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.
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.
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!
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.