Five Tips For Taking Christmas Light Pictures With A Smartphone

One of my favorite aspects of the Christmas season is seeing all of the lights. It’s fun to see how the places I normally visit are turned into bright displays during the holidays. As with everything else in my life that I think is cool, I always find myself wanting to take way too many pictures of Christmas lights so I can bomb my friends’ phones with more photos than they could possibly want to see.

But what I’ve learned over time, and what you’ve probably seen if you’ve ever taken a photo during the holidays, is that it’s not necessarily easy to get a good picture of Christmas lights. I’ve picked up on a few things that make a big difference for these types of photos, so I’m going to share a few tips for taking Christmas light pictures.

Capture The Little Things

Have you ever taken a picture of a huge display of lights and been disappointed because it doesn’t look as impressive in the camera as it does in real life? It’s hard to fully capture the experience of being surrounded by lights in a single photo. If there are a lot of lights in the picture, it can also be distracting to the viewer and can make the photo less impactful.

So, as counter-intuitive as it might sound, I’ve found that sometimes the best way to show off a big light display is to take a picture of a small part of it. If you want to give a sense of scale, you can strategically frame the shot to capture the rest of the lights in the background. In a lot of cases, a series of three or four pictures of smaller sets of lights can be more compelling than a single wide shot of the whole scene.

Go Out Before Sunset

You might imagine that the best time to take pictures of Christmas lights is at night. While it’s true that you can’t take pictures of lights at noon, you’re also probably better off not waiting until it is pitch black outside. It turns out that Christmas lights actually look pretty cool just after sunset, while there is still some light in the sky.

I think the reason this works so well is because it illuminates the existing buildings and trees. This frames the picture within its environment. One thing that I think is great about Christmas lights is that they transform the mundane things around us into cool light displays, so it’s neat to capture that in a picture.

Capture The Movement

Sometimes a picture isn’t quite enough to capture the exciting parts of a light display. While I normally prefer steady-lit lights, sometimes blinking lights can add a little extra to the scene. This is a perfect opportunity to take an animated photo. I especially like doing this with lights that blink in a repeating sequence so that the animation can be looped. It makes for a cool effect that captures the viewer’s attention.

If you’re using an iPhone, make sure to check out my previous post on Live Photos for more advice on using that feature. On Android, you can use the Google Motion Stills app for a similar effect.

Avoid The Flash

This is a rule I try to always follow with smartphone photography, but it bears repeating for Christmas light pictures: don’t use the flash! There are a few situations where it can be helpful, but in the vast majority of cases it will take more away from the picture than it will add. If you’re taking pictures of lights, it’s generally better to try to use those lights to illuminate the photo.

If you normally leave your flash on the Auto setting, you’ll probably find that it fires for some of your Christmas light pictures because of the dark environment. You’ll want to explicitly turn the flash off to prevent it from triggering unexpectedly. Instead, if you find that you need close-up illumination for a picture (for example, if you’re taking a portrait in front of a light display), try positioning your subject near an existing source of light. My favorite way to do this is to have the subject stand near a Christmas light-wrapped tree or building. The lights are already there, so you might as well use them!

Control the Exposure

Most smartphone cameras these days are great at automatically adjusting their settings to take a well-lit picture, but sometimes Christmas lights can throw them off. When I frame a picture and tap on the lights to focus and set the exposure, I’ll sometimes notice that the picture either seems way too bright or way too dark. Pictures of lights should be bright but not washed out, so you may need to manually control the camera exposure.

This is easy to do on iOS–when you tap on the camera to focus, you’ll see a small slider with a sun icon appear next to the focus crosshair. You can drag this slider up and down to increase or decrease the exposure, and immediately see the effect it has on the picture. Most Android camera apps have similar features. Play around with it and see how it affects the photo, and then take the shot when it looks well-lit.

Go Take Some Pictures!

The holiday season is a great time to go out and get more experience with your smartphone camera, so I’d challenge you to charge your phone and go find some Christmas lights to take pictures of. Try out these tips and see what you think of the results. I think you’ll be impressed at what the phone in your pocket is capable of.

If you do use these tips and take some cool light pictures, I’d love to see them! Mention me in a tweet with your favorites!

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