Night Photography settings – Christmas Lights

Christmas is a great time of year to do night photography – well as long as it isn’t too cold outside!

Here are some quick tips and camera settings to get great night photos – any time of the year.

Night photo of Christmas lights

Shot with Lumix GX8. Exposure settings: ISO 200, 2 seconds, f/4.0.

I have lots of photos at the bottom of the page. Have a look!

Quick and Easy Method for Beginners

  • Use any of the automatic modes of your camera such as A, Av, S, Tv P.
  • My preference is Shutter Priority (S, Tv) as I like to control the length of my exposure.
  • Make sure you can adjust your ISO so you can control the noise. So don’t use Auto ISO.

With night shots, the time value is what makes the shots visually interesting, especially if you are adding motion to your scene. For example: fireworks, painting with light, streaking car lights, star trails.

In my experience, the simplest way to take night shots is by using Exposure Compensation to control the brightness.

  1. Set your ISO to 200 or 400 to keep the noise artifacts low.
  2. Use Auto WB to start with. You can play with WB settings once you get your exposure figured out.
  3. Depending on the scene, you can use a starting shutter speed anywhere from 1 second to 30 seconds.
  4. Just for fun, start with 2 seconds. In Shutter Priority mode, the aperture will be set automatically.
  5. Take a test shot.
  6. Review your photo and the histogram. Is it too bright or too dark? If it’s way too dark, choose a longer shutter speed. Say 4 or 8 seconds.
  7. If it’s too bright – set your Exposure Compensation value to -1 ev.
  8. If  you are in range, and it’s a bit too dark – set your Exposure Compensation value to +1 ev.
  9. Take another test shot.
  10. Check your histogram to make sure it is filled from side to side.
  11. If the graph is not filled all the way to the right side of the histogram, then you are a under-exposed (too dark).
  12. If it’s overexposed, then a large part the graph will be climbing the walls of the right side of the histogram (too bright).
  13. Fine tune your exposure compensation by adjusting it by -1/3 or -2/3 stop increments.


This is the histogram of the photo at the top of the page.

Gear for night photos

  • Any adjustable camera will do. If it has a +/- button, you’re in business!
  • You will need a tripod if you want to use exposures longer than 1/30 second.
  • Any tripod will do. But, if you have a heavy dSLR camera, you’ll need a heavier tripod.
  • Make sure Image Stabilization is shut off (on the lens) when using a tripod, or you may end up with out-of-focus images.

I have a cheap plastic tripod that works great with my point-and-shoot Lumix GM1. I carry this camera with me everywhere, all the time, and I leave that cheap tripod in the car in case I happen upon something interesting to shoot at night.

More on Tripods here in this blog post.

Other fun things to try with night shots

  • Zoom pull – If using a zoom lens – Start with your widest angle and then zoom in to a telephoto shot – during the length of your exposure. You can try it the other way too.
  • Focus pull – Gives a nice glow to cityscapes. Use Manual focus – Start IN focus and then rotate your focus ring until it’s out-of-focus, for the duration of your shot. Try not to move your camera when you do this, or it will look messy.
  • Get the camera off the tripod and “paint” with light – I have the most fun with these, as you can tell from my gallery. Randomly move the camera and paint patterns with the lights.
  • Changing the WB settings – Daylight or shade settings will give you warmer looking photos. Tungsten will give you cool light and is great for making the sky really blue, especially with city scenes at dusk.

Experiment and have fun!