Photographing Christmas Light displays can be lots of fun. There are lots of creative variations on a theme in play here, so go out and explore your neighborhood. Or, plan ahead for your next year’s Holiday card by shooting your own display. Here’s what you need to know.
Generally, people wait to shoot until it is dark out, but that is too late. The lights may reproduce well in the photograph, but all the other detail in the image will be lost. The goal is to match the correct exposure for the lights with the ambient light at dusk so there is detail in the lights, and detail in the buildings and sky as well. That means that you want to get to your location right around sunset, do your scout, and find the spot you want to shoot from. I’d suggest bringing a tripod, since the exposures can be from 1second to 5 seconds long, depending on the situation, with an ISO of 100. If you don’t have a tripod with you, you could hand hold, but be sure to use a high ISO so you keep your shutter speeds up above 1/60 second. Maybe look for a surface to brace your camera against, like a wall or tree.
Frame the picture so you include some environment. A snow covered lawn creates a wonderful foreground that can reflect color, and the sky can give you a wonderful rich blue to compliment the reds and yellows of the bulbs.
You have a couple of choices for setting white balance. You could go with daylight balance, and let the image take on a warm glow.
Or you could set the camera to tungsten balance, which would make the sky go much bluer. This is a time tested approach to shooting at dusk, most notably practiced by the legendary photographer, Pete Turner. Take a look at his classic image called Road Song to see what I mean.
Either way, start to shoot maybe ten minutes after sunset to see what the ambient light balance is. Look at your histogram to see how you are doing.
As it gets darker, increase the pace of shooting, as the window for when the correct exposure for the lights, and the correct exposure for the ambient light will only be about ten minutes at most.
You’ll know you are done when the sky is black, and the separation between it and the buildings are lost.