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How To Take Good Pictures: Christmas Lights, Birthday Candles and More

Some of you asked for Christmas light photography tips, and I really meant to get this post done before Christmas, but I didn’t. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the skills necessary for Christmas light photography are useful throughout the year. The principles that work for Christmas lights work for birthday cake shots, firework shots, and many other low-light shots.

So, I’m putting this post up now, and I’ll try to remember to refer you all back to it when Christmas rolls around.

(did you want me to say Christmas a few more times??)

In order to explain how to take pictures of these tricky subjects, I’m going to have to go over some (slightly boring) camera basics. Bear with me here…I promise I will get practical in a minute!

Shutter Speed

Cameras require a certain amount of light in order to take a good picture. The light is let into your camera when the shutter is open, and the length of time your shutter needs to stay open varies depending on the available light.

If you’re outside during daylight hours, or if you use a flash, your shutter won’t need to stay open very long at all. But if you’re inside, or outside while it’s dark and you’re not using a flash, your shutter will need to stay open longer in order to let enough light into your camera.

Why not just use flash, and make sure your picture has enough light? Flash, unless it’s a bounce flash or off-camera flash, really ruins pictures of Christmas lights, birthday candles, and other such subjects. It sucks the magical glow right out of the scene. Because little light is available in these sort of situations, your camera will think that it needs to use the flash, so you’ll have to manually turn it off.

So, since flash isn’t a good option, for all the low-light situations I’ve mentioned above, your camera’s shutter will need to stay open for a while (this is called a slow shutter speed) so that enough light will get into your camera.

How do you adjust shutter speed? That’ll depend on your camera. If you have a point and shoot camera, it will likely adjust the shutter speed for you (in a dark situation, it’ll pick a slower shutter speed). And fancier point and shoots usually have a shutter speed control…you’ll have to read your manual to figure out how to adjust it.

Slow Shutter Speed and Blur

“Great!”, you may be thinking. “This is totally easy. I’ll just use a slow shutter speed and snap away.”

And it would be easy, except that it’s really hard to hold your camera still enough to get a sharp picture when your shutter is open for a second or two. Actually, it’s hard to hold your camera still for even half a second!

So, you’ll need some camera-holding assistance to be successful at this. A tripod is an obvious choice, but since this series is about improving your photography without spending a bunch of money, here are a few other options. (I actually use my tripod only rarely, just because I am sort of lazy like that!).

  • Use a piece of furniture.

For birthday cake shots, I usually set my camera on the table or a counter. Just find a flat surface in spot that will let you get the shot, press the shutter button down (that’s the button that takes the picture!) and hold it until the camera is finished taking the picture. Even the slight action of taking your finger off the shutter button could cause your camera to move, and that’ll give you a blurry picture.

  • Use a stack of books

This is a handy idea when a piece of furniture isn’t available, or when the furniture is the wrong height. You can stack books up on the floor, or on top of a piece of furniture that is too short.

When I wanted to take a picture of my Christmas boxes, I made a small pile of library books, placed my camera on top, and shot away.

Subject Movement

It should be noted that a slow shutter speed is usually only useful if you are photographing objects that don’t move. Christmas trees are immobile, so as long as your camera stays still, you’ll get a sharp picture. However, people, especially children, do move, so even if you hold your camera still, it’s highly unlikely that your subject (a person) will stay still long enough for a sharp picture.

Sometimes, though, subject movement works really well with a slow shutter speed. Fireworks do not stay still, but that’s ok, because their movement creates a neat effect as long as your camera is not moving.

So, come Memorial Day and July 4th, turn off your flash, slow down your shutter speed, and find a steady surface for your camera.

To sum it all up, when you need to take pictures of low-light, inanimate objects, turn off your flash, use a slow shutter speed, and use something to hold your camera steady.

I hope that all made sense! If it didn’t, please feel free to ask for clarification!

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Stacey Dollar

Friday 21st of June 2013

Hello, I really enjoyed reading this article. It is very well put. I have a DSLR Nikon D7000. Although I do understand the exposure triangle and have taken some amazing shots, I am still learning, especially with various lens types. One thing that I have been doing recently is using manual mode. While I take good shots using things for a tripod in slower shutter speeds and shots of still people, I am trying to figure out a good setting for indoor low light with moving objects. Could you make any suggestions for those candid shots where there is slight movement? For example, an indoor situation where a child is opening gifts. I would love to hear your ideas/tips. Thanks again!


Wednesday 21st of November 2012

Adjust your settings alot when you are out in the dark night at Christmas to get those beautiful photos and bump the ISO up and use a will be amazed at the colors you will see in your pictures........also be patient and take the time to make them so to avoid bad photos.


Sunday 24th of January 2010

thanks so much! can't wait to try it.

Don Alsop

Friday 22nd of January 2010

Thank you for the great suggestions above. A genealogists dream is to walk into an older relatives home and find some wonderful family phostos. Some of the better ones will be in frames. How can I take good copies of them without taking them out of the frame or even off of the wall? The camera is a CASIO EX-2750.


Monday 25th of January 2010

What Ben said, since I don't know the first thing about this. I'm TERRIBLE at taking pictures of pictures if they are behind plastic or glass. The best way to make copies of pictures is to scan them, but that requires removing them from the frames. I hope that you have some success with Ben's tips, though.


Monday 25th of January 2010

Macro setting, tripod and a good light source. Probably want to avoid flash and find something that you can setup at angles so you won't get reflected glare in your shot. In a pinch you could setup some lamps, or use a big sheet of poster board to bounce light from a window. If you're really serious about this you might want to get a digital SLR a macro lens and a couple studio lights.


Friday 22nd of January 2010

On point-and-shoot (P&S) cameras, you can usually turn off the flash, and then pick an appropriate ISO setting (light sensitivity) which should force the camera to pick a long shutter speed. I have a cheap Nikon P&S that will let me do that, and I know most Canon P&S cameras will as well. For your Christmas light shots I might try ISO 400 and no flash on a P&S and see what I get.

Also another nice tip for those long exposure shots is to use the camera's built-in timer, so that you can take your hands off the camera. Even with the camera on a stable rest (books, tripod, etc.) your hands will introduce some jitter. By using the self timer (or a remove shutter release, which costs a little $) you can get rid of another source of jitter.

Lastly, if you don't want to buy a flash, but want the effect of a bounce flash, a 3x5 index card held in front of your DSLR's pop-up flash at an angle can give you some of the same effect.


Friday 22nd of January 2010

Oooh, I'll have to try the 3x5 card trick. I don't have a bounce flash, and since I use flash so infrequently, I'm loathe to spend the money on one (I'd rather get more glass! lol).

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