Christmas Lights Tutorial | San Francisco Bay Area Photographer


In the past few weeks I’ve received many emails asking me how I created THIS image that has been making the rounds all over Pinterest.  After answering a few of these emails it dawned on me that it might be more efficient if I wrote one single blog post instead!  So here it is!


First off, this was a last minute idea that was concocted by lots of trial and error with no professional lights, just sources scavenged from around the house,  but hopefully this will at least give you an idea of where to start when you tackle your own Christmas lights portrait.

This was taken last Thanksgiving while my sister and her family were here visiting.  We were all sitting around at my mom’s house blissfully full after a delicious dinner talking about what they would wear for their holiday session that we’d be shooting the following day. Somehow I got the crazy idea that a night time shot of them with Christmas lights would be very cool.  Since this was a spur-of-the-moment idea, I didn’t have any of my lighting equipment with me, just my camera and a reflector in my car.  So the first thing I had to do was create some light sources.  We headed out to the backyard, about 10 yards away from the windows lining the back of the house.  We turned on all the lights in the house for maximum light.  My mom had a beautiful white flocked tree in her living room with lots of white lights so we drug it out to the backyard and plugged it in and set it behind and to the side of where they would be standing.  I thought this might act as a quasi softbox.

Christmas lights tutorial

We took a few test shots and found we needed quite a bit more light to get the settings on my camera balanced enough to work.  So we brought two table lamps out and set them on top of chairs on either side of the family.  The light was a little harsh so I placed a white pillow case on top of one lamp and a reflector in front of the other.

Christmas lights tutorial

Better, but still not ideal.  With the help of several long extension cords, we then strung several strands of white lights along the ground around the family to illuminate from the ground up.

Christmas lights tutorial

Finally we had enough light that the ISO wasn’t ridiculously high, the  shutter speed wasn’t ridiculously slow and the aperture wasn’t impossible.   I found that the light was better when they kneeled close to the lights on the ground.  So we took several shots like that.  Since those little lights were a great source of illumination, we then gathered the family close together and wrapped them up in the strings of lights.  That ended up to be our favorite shot.    The white Christmas tree helped with the light but was distracting in the final image so I removed it in PS.

Christmas lights tutorial

So my settings ended up being:

Nikon D700

SS 1/60


ISO 1600

Here are a few more from that night.

Christmas lights tutorial

With a little more planning and better lighting equipment,  this could have been easier but we had fun trying to figure it out.  If you attempt to create your own, I would love to see it!  Be sure to post a link in the comments and I’ll stop by and take a look.

And PLEASE don’t try this with babies or infants!  Aside from the danger of electric shock, Christmas lights almost always contain lead.  Please keep Christmas lights away from little ones.  

Good luck!

Paula - This is so great!! love!!! Thanks for showing us the secrets behind the curtain!

Nichole Blackham - Love this!!! Love the idea and the colors! You are very talented and it looks like you had a fun bunch to photograph! Way to go Wendy!!!!

Mindy - so fun! I’m surprised with f/2 some subjects weren’t a little soft? And surprised that your ISO was only as high as 1600. I had no idea about the lead in xmas lights, thank you! This would make such a fun card!

Tammy Bilodeau - Thanks so much for the “behind the scenes” shots. It’s so helpful when trying to do something similar. I love all of these, so festive and fun. :)

Ellie Augustin - I just emailed my Hubby to see if he can find me battery Operated batteries Christmas lights I know he’s saying oh gosh there she goes again w/insane ideas Ha.. I LOOOOOVE THIS and have to try it w/my family thanks so much for the idea :)

Kristine - What a fabulous idea. I’m so doing this! So whimsical. love love. thanks for the idea!

Amanda - I’ve been wanting to do something different for Christmas mini sessions this year and THIS is it! I already went out and got all the props and I’m going to have coffee, hot chocolate, and goodies for everyone. My hubby and I tested everything out last night so the mini sessions are next Sunday! Thank you SO very much for being willing to share an amazing idea. I can’t wait to share this with my other photog friends here in the area!!

Liz - We are trying to do this tonight! I’m so excited! Thanks for sharing!

Amanda -

Just a few of the sessions I did the other night. Thank you a million times over for the idea and help/tips! Everyone loved it!!

Tina - You have a ridiculously good looking family that they could just say “Sure! Let’s do a photo shoot post-gorge, no problem!” This is a fantastic set of shots and I’m always looking for a better way to do low light shots. Thanks for the inspiration!

Tiffany - Thanks for the information. I love the look and hope to get something similar from my family tonight.

Jenna - Thank you so much for sharing this tutorial! It’s so helpful!

PS – I live in AR now but I’m from Pleasanton! Small world!

101 Creative Christmas Card Ideas - The Dating Divas - […] Sources: {A} {B} {C} {D} {E} {F} […]

101 Creative Christmas Card Ideas - […] Sources: {A} {B} {C} {D} {E} {F} […]

Dave - Photogenic is right.More pics of the guy in the green sweater, please!

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