5 Tips to Shooting Subjects in Front of Christmas Lights This Holiday


The holidays present a unique lighting challenge for any photographer. The ubiquitous picture of a subject in front of a Christmas tree can pose a tremendous challenge for even the most seasoned photographers. Backlighting in a dimly lit room, while beautiful, creates some difficulties which can leave your subject literally in the dark at worst - and, at best, wash out the Christmas lights behind the subject.

how to get the lights on your CHRISTMAS tree

Setting the correct exposure in a dimly lit room when the source of lighting is from behind a subject can be difficult unless you want to shoot your subject in silhouette. While you certainly can take a lovely picture in a dimly lit room where the sole light source stems from pretty Christmas lights, if you want to see your subject without losing the lights behind them, there are certain things you will need to do first.


If you want to capture the Christmas lights behind your subject, as well as your subject, you can shoot without a flash and adjust your ISO. However, that can create other issues. Increasing your ISO can create a lot of noise and not necessary help with lighting your subject. An idea is to set up a light source right in front of the subject with a lamp or flash - with flash being the easiest to manipulate and move around. 

Starry night tea party, автор — Dina Belenko на 500px.com


Before you get that flash out, it is important to do a few things. Start with moving your subject forward from the Christmas tree lights and away (yes, away) from your flash. If you don’t do this, the flash's light will brighten the Christmas lights behind your subject washing them out killing the overall effect and reason for shooting in front of a Christmas tree! If you’re using your camera’s built-in flash, you’ll need to be careful with shadows created by the direct light of a built-in flash.

If you are going to use a flash to compensate for dim lighting, it’s best to bounce the light be redirecting the aim of your flash off of something rather than directly off the subject. Do not point your flash directly at the Christmas lights behind your subject. It’s a balancing game when you use a built-in flash. You want to light up your subject without lighting up your tree. So, what’s the best way to shoot? It’s with a flash off-camera and ideally with an umbrella to best diffuse the light. An off-camera flash diffuses the light sufficiently to light up your subject without touching the Christmas lights. You’ll likely need to move the subject around a bit until you get just the right distance between them and tree - and the flash!

Fire bloom, автор — Dina Belenko на 500px.com


If you want to blur the lights behind your subject, then you’ll need to set a larger aperture on your lens (meaning lowest F-numbers). You’ll also need to get closer to your subject. If you don’t want to blur your Christmas lights behind the subject, then back away from the subject and use smaller aperture numbers (higher F-numbers). This will sharpen the lights behind your subject. 

Christmas Eve, автор — shaiith на 500px.com


Focusing in dimly lit conditions can be extremely challenging, but that’s what your AF-assist and a tripod come in. We recommend single mode (AF-S) along with setting up your tripod. If there are still issues, turn on the lights, focus, then turn off lights, snap your shot. 

Christmas scene with tree gifts and frozen window in background, автор — Kamil Zabłocki на 500px.com


It’s always important when shooting in dim light to get the settings correct. 

  • When shooting a subject in front of Christmas lights, start with your camera set to manual. 
  • Then, try setting the flash on TTL. This setting on your camera to auto determines the best flash strength. 
  • Set your ISO to 100 or 200 (whatever is the baseline for your camera). I recommend your smallest aperture settings for your lens then match your shutter speed to your lens’ focal length. 
  • You’ll need to try various shutter speeds on your camera to get the right exposure when combining the ambient lighting of the Christmas lights and your flash. You’ll likely need to decrease the shutter’s speed, and this is where the tripod becomes crucial to avoid any blurring of the image at a lower speed. 

Xmas, автор — Mark Hyland на 500px.com

Shooting in a dimly lit room where the subject stands in front of the sole source of lighting is without a doubt challenging. It all comes down to finding the correct balance of lighting and proper settings. It can take some practice shots and fiddle with your settings to get it right. But, once you do, you'll find these iconic pictures in front of Christmas lights can be beautiful.

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