A step-by-step tutorial to photograph Christmas tree lights and candlelight at night to capture your home and decor in the holidays.
Every year when I share our home’s Christmas candlelight tour as our ongoing holiday tradition from the past 7 years, I usually get a lot of questions about how I photograph Christmas tree lights at night.
I’m by no means a photography expert (much of what I do know about photographing interiors at night I learned from my amazingly talented friend Rachel Pax from Maison de Pax).
Photographing our home in candlelight and lamp light used to feel like an impossible task, but now it has become one of my favorite opportunities to get creative with the camera.
So I’m passing along a few tricks to you if you want to learn how to photograph your own home in Christmas candlelight.
How to Photograph Christmas Lights at Night
I mostly use my DSLR camera or mirrorless camera when shooting night photography, but especially lately since mobile photography capability has gotten more advanced, you definitely don’t need a big “fancy” camera to take beautiful candlelight photos.
(Tips on how to use both are later in this post.)
Mobile vs DSLR or Mirrorless Camera
A DSLR or mirrorless camera is the better choice in this lighting situation as photos will appear sharper with more depth and less grain than a mobile phone. I used a Canon DSLR 6D camera body and Canon 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens for this shot below.
For mobile photography, I use an iPhone 13 Max Pro.
But no matter what sort of camera you use, these tips will help.
How to Set Up the Best Lighting
Turn Off All Overhead Lighting
You want to remove mostly all light sources except for string lights and candles before shooting. I sometimes turn on a small lamp (especially if I have a lamp on a dimmer switch), but most of the time lamps can ruin the magical twinkle effect.
Have At Least Two Small Light Sources in a Room
It helps to have two light sources at minimum slightly spread out in a room, usually a set of string lights and a candle source.
If I’m photographing a Christmas tree, I like to have a candle lit on the dining table or coffee table in front of the tree to illuminate the rest of the room a little bit.
(See how the shadows appear on the wall to the left of the photo below? That’s because a set of candles are glowing right beside the staircase on the entryway table to create that shadow cast and add depth.)
Tools to Help
No matter whether you’re using a camera or mobile phone, always turn off the flash mode.
Use a Tripod and/or Remote
Cameras and mobile phones can both benefit from the use of a tripod in low light settings because it eliminates camera shake and helps your photos appear crisp and clear.
To reduce camera shake even further, set up a 2 second timer for each shot or use a remote button.
If you don’t have a tripod, keep it as steady as possible by bracing your arms under the phone and tucking your elbows into your sides to reduce camera shake.
Keep a Spare Strand of String Lights Handy
If needed in very dark situations, plug in a spare strand of string lights to place just out of view of your camera lens to help add extra light in the shadows.
Try to squat down a little when shooting the room to get the ceiling and floor equally in the frame. Photograph your Christmas tree from different angles, shoot overhead and level to objects on table tops, and have fun trying out different looks with your framing.
How to Photograph Christmas Tree Lights With an iPhone
Since I’ve only ever used an iPhone, I don’t have much advice for Android mobile phone users, but some of these tips can still apply to any mobile photography.
I have an iPhone 13 Max Pro because I really love the camera lens options and Cinematic settings. However, older models can work beautifully as well.
Mobile Photography Settings
To capture the best quality, always shoot your mobile photos using the iPhone camera app, not through other third party apps like Instagram, Snapchat, etc.
Switch On Night Mode
This capability is only available on iPhone models 12, 13, 14, and the telephoto/wide lenses on iPhone 11.
- Open the Camera app and look for the moon icon in the top left corner (top right in landscape orientation)
- If it’s grayed out, it’s available to use, but not auto-enabled
- If it’s yellow, Night mode is auto-enabled
- Tap the moon icon to manually adjust the exposure time
- Hold your iPhone still as you take your Night mode shot. (The moon icon will show how long the exposure will be for each shot, and a countdown will appear just above the shutter button.)
Manually Adjust Exposure
- Open the Camera app.
- Frame your shot on the screen.
- Tap the spot on the screen that you want to focus. A yellow box will appear around that spot in the photo.
- Tap the arrow (^) at the top of your screen.
- A menu will appear below your Shutter button. Tap the plus and minus icon.
- Swipe left and right to adjust exposure. Swiping to the left will make your photo brighter, swiping right will make it darker.
If you want to make sure your exposure and focus stay how you set them and don’t auto-adjust with light changes or movement, long press on the yellow box around the focus of your shot. AE/AF LOCK will appear at the top of your screen, letting you know those settings are locked.
To undo this, tap anywhere else on the screen.
Take Close-Ups in Portrait Mode for Bokeh Effect
If you have an iPhone with Portrait Mode, switch to using it from your regular mobile photo lens to get that dreamy bokeh effect to blur backgrounds on objects up close. (See below.)
How to Photograph Christmas Lights With a DSLR/Mirrorless
If you have a DSLR camera or mirrorless camera, it is so worth lugging it out to photograph Christmas lights versus just sticking with your mobile phone.
There are so many more possibilities for creative freedom with exposures, focus, and depth.
DSLR / Mirrorless Camera Settings
Shoot in manual mode if you’re up to the challenge so that you have total control over the overall look of your candlelight photos.
The same rules apply as before:
- Use a tripod and remote/timer to reduce camera shake
- Turn off all overhead lights and lamps
- Try out different positions to shoot at different angles
I mostly stick to two different camera settings to photograph Christmas lights close up with a dreamy, blurry background effect or wide full room shots with everything focused and sharp. I’ll show you how to do both.
Camera Settings for Photographing a Wide Full Room at Night
Aperture – Set it at f/10 or higher so the entire room is in focus and lights on the tree look like stars.
ISO – Set the ISO between 100 – 400 to reduce graininess in the dark setting.
Shutter Speed – Set the shutter speed according to the exposure on your meter.
I shoot slightly underexposed in Christmas nighttime settings so that string lights aren’t too bright and blown out to retain that soft glow effect. I often have to set my shutter to as long as 30 seconds to take one photo to let in as much light as possible. A long shutter like that is only possible with a tripod.
Auto White Balance – I stick to auto white balance usually since adjusting lighting in candlelight can be tricky from room to room.
Here is our breakfast nook below with those same camera settings. See how the candle flames and garland lights look like little stars? That’s the effect from a small aperture (high f stop number) and everything else in the room is in focus.
Camera Settings for Photographing Close-Ups with a Blurry Background at Night
Aperture – Set it between f/1.8 and f/4.0 so the item in the foreground is in focus and the lights on the tree in the background are blurry (known as bokeh).
ISO – Set the ISO between 100 – 400 to reduce graininess in the dark setting.
Shutter Speed – Set the shutter speed according to the exposure on your meter. Since the aperture is much wider (small f stop number) to let in more light, you can use a slightly faster shutter speed than full room shots.
Here are the same close-up camera settings below focusing on the candlesticks on our breakfast nook table blurring the back wall.
Editing Candlelight and Christmas Light Photos
You can balance out lighting a little better in editing by darkening highlights and brightening shadows. I usually tweak exposure, contrast, and white balance a bit and that’s it.
That it! That’s my process.
I’m always still learning, always growing. I don’t know everything, but challenging myself little by little with a camera over the past 15-20 years has been the perfect creative outlet to express myself without needing words.
It’s the perfect pastime to have as a stay-at-home mom and a skill to carry you all through life.
If you’re a mom and at the end of the day you don’t have any words left but still need a creative outlet, photography is the perfect way to do that.
There is no limit to all you can learn in photography, and I think the beauty of art itself is there are always new ways to express yourself, even if it’s just clicking a button to document your family or your home.
I can’t draw or paint art worth a lick, but I can click a button. 😉
So I guess count this as my official “signing off” for the holiday season.
I am so thankful for you and read every single one of your comments/messages/emails and nearly a decade after starting this blog, I still can’t believe the blessing of sharing our family’s journey with you.
Wishing you joyful Christmas and restorative New Year!
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” John 1:5