How to Photograph a Christmas Tree

Today's post contains a few tips on how to take pictures of Christmas trees. I don't claim to be an expert at photography, so these are just the things I have discovered messing around with my camera. You may have some helpful tips of your own, so feel free to share!

{tips on how to photograph a christmas tree}

Your first step is going to be setting up a tripod for your camera. Since these are low-light shots, it's imperative that you have a stable base on which to place your camera. Otherwise you're going to be frustrated by photo blurriness. If you don't have a tripod, consider using a table and some stacked boxes to get your camera to the height you want. You'll also need some kind of remote to hit the shutter, or just put your camera on a timer when shooting (otherwise your finger hitting the shutter button will shake the camera and ruin your nice, stable setup)

You'll also need a wider lens on your camera if you want to get the whole tree in one shot. I have a Nikon D90 and used my 18-105 zoom lens for these shots, mostly with the zoom at 18mm. The tripod I use is the Manfrotto compact MKC3-H01. I love it: it packs up super tiny so I can take it on hikes with me, but is sturdy enough to hold my heavy camera and lenses.

Once you have your setup ready, let's play with your camera settings. You'll want to be in manual mode so you can adjust both aperture and shutter speed.

There are a few ways you can do this. To get the lovely "blown out" Christmas lights look, here are some general guidelines of how to set up your camera:

Shutter speed: 3"
Aperture: F/5.6
ISO: 1000
White balance: Tungsten (or Kelvin 2500)

You may not have these exact numbers; basically you want to put your aperture to a low number (ie: a low aperture number = a "wider" aperture and more light let in while shooting), your shutter speed to something slower (I set mine to 3 seconds), and your ISO to something on the higher end (a higher number will make the photo grainier, but if you have a very dark room, this may be a necessary adjustment).

(Ignore the ISO, shutter speed and aperture number in this demo, I know it says 1600, 8" and f/16... we'll get to that in a minute).

As you can see from your light meter, your camera is going to think that you're taking a photo that has the highlights really blown out. But that's what we want, so ignore the light meter and keep checking your histogram, instead: it will be more accurate.

As for white balance, I took these shots after dark, where the only light in the room was coming from the tree. Christmas lights, unless you buy the fancy new LED kind, are just tiny Tungsten lights. This is a good place to start when setting your white balance. However, my lights still were giving off a fairly orangey glow when I used the Tungsten setting:

I found what worked better was using the Kelvin setting (usually a "K" on your white balance: see above photo) and setting it to the lowest number. For me it was 2500. For those of you who don't know how the K setting works, it's basically the degree rating for different types of lighting.

For example, candlelight is about 1800 degrees, tungsten (indoor) lights usually burn about 3000 degrees, fluorescent lights at 4000 degrees, daylight is 5500 degrees, and shade in daylight is 7500 degrees. When I set the white balance to the lowest 2500 degree, the picture came out a little less "orange":

Obviously it's still a little tinted because the colors of the Christmas lights are mostly red and orange. If you have white Christmas lights, you should have a cleaner photo, but you'll also need to adjust your aperture, ISO and shutter speed to let in less light since white lights are much brighter.

Another option for shooting Christmas tree lights is to go for that "sparkly" look. The trick to achieving this is to have your aperture be very small: ie, set it to f/16. To compensate for such little light let in here, you'll need to have a much slower shutter speed and higher ISO. I changed mine to 8 seconds and 1600.

If you look closely, you can see that each Christmas light has a "star burst" around it, making the lights look more sparkly. You can choose whether you like the look of the tree this way, or the overblown glowing tree above. Feel free to play around with your settings until you find something you like!

I hope this tutorial helped - let me know if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions on how you like to photograph your Christmas tree!