2018-12-05

Christmas Lights Photo Ideas | Tips and Settings

Reindeer - Christmas Lights Photo tips and techniques - Ashley Laurence


Think of Christmas and no doubt you'll think of roast dinner, mulled wine, and perhaps the odd family argument over what to watch next on the box. This year though, ask us to think of Christmas, and we’d say… ‘bokeh’!

For a few weeks of the year, villages, town and city centres all over the country present photographers with the opportunity to photography familiar scenes in a whole new light… We look at how to make the most of the Christmas lights, with some practical tips on settings.



Capture the tones


As we recently discovered on our cityscape walk, shooting urban scenes around sunset lets you capture colour tones that will lend your photographs a professional feel.

‘Blue hour’ (the hour before sunrise and after sunset) throws some incredible cool, blue tones into the sky, and picks up on wet or reflective surfaces (puddles or glass buildings).

When the daylight drops, buildings and festive lights come to life and become more prominent against the cool blue sky.

Brighton Laines - Christmas Lights Photo tips and techniques - Ashley Laurence



Note that if you leave it until after ‘blue hour’ then you’ll lose detail in everything but the lights as it will be too dark. The warm and cool tones are opposites on the colour wheel so naturally complement each other, so timing is key here. Blue hour also passes very quickly, so as always we'd reccomend planning ahead - know the composition you want

Leave the flash at home


Unless you are delicately bouncing flash to add detail to a portrait, using flash is a no go. This is because it kills the soft glows from festive lights that you can achieve through a longer shutter speed. A tripod can be handy, although we managed to hand-hold the majority of shots in this blog.

Shooting in RAW is also greatly beneficial as you can adjust the white balance after. We’d suggest taking Auto White Balance off, and adjusting as you shoot depending on the warmth of the lights (start at 5600K, review and adjust).

You’ll also get best results using a wide aperture and a camera with a good dynamic range.

View of Kensington Street, Brighton - Christmas Lights Photo tips and techniques - Ashley Laurence


Locations for Christmas Lights


The beauty of festive lights is that they are only here for a short while – so get snapping while you can! Everyday scenes will be transformed – pop these images on the front of a Christmas card and you’ll have no complaints!

Ice Skating at Brighton Dome - Christmas Lights Photo tips and techniques - Ashley Laurence


Suggestions for good locations to photograph festive lights:

  • Shopping areas with overhead lights. Brighton Laines or Covent Garden in London both have fantastic examples of Christmas lighting. Don’t forget to Google!
  • Christmas markets
  • Lantern Festivals (such as Wakehurst place)
  • Your own house!

Explore with Bokeh


If you are in fact a bit of a scrooge and don’t fancy a festive theme to your image, then firstly – well done for reading this far! Secondly – festive lights arguably make better backdrops than they do subjects, so are the perfect way to add interest to the background of your images.

Portrait Ron Timehin - Leadenhall Market - Christmas Lights Photo tips and techniques - Ashley Laurence


Bokeh works exceptionally well as a backdrop for portraits, giving you a crisp subject with a soft, diffused background.

Kensington Gardens - Brighton - Christmas Lights Photo tips and techniques - Ashley Laurence


Bokeh can also be to blur out foreground and add extra layers to the image - it combines with leading lines in the image above to draw the eye into the scenes in the street.

It can also be used creatively – try entirely defocusing an image if you’re feeling adventurous.

Bokeh - Leadenhall market - Christmas Lights Photo tips and techniques - Ashley Laurence


Long Exposure



Time to get the tripod out! A long exposure with Christmas lights will let you get the maximum ‘glow’ from the Christmas lights.

But don’t stop there – think about how to make the most of your long exposure – a static figure while crowds move around them will make for a striking image, and light trails from moving traffic always adds an extra element to your image.


Long Exposure - Brighton Clocktower - Christmas Lights Photo tips and techniques - Ashley Laurence


Add human interest to add narrative 


One of the first rules of photography is to either have a clear subject, or use techniques such as leading lines to draw the viewer in if your image is of the landscape / cityscape nature.

With the shot below, we knew that the setting would make for a good picture - plenty of lights, and reflections from the puddles. However, it was missing a subject - until we noticed the the girl in the red coat standing there with her umbrella. this adds an element of intrigue - is she waiting for someone, admiring the view - or simply on the phone? (We never found out by the way, as she walked off seconds after this was taken!)

Christmas Lights - Covent Garden - London - Christmas Lights Photo tips and techniques - Ashley Laurence

In Summary - our top Christmas light photo tips:


  1. Capture the tones 
  2. Leave the flash at home
  3. Scout locations
  4. Play with bokeh
  5. Try long exposures
  6. Add people to the mix
So there we go - we hope you've found these tips useful - tag us on our Instagram page using #parkcameras with your favourite winter scenes!


Images by Ashley Laurence.

Our Kit:

Sony a9
Sony 50mm f/1.4
Sony 16-35mm f/2.8
Canon 5D MK III
Canon 24-70mm f/2.8
Canon 50mm f/1.4

You may also like these blogs:

How to take photographs in the snow
Tips for Cityscape Photography -  Photographing London with Ron Timehin
Tips for capturing amazing autumn colours