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So, when it comes to taking portraits with Christmas lights, you’re probably looking for something like this:

caption: Image courtesy of Shots by Edith Lowe

Now, this isn’t a portrait strictly speaking, but it beautifully captures the elements we look for in portraits with Christmas lights, so let’s examine what you can do to make photos and portraits like this successful.

Accounting For The Christmas Lights

Generally speaking, when you take photos the background of the photo is not typically a light source in and of itself. Instead, generally speaking, the background of your photo is typically lit by the same light source that is lighting up the main subject of your photo.

This will not work with Christmas lights because the Christmas lights are their own light source, and because Christmas lights are actually pretty dim.

Because of this you have to optimize the environment you are shooting in, as well as your camera settings, to capture those Christmas lights.

To optimize the environment you are shooting in:

  1. Turn off any/all other lighting in the room you are shooting in. This will keep the room lighting from overwhelming the Christmas lights
  2. Plan the portraits in the evening, as sunlight shining into the room can easily overwhelm the Christmas lights. (If you’re shooting in a space with no windows/no exposure to sunlight, you can shoot anytime)

These two steps will insure that the Christmas lights provide the only ambient light in the scene.

Once the environment is optimized, you’ll need to set your camera settings to capture the Christmas lights, and you can do this using the I Am Shooting method (if you don’t know what this is, this video explains)

Because the Christmas lights are pretty dim, I can give you some general guidance on this.

  1. You’re going to want a higher ISO. I’d suggest starting at 800 or 1600
  2. You’re going to want a large aperture opening, (which means a small aperture setting). I’d suggest the lowest aperture setting available on your lens. (This setting serves us in also helping to create the blurred/bokeh look of the lights in the background.)
  3. Even with the higher ISO and largest possible aperture, you’re going to have to use a slower shutter speed. Once your ISO and aperture is set, use the exposure indicator to guide you in setting your shutter speed. Start by bringing the exposure indicator to 0, and then evaluate how the exposure of the lights looks. If it’s too bright, you can adjust to something like -1 to let in less light. If they’re not bright enough, you can adjust to something like +1 to let in more light.

A Couple Of Notes On The Shutter Speed

It’s likely to be pretty slow, and if you can, try to keep the shutter speed in the neighborhood of 1/30th of a second. It doesn’t have to be exactly 1/30th, but keeping it around that will help prevent blur from the movement of your subject showing up in the photo.

If you are finding your shutter speed is a lot slower than 1/30th, you may need to increase your ISO. My suggestion of 800 or 1600 is just a suggestion, and if you increase your ISO further, you can then use a faster shutter speed while maintaining your desired exposure.

Finally, I absolutely recommend using a tripod for these photos to help prevent additional blur form camera shake.

Now, with your ambient exposure set, we can move on to the portrait subject.

Lighting The Subject

At this point, if you just drop a subject in front of your Christmas lights and take a photo, you’ll find you have an okay photo of some Christmas lights with a dark silhouette of your subject.

Remember, you’re used to having the ambient light of a scene light your subject as well as your background. In this situation, we’ve removed all ambient light other than the Christmas lights, and being both dim, and behind the subject, means these lights are not sufficient to light our portrait subject.

What that means is we need another light source to light up the portrait subject. For this you have two options.

You can use a flash, or you can use some kind of other constant light source.

Which path you take is entirely up to you, so I’ll lay out some recommendations for both paths, starting with a constant light source.

Lighting Your Subject With A Constant Light Source

If you use a constant source, it’ll be helpful to have someone help you hold the light(s) in place.

If you use a constant light source, I’d actually recommend a bundle of more Christmas lights! This is great because it helps add to the ambiance and mood that you’re trying to create, and you’ve already got your camera settings optimized for the exposure.

You could use a strand of color lights, or if you wanted a cleaner look on your subject, a white light strand.

Whether you use color or white light, I recommend bunching the lights up loosely into a ball, and then positioning them close to your subject to light their face. Have the person holding the lights move them until you are happy with the exposure and direction of the light on your subject, and then take your photos!

If you don’t want to use Christmas Lights as your constant light source, just about any lamp or light will do, ideally in some kind of shade to diffuse the light, although you could bounce the light off of a piece of foam board to diffuse it.

What you’ll do is set up the lamp (or have your helper hold it) in position to light the subject so that you’re happy with the direction and the exposure on the subject, and then take your photos!

Important Notes On Adjusting The Exposure Of Your Subject Light

In either case, an important note is not to adjust your camera settings to adjust the exposure of the light on your subject, because changing your camera settings will change the exposure of the Christmas lights. Instead, move the light closer to your subject to make it brighter, or farther away to make it darker.

Lighting Your Subject With A Flash

If lighting your subject with a flash, I HIGHLY recommend using off camera flash. If you are planning to light your subject with a flash on your camera, the results you get will not match up with what I am describing or what you are expectiing. Not only will the light be unflattering on yoru portrait subject, but it will wash out and over power the Christmas lights in the background.

If your only flash option is an on camera flash, I recommend lighting your subject with a constant light source.

If you use a flash, set your flash up on a light stand. Ideally you’ll have a softbox for your light, but in a pinch you can use an umbrella. I don’t recommend use a bare flash as the light will be harsh and will not match the mood you are trying to create with Christmas lights.

The softbox serves two purposes.

  1. It diffuses the light to give a softer look to match the Christmas lights and mood
  2. It contains the flash to keep the light from the flash from overwhelming the Christmas lights.

Once you have your flash set up on the light stand with the modifier, position it quite close to your subject.

Having the flash close to your subject does a few things for us as well.

  1. It allows you to use a lower power on the flash, which will help keep the flash from overwhelming the Christmas lights
  2. It makes it so that what light from the flash does get into the background has so little power that it won’t affect the Christmas lights.
  3. It increases the size of the light relative to the subject, which makes the light softer

Once you have your light positioned where you want it, adjust the power of the flash as needed until you are happy with the exposure, and then take your photos!

Important Additional Notes For Capturing The Photo

Where you position your subject in relation to the Christmas lights is also important.

You want the Christmas lights to show up in the photo, but you also want them to have that beautiful out of focus/bokeh look.

The best approach is to have your subject positioned some distance from the tree/Christmas lights in the background. At least a few feet away, five or six feet away is even better (at least 1 meter, 2 meters is even beter)

I do not recommend taking full length portraits. You’ll want to shoot tight/close up portraits. Head shots, or head and shoulders. The reason for this is keeping the out of focus/bokeh of the Christmas lights. The more of your subject you include in the photo, the farther away from them you have to be; and the farther away from the subject you are, the greater your depth of field will be, making it more likely that the Christmas lights will come in to focus instead of being out of focus.

So shoot tighter, getting closer to your subject. You can also use a telephoto lens to help with this be getting closer to your subject optically, but be careful with a telephoto lens as you may experience more blur in your photos due to the length of the lens.

Now, with all of that explained, you should be able to look at Edith’s photo again, and see how she implemented what I just explained. In addition to the photo, I’m now also including the details of her photo for you.


ISO 800, f2.8, 1/13
Canon 80D
100mm f2.8 macro lens (so she could get very close to the subject)
Godox AD200 flash in a gridded octabox set to 1/32 power

Now, take this and take some damn Christmas lights portraits!
P.S. I’d love to see your Christmas lights portraits! Feel free to send me some!