Photography Tips for Capturing the Holiday Lights and Snow

It’s so cute: your children have built a snowman inspired by Salvador Dali! You manage to grab your camera before they smash his icicle mustache into surrealistic smithereens, but your memory of the event has likely been doomed to underexposure.

By their nature, the holidays are full of details that we want to capture. Nevertheless, winter comes with its own slew of photographic challenges including getting clear shots of snow and lights.  Luckily, when armed with a few tips, these elements can be relatively simple to master.


Unless you’re so dedicated to your snowless Southern locale that you’ve never taken a snowshoeing trip or ski vacation, you’re bound take a photograph in the snow. Remembering to bundle up and bring extra batteries won’t mean anything unless you also apply the right exposure compensation. Take our hypothetical photograph of Dali the Snowman. If you frame the shot but fail to apply any exposure compensation, the snowman will appear dull and gray. This is because when you leave your camera to its own devices, it will attempt to integrate to gray—it will calculate the values of all of the colors and tones and then average them out to a mid-gray tone. This works well for almost everything besides snow.


Notice the grey tone to the snow?

Shots that include bright white ground and dark ski coats obviously have a lot of contrast, which your camera will average out to gray snow. The easiest way to fix this is to dial in a value between +2/3 to +1 2/3 EV with your exposure compensation button. If you’re worried about mid-tone objects, take a meter reading of them and set the exposure compensation accordingly, otherwise you may blow out the highlights in the snow. Alternatively, you can use your camera’s histogram to correct the shot. Whatever you do, don’t use your flash—it will just bounce off the snow.

photo credit: hlkljgk via photopin cc We read this snowman as white.


Where are the lights?

No matter where you live, the holidays tend to be full of lights both inside and outside of houses. However, you will never capture the luminescence of your neighborhood if you forget to turn off your flash! To take a truly great picture of holiday lights, make sure you use your tripod to keep your camera steady as you let in the low lights at a longer shutter speed. If you’re attempting to capture indoor lights, make sure all of the other lights in the house are off to direct all the attention to your mantle or tree. If you’re photographing outdoor lights, try going out a half an hour or so after sunset as opposed to when it’s pitch black. This will allow you to capture both the lights and the details.

photo credit: Pixel Addict via photopin cc

There are a number of effects that you can create with holiday lights, too. Courtney Slazinik has a wonderful tutorial on creating beams of light here. There’s also the popular Bokeh light shot that you can achieve by placing Christmas lights in the background and having a subject to focus on in the foreground or vice versa.  Shoot at the larger end of your available aperture. This will throw your background and foreground into focus and turn any lights into glowing light balls. If you want a starburst effect, narrow your aperture and get close to your lights!

photo credit: JeffGamble via photopin cc Holiday Legos with Bokeh Lights

Other Challenges

Of course the holidays come with a few photographic challenges beyond achieving sharp shots of snow and lights. If you are attempting to take photos of your children tearing into their gifts, you will probably want a faster shutter speed and a higher ISO to compensate for the lack of early morning light. Don’t be afraid to get on the ground in the midst of the action so you don’t miss your little artist’s face as she opens her first paint set.

Amy Cobb  is a Jill-of-All-Trades media refugee turned blogger who, since jumping ship from the Fourth Estate, blogs on all things media and media-education-related. Most recently she's worked on cataloging the best  photography colleges for When not writing, Amy is pricing DSLRs and trying to help her houseplants thrive. 


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