3 Steps to Creating Holiday Portraits With Christmas Lights

Christmas is in the air, so don’t be surprised if some of that festive spirit bleeds into your creative psyche and you find yourself wanting to do a portrait project with Christmas lights. We and photographer Gavin Hoey say, go for it—just make sure that you know what you’re doing!

Shooting studio portraits of models wearing fairy lights can be a tricky undertaking, since more often than not, the glow of the lights gets overpowered by studio strobes. In the following tutorial video, Hoey explains how to solve that problem in record time:

1. Shut out all ambient light

If you’re after a portrait of someone adorned with Christmas lights, the very first thing that Hoey recommends is to block out all ambient light in your studio setting. In order to not lose the warm glow of the Christmas lights, you need to block out as much stray light as possible so that you can. The following series of images illustrates Hoey’s progression through lighting adjustments until he reached his optimal lighting situation:


Even with ISO as low as possible and aperture as wide as possible, turning down the flash output produces only a tiny amount of glow at best. By contrast, decreasing the camera’s shutter speed does increase the glow of the lights, but overexposes the image as a whole—hence Hoey’s suggestion to shut off those ambient light sources.

2. Utilize a tripod

To really allow the fairy lights to shine through, Hoey suggests a shutter speed of 1/3 of a second—but that is far into the danger zone for camera shake, especially in a low light situation. To minimize movement blur, secure your camera onto a tripod and allow your model to sit on a stool, reminding him or her to keep absolutely still before you begin shooting.


3. Emphasize the glow of the lights in Photoshop

After your photo shoot, bring your best images into your editing software of choice and adjust the exposure, white balance, clarity, and colors to emphasize the soft glow of the holiday lights, according to your preferences. Hoey’s favorite image turned out just so:

fairy lights flash adorama

Hoey took this shot at 1/20 of a second.

During his tutorial, Hoey used one Flashpoint Streaklight SL-180K1 Watt-Seconds flash, and a Sekonic L-308S Light Meter to illuminate the scene and a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and attached 50mm f/1.8 II to photograph his model. His tripod of choice was the Vanguard ALTA+ 224CT and he edited his favorite image in Adobe Lightroom 5.

“It’s become almost an annual tradition for me to use some fairy lights right about this time of year on an AdoramaTV video,” said Hoey. “I really loved the look of the fairy lights at 1/10 of a second and longer exposures.”

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