Photographing Your Christmas Tree | Tutorial and Tips

Around the Christmas season we tend to take more pictures than any other time of year.  We want to capture the traditions, the kids, the decorations, the lights, the cookies, etc...  I thought I would write a "beginner tutorial" or "how to" post on how to get those lights to 'sparkle' on the Christmas tree. 

Here is what an above average or somewhat typical family Christmas tree would look like photographed.

Obviously, this is a cropped image and not what you may take, but you get the idea.  So how do you get the lights to sparkle like this

Camera Settings: f/22, 5s

So your first thought may be, "but I don't have a good camera" or "I just have a point and shoot camera" doesn't matter!!!  BUT you will need to know where to adjust some settings on your camera, so go and grab your camera, manual and tripod if you have one.  Yes, you will probably need to dig your manual out of some drawer.  A tip that may save you some time - Google your camera make and model (ie 'Canon Powershot SD1200 IS manual') and you may find it online.

Now that you have your camera and manual.  You will need to find out how to change the following settings:
  • Aperture (this is a measure of how big the hole will be allowing light into the camera when taking the pictures)  This is measure is known f-stops or f-numbers and will look like f/2.8 or f/5 etc...
  • Shutter Speed (this is how fast or how long the shutter remains open when taking a picture)  This measure will look like 1/100 s or 1/1000 s or 1 s, etc...
In order to adjust these settings you will need your camera mode set to one of a few modes.  For simplicity purposes (as this is more of a beginner type tutorial) I will suggest you set your camera mode to Time Value (TV) or Aperture Priority (as shown in this picture of the Canon Rebel Xti)

Once you have figured out how to set your camera mode to this you are ready to adjust the Shutter Speed.  An example of what these settings are can be seen in the below picture (Canon Rebel Xti).

You can see the Shutter Speed in the above picture shows
a speed of 1/50 (ie 1/50th of a second) and the Aperture is set at F2.8.

These two settings are the most important for achieving the sparkle of your Christmas lights.  The reason I suggested setting your camera mode to Time Value (TV) is because you will only need to adjust the shutter speed and your camera will automatically adjust the aperture to what it thinks it needs to produce a properly exposed photo.

Next thing you will need to do is set up your tripod.  If you do not have a tripod, prop up some books, use a chair, whatever you can do to get a stable platform that you will be able to set your camera on when taking the photo.

Ok, there is one more setting you will need to be able to find on your camera and that is the 'self-timer'.  This feature is pretty much standard on all digital cameras.  You will want to set your camera to the one of your self-timer settings (2-sec or 10-sec).  You will see why you need this as we go on.

So before we take the photo here is a checklist:
  1. You have your camera set to Time Value (TV) (may be called something different in your manual)
  2. Your tripod is set up or your stable, flat space set up where your wanting to take the photo.
  3. Your camera is set to self-timer.
Now were about ready to take the photo.  You will now need to set your shutter speed to 4 s, or 4 seconds.  You can start with this setting and adjust til you get the sparkle of your liking.  The reason you need a tripod or flat stable surface is because of the long (4 second) shutter speed.  If you were to hold your camera and take this photo you would get a very out of focus photo (blurry).  Now once you change your shutter speed to 4 s your aperture should automatically adjust as mentioned above.  Next, set your camera on the tripod or flat surface and take the picture.  Remember you should have your self-timer on so once you hit the shutter button it will count down until it snaps the picture.  The reason you need to have it on self-timer is because of the long shutter speed (4 seconds).  You just touching the shutter button to take the picture would move the camera just enough to make the photo out of focus or blurred.

Your picture should look something like this

Camera Settings: f/22, 5s

Have some fun with this and change your shutter speeds to see the change in the photo.  This being my first "tutorial" or "how-to" blog post, I hope I was clear and detailed enough for the "beginner".  If not, please email me with any questions (timothyprust at gmail dot com).

Thanks for stopping by.