I thought it would be fun to take an in-depth look at the best ways to take photos of those holiday lights. You can use these tips over and over again, whether you’re shooting Hanukkah, Christmas, or New Year’s events.
Get the right gear
When you head outdoors to shoot some holiday lights, make sure your camera is ready. You can get good results with almost any sort of camera (you don’t need a digital SLR), but I recommend using a tripod. Nighttime exposures are always somewhat slow, and it’s just not possible to freeze the action when the shutter is open for a whole second.
If you don’t have a tripod, consider propping the camera on top of a bean bag (or a bean bag-like gadget, such as The Pod). Bean bags are handy because they conform to the shape of the camera as well as to the shape of whatever you’re placing the camera on.
When to Shoot
The typical shots of holiday lights—the ones you see all the time—are taken at night, long after the sun is gone and the background is in total darkness. In these photos, the lights are bursting, and the background is completely black. The result has little context, and no drama. These photos aren’t bad, but they lack a certain vitality.
The remedy? Shoot shortly after sunset, when you still have some light in the sky.
Set up in front of the lighting display at least half an hour before the sky goes totally dark. You should be able to see the display lights, but they should be fighting the natural light in the sky.
Get the right exposure
One last thing to consider before you start shooting is the exposure settings. If your camera lets you adjust the white balance, you should set it to Tungsten or Incandescent. Either of these settings will give you a richer, bluer sky as well as better lights.
You can leave the camera on its automatic setting. But if your camera supports manual settings, adjust aperture and shutter speed separately. Try starting with an aperture of f/8 and a half second shutter speed. To change the overall exposure, open the shutter longer (for a brighter scene) or shorter (for less exposure). To make the strings of holiday lights brighter and more dramatic, open the aperture (move to a smaller number, like f/4).
Frame the scene
Getting to the scene early enough is more than half the battle. Start taking some photos, and check the results. As the sky darkens, you’ll start to hit a sweet spot in which the background sets a dramatic tone for your photos but the lighting takes over the foreground and becomes the protagonist of your scene. Be sure to take a lot of photos and try a number of different angles—regardless, you’re guaranteed to get some great photos if you “go wide” and include a lot of sky.