I adore Christmas lights. Like, adore. I love driving down my street and seeing everyone's own Christmas light masterpiece. I don't know what it is, twinkling lights are just magical. I hope I wasn't the only kid who would just sit on the floor staring at her Christmas tree growing up. I remember hiding between our tree and the window so my parents wouldn't know I was still there, basking in the glow of Christmas :) I'm sure everyone outside on the street was amused.
It's time for a very exciting lesson. I know you're just like me and you've been seeing all these Instagrams lately of everyone's beautifully lit Christmas trees and houses. Some of them even used a flash to take those pictures. It probably made you as sad as it made me. But it's not their fault. They don't know any better. And let's face it, they probably just whipped out their smartphone and pressed click.
But if you want a picture of your Christmas lights that really highlights your Christmas lights in all their Christmasy glory (can y'all tell what my favorite time of year is yet?), then hopefully I can help you out with some of these tips. It will be easier with an SLR but you can push a point and shoot camera to do some amazing things. I know, I made my own flash diffuser for mine in college. Scotch tape was involved.
Anyway. Here we go.
Okay, so I think the #1 thing people want to know is how to get the awesome blurred out Christmas lights like the ones above. There's something extra festive and confetti-like about them and it's actually really easy to do, especially if you happen to own any lenses with a low aperture. This is as simple as NOT focusing on the tree itself. In the picture on the left, I focused on my lovely holiday candles and made sure the tree was in the background of the picture. My camera's aperture was low at f/2.0. You can put your camera on aperture priority (or Av mode) if you're not up for manual yet. The picture on the right, I literally just manually adjusted my lens til the picture was out of focus enough and took the picture.
The same principle is being used here in a close up. In the top picture my aperture is set to f/13. In the bottom picture, it's at f/1.4. These are the only real differences between the pictures. Yes, I had to compensate with higher ISO and slower shutter speed in the top picture, so the settings are not the same. But it's the aperture that determines whether you get that pretty background bokeh (that smooth, blurred out look) or not.
Okay, so maybe you're not trying to do a close up and you just want an awesome shot of your Christmas tree that showcases those lovely lights you painstakingly applied. In this case, you want to make your aperture HIGHER and your shutter speed lower. The two tree pictures below demonstrate the difference.
In the picture on the left my settings were f/3.2, 1/60 sec, ISO 4000. My aperture was low and my shutter speed was fast enough that I could handhold my camera to take this picture. But unless you have a professional level camera, your ISO probably can't go much higher than 3200, so even doing this won't be very effective.
The picture on the right really makes the Christmas lights sparkle and, in my opinion, looks much better. My settings were f/13, 0.8 sec, ISO 2000. I definitely can't keep my camera from shaking for almost an entire second, so I used a tripod for this picture. If you don't have a tripod, just find something solid to brace your camera on (a chair or wall). It might take a few tries, but you can do it.
I realized that a proper tutorial would have been done at night, so I took another picture when it got dark outside, so there was less ambient light around and I had to make my shutter speed even slower! In this picture (above) my settings were f/22, 4.0 sec, ISO 1600. Yes, a FOUR SECOND shutter speed. The tripod was definitely needed. But look at the sparkly loveliness. If you wanted the picture a little brighter, you could slow it down even more, but then you'd risk the lights getting TOO bright and really overshadowing the tree itself.
And yes, I only have one package under my Christmas tree right now. I'm working on it.
That's about it. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments!