How to Photograph LED Christmas Lights

‘Tis the season! With Christmas just around the corner, friends and family are anxious to upload holiday photographs featuring Christmas lights of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Whether you’ve been the working behind the camera or simply observing the festivities of others, you may have noticed recently that capturing strings of lights doesn’t seem as easy as it once was.

This isn’t your imagination. The problem is primarily rooted in the fact that incandescent lights have largely been replaced by their LED counterparts. While this is great news for anyone trying to save energy, it can be potentially problematic for photographers. Luckily, recording LED lights is only a matter of understanding some of the science behind the technology and applying the proper camera settings:

Though the human eye often can’t detect it, all lights experience some amount of flickering or modulation of light. With older incandescent lights, the camera doesn’t generally capture any flicker due to the filament glow created by residual heat. However, since LEDs do not produce heat and use different technology to produce light, the flickering becomes visible at shutter speeds as low as 1/60 of a second. The higher the shutter speed, the more likely it is that you won’t capture the bright light that you’re looking for in a Christmas light.

The easiest way to solve this issue is to lower the camera’s shutter speed. This way, while flickering is still present, the camera has enough time to fully capture the light of the bulbs and make everything appear as it does to the human eye. If you’re purchasing LED lights for yourself, it’s important to consider that the rate at which LED light flicker varies between models. For instance, full wave LED lights flicker at a much faster rate than the average LED, allowing for photographers to capture any subject in motion in sharp detail while still meshing the incredibly fast bulb flashes into one seemingly continuous light.

couple photographed with LED christmas lights

That’s all there is to it! While you’re in the process of photographing memories, keep this information in the back of your mind for images that truly encompass the beauty of the holiday season.

“If you’re sitting there and you’re maddened by why you can’t get the Christmas lights to show up in your exposure…it might be because you’re shooting with a shutter speed that doesn’t match the output of the lights.”

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