Holiday Light Portraits

One of the great joys of the holiday season—aside from spending time with family and celebrating long-standing traditions, of course—is the beauty of our surroundings. From town squares decorated with thousands of twinkling bulbs to drive-through light shows and the colorful glow of a simple Christmas tree, holiday lights are beautiful. And more than just a sight to behold, they also make for great photographic subjects too. Sure, you can make photographs of that home in the neighborhood that’s been done up Clark Griswold-style, but I prefer to use those twinkling lights as a background—and maybe even the key light—for interesting holiday light portraits. 

Anyone who has stuck their kids in front of a glowing Christmas tree knows that all those little lights make for an absolutely beautiful sparkling background. Studio photographers have long used strings of such lights year-round just because that sparkle looks so great with a bit of bokeh.

To put such lights to use, place the subject in front of an existing light display—be that the strands on the front of the house or the tree standing in the living room—and determine an ambient exposure that will let those lights shine. Be careful not to overexpose and blow out the highlights. Check the histogram on the camera’s LCD to ensure the right side (which measures highlights) isn’t clipping, which is indicated by a peak at the far right edge of the frame.

Without a key light, all that light in the background is likely to leave the subject’s face in somewhat of a silhouette. To remedy it, add a fill flash from the front to balance it or even use a bright interior light or reflector to balance with the beautiful glow in the background.

In a studio setting—whether a garage or guest room—suspend a few strings of holiday lights almost like a swag of fabric. They can be hung from a pair of stands as a background seamless would be or even clipped to the corners of a doorframe to allow those strings of light to spill naturally into the background. If they’re hung against a light-colored wall, know that the background will be much brighter overall compared to lights suspended away from any structures, which allows those unlit areas to go dark.

Depending on the color temperature of your light string, consider matching it with the key light. A strobe can get warmer with the addition of a simple orange gel, but an incandescent light bulb—like the kind in the lamp in most living rooms—should be close enough already. Alternatively, use a daylight-balanced strobe to set the white balance on the subject and watch the lights in the background shift to a warm golden orange glow.

Make even more use of a strand of holiday lights by having the subject interact with them. Start by choosing LED lights in lieu of ancient tungsten bulbs in order to minimize heat and maximize safety. This way you can have the subject hold the lights in the palm of their hand, position the lights near their face as a key light or even peer through a strand of lights for unique illumination.

Regardless of how you do it, if the ambient light is too bright the LEDs will appear proportionally dimmer, which may not be bright enough to function as a key source. To counter this try shooting after dusk or dimming interior lights to bring down the ambience and make the string lights appear brighter, relatively speaking.

Crank the ISO as needed and open the ƒ-stop wide so any lights in the foreground and background to become appealingly out of focus. Also, be sure to position your subject at least a few feet in front of any lights you’d like to be out of focus in the background. Too far and they may turn into a unified bright blur—which could be okay if that’s the look you’re going for. Either way, instead of sitting back and appreciating the beauty of holiday lights from afar, try incorporating them into a portrait shoot to add some holiday sparkle.

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