatable. Then again when his heart is filled with joy he has used it to mark the auspicious moment. Those moments have been remembered from generation to generation and have come to be celebrated as special events. So, while the Hindus celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, Christians celebrate Christmas and Jews Hanukkah. I believe there is a common thread in all these which connects all of humanity.

how to photograph glittering lights

Glittering Diwali lamps

Photograph Christmas Lights

It’s that time of the year when nearly one-third of humanity celebrates the birth of the son of God. It’s a momentous event and one that is marked by days of celebration; and when there are celebrations there’s got to be lights, right? I have always been intrigued by Christmas lights and I love how much care and time is invested in putting them up. It is the same in Diwali when entire families spent a day washing old earthen lamps, drying them, making cotton wicks, filling them with oil, lighting them and then arranging them around their homes in glittering patterns.

Speaking of lights, one of my favorite genres is low light photography. Thus, it’s no surprise that I love all festivals of light. Christmas lights have traditionally been a difficult subject to photograph. In the erstwhile film era, lack of extremely high sensitive film made it difficult to shoot tiny clusters of lights. It was difficult to capture Christmas in all its glittering best. These days, however, DSLR cameras can routinely shoot at ISO 800 and above, making such photography easy and worthwhile. But yet, there is more to photographing Christmas lights than just shooting at high ISO. The following tips should help you shoot images that you can be proud of.

Use a camera that has a low noise signature

The Sony A7S is frequently referred to as the champion of low light photography. But there are others like the Nikon DF and of course the Nikon D4S. The recently leaked D5 promises to be an exciting prospect as well, but we are going to wait and watch till more details emerge before making a comment on it. For the time being the above make up the top choices in full-frame segment. Most recent APS-C cameras also have excellent signal to noise ratio, which is heartening for amateur shooters.

low light photography tips

Prefer a camera that has a low noise signature

Problem starts when the sensor inside the camera starts to get smaller or when the resolution increases. Smaller the sensor and / or higher the resolution, tinier is the individual pixel making up the sensor. A full-frame camera has a pixel size that is higher than 4 microns. The iPhone 6s Plus, on the other hand, has a tiny 1/3” sensor with individual pixels of size 1.22 microns. With smaller pixel size low light performance tends to take a beating.

Shoot at a low ISO

These days even APS-C cameras can shoot in extremely high ISO; and not just shoot, the images produced are quite respectable in terms of noise signature. Those who own these cameras will certainly have a much easier time shooting in low light and at high ISO. However, for the rest of the folks, those who own smaller compact cameras or shoot with a smartphone or have an older DSLR, a lower ISO number would be a better choice. All the full-frame cameras mentioned in the previous ‘low noise signature segment’ have excellent signal to noise ratio. They produce exceptionally clean images even at high ISO like 800. Even then some amount of post-production is necessary. Thus, unless you are shooting with a 50 MP Hasselblad medium format camera or the next best thing – a Sony A7S, there is bound to be a bit of noise in your images.

Shoot in RAW

Always shoot in RAW. It gives you plenty of room to work with in post processing. You can work with the Luminance and the Color sliders in Lightroom or work with the Unsharp Mask in Photoshop to remove grains from your images. Shooting in RAW allows you to color correct the images. This is a major issue because the wide variety of lights in the scene are going to pose a problem with maintaining a correct white balance.

advantages of shooting in raw

Photograph Christmas lights in RAW which allows you the convenience of post-processing

If you can, shoot a white sheet of paper and keep that as a reference point for white in the given lighting condition before you actually photograph Christmas lights. During post-processing all you can do is click on that reference image and select your white balance for the rest of the images shot in the same lighting condition. The only problem is, you will have to repeat shooting an image of the white sheet every time the light changes and use that particular image as your point of reference.

Use a tripod

A cold winter evening with poor ambient lighting is the worst possible time to demonstrate how steady your hands are. Don’t attempt it as you will ruin your Christmas photos. Instead, use a tripod and you will have much more control over your exposures with definite improvement in image sharpness. A tripod allows you to use a slow shutter speed, and compensate for the low ISO at which you photograph Christmas lights. Additionally, it allows you to be creative with your photography as well as practice several other genres of photography like time-lapse and hyper-lapse. These are photography pursuits which are difficult, if not impossible, to pursue without a tripod.

Use the mirror lock-up position

The mirror lock-up position is a neat little tool for additional stabilization for shooting long exposure images. It comes handy when you need the image to be absolutely blur-free and works even when you are using a tripod. Mirror lock-up locks the mirror inside the camera in an up position prior to releasing the shutter. This prevents the tiny vibrations which happen when the mirror flicks up from ruining a long exposure shot. This technique is particularly effective for capturing absolutely sharp landscape photos as well low light photos and especially in the context.

Check the manual that came along with your camera to activate mirror lock-up. Each camera is different. My Nikon has a dedicated ring just under the main mode dial and one of the option on it is mirror lock-up. But yours is likely to be different. The only problem with activating the mirror lock-up position is you lose the view through the optical viewfinder. So, prior to activating mirror-lock up acquire focus and switch to manual focusing.

Use a sharp lens

A sharp lens does have its own advantages. Sharpness, however, depends on a number of things and most of them go beyond just a sharp lens. A good sharp lens, however, does make things easier. A sharp lens will allow you to capture more details. You can capture the individual brilliance of each holiday light. Most prime lenses are sharp along with the high-end tele-lenses. If your budget is low use a prime 50mm lens which is very cheap and reliable.

advantages of using a high-end sharp lens

A sharp lens allows you to capture the individual brilliance of each light

Don’t use the built-in flash or an external flash for that matter

One golden rule of low light photography is that you should never use the built-in flash on your camera. A flash fired straight on from the top of a camera creates a two-dimensional image that’s flat and straightaway boring. Always fire the flash off-camera and through a diffuser, that is if you have an external flash. Else, don’t fire at all. In any case you don’t need to fire a flash to photograph Christmas lights.

Use a smaller aperture to get maximum Depth of Field

Small aperture allows you to achieve a much larger Depth of Field (DoF). A larger DoF allows you to bring in to focus a big scene such as an entire house lit with Christmas lights. With smaller aperture you would also need to use a wide angle lens. A wide angle lens lets you fit in a bigger perspective of the scene.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with a wide aperture lens

A wide aperture lens, and not just any wide aperture but one that produces nice round bokeh is a must have for Christmas light photography. These lenses have nice rounded 9-blade aperture diaphragm (mostly) and the quality of the out of focus effects (bokeh) is really like caramel – soft and mushy. The trick is in using these lenses at their widest aperture. Put something in the foreground. Something like a toy, anything that becomes a point of interest in the image. To photograph Christmas lights better, frame in a way so that the lights are in the background. Use the widest aperture to thin out the plane of focus. Then let the optical quality of the lens do its magic.

Using thin Depths of Field to photograph Christmas lights

A wide aperture lens allows you the convenience of a shallow Depth of Field

Use the blue hour to capture some colors in the sky

To photograph Christmas lights better shoot not when its pitch dark but when there is still some light in the sky. The best time is the blue hour. Blue hour is the half an hour – 45 minutes right after sunset when there is still some light in the sky and it’s blue instead of golden yellow. The contrasting blue color with the warm glow of the amber Christmas lights makes for a breathtaking Christmas photo.

In every city there are Christmas markets at this time of the year. These little markets are wonderful treasure-troves of photo opportunities. You can experiment with both small and large apertures, try and get a larger DoF to capture the whole perspective or isolate something in the foreground while making the background obscure.

Use post-processing techniques

Finally, post-processing is an important attribute of any photography. You need a bit of work to color correct your photos, adjust the exposure, recover details from shadows and highlights and of course do a bit of noise reduction. Don’t be afraid to use simple post-processing techniques. If, however, post-processing isn’t your area of forte entrust your holiday photos to one of our experienced photo-editors on Phowd.

Rajib Mukherjee

Rajib Mukherjee

Rajib’s love for the road is second only to his love for photography. Wanderlust at heart and a shutterbug who loves to document his travels via his lenses; his two passions compliment each other perfectly. He has been writing for over 6 years now, which unsurprisingly, revolve mostly around his two favourite pursuits.
Rajib Mukherjee