How to Photograph a Christmas Tree

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Knowing how to photograph a Christmas tree with a DSLR camera requires a familiarity with using manual controls. However, being familiar with manual controls is not the same as knowing how to shoot a brightly illuminated tree in a dark room. Many times pictures come out with lights or even the tree very blurry, overexposed, or too dark.

My personal project in shooting my Christmas tree presented the challenge in highlighting the 300 multicolor Christmas lights we had added to our 9′ Fraser Fir tree, which was already brightly lit with 1000 clear mini lights. I wanted to be able to show off my tree on Facebook, without losing any of the beauty visible to the naked eye. If you own the Red Sleigh™ Fraser Fir 9′ tree, I am sure you understand. Each tip is molded from a live Fraser Fir tree tip, and every family ornament had space to be displayed. I wanted to capture each of these elements, without losing color or quality.

My first photograph was taken just after we trimmed the tree. I turned off all of the lights aside from the Christmas tree and village, and snapped a quick picture. I immediately decided I might allow the lens to auto focus, and I would just focus on controlling ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.

Bright Christmas Tree - my preferred settingISO 100 f/2.8 0.7 sec

Bright Christmas Tree – my preferred setting. Looks natural – strong branches
ISO 100 f/2.8 0.7 sec

Bright Christmas TreeISO 100 f/2.8 0.7 sec

Bright Christmas Tree
ISO 100 f/2.8 0.7 sec

I consider my first photo my best, but after seeing a Pinterest photo tutorial on how to photograph Christmas lights on a tree, I secured the camera back on the tripod and began playing with settings. The goal was to exaggerate the lights to allow for kids silhouettes in the picture – of course I forgot to place my daughter in front of the tree.

The DIY Pinterest tutorial instructed I set the ISO to 1600. I normally never set ISO over 400, but I decided to give it a shot.

Bright Christmas Tree 1600 settingISO 1600 f/2.8 1/15 sec

Bright Christmas Tree 1600 setting. Strong contrasts
ISO 1600 f/2.8 1/15 sec

Bright Christmas Tree 1600 settingISO 1600 f/2.8 1/15 sec

Bright Christmas Tree 1600 setting
ISO 1600 f/2.8 1/15 sec

I can definitely see how this setting would work great if I had remembered to strategically place my daughter – and maybe our dog – in front of the tree for the quintessential Christmas picture. I wanted to try and reduce the pixelated background (really only visible by the framed pictures on the wall). So I lowered ISO to 125 and tried again.

Christmas lights camera setting for silhouetteISO 125 f/3.5 1.4 sec

Christmas lights camera setting for silhouette – my preferred result
ISO 125 f/3.5 1.4 sec

Bright Christmas TreeISO 125 f/3.5 1.4 sec

Bright Christmas Tree
ISO 125 f/3.5 1.4 sec

And finally I added a day time picture of the Christmas tree with the lights off:

Unlit Christmas TreeISO 100 f/4.0 1.0 sec

9′ Fraser Fir – beautiful in the daytime and at night
ISO 100 f/4.0 1.0 sec

Unlit Christmas TreeISO 100 f/4.0 1.0 sec

Fraser Fir Christmas Tree detail, decorated, unlit
ISO 100 f/4.0 1.0 sec

In the end, I prefer the 100 ISO Christmas tree picture the best, and would plan to only bump up to 125 ISO if attempting a silhouette picture. However, the aperture and shutter speed settings are extremely important, so when trying to capture your own picture, keep these in mind:

Tripod: an essential
ISO 100
f/2.8
0.7 sec

ISO 125
f/3.5
1.4 sec

I edited white balance to stay within 2900-3000 Kelvin temperature, but there was not much post editing to do otherwise. If you know how to photograph Christmas lights or how to photograph Christmas trees, take a moment to submit your photo to our Christmas lights photo contest, and give us your tips!

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About Jeanette DiCamillo

Web Content Manager at Christmas Lights, Etc, mistress of all things holiday and lighting. Unique only by natural flaws. "I don't strive for perfection, I strive for excellence." Alert me if you see a website error! Google+

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