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How to Create a Winter Wonderland Holiday Photo

There is so much to photograph during the holidays from religious symbols, to beautiful outdoor lighting displays, a well decorated tree, and the gathering of family and friends. You might already photograph and print your own holiday cards or a personal calendar, and each year you might be thinking of new and unique ideas for next year’s images.

With the holidays soon over and all those displays being packed away until next year, many Christmas trees will soon be recycled. But before you recycle your tree, consider using it for a unique photography opportunity: an illuminated Christmas tree in an outdoor setting. It could be that new and unique photo for next year’s holiday card!

Winter wonderland holiday photo tree 14a

If you happen to reside in an area that enjoys wintery and snowy conditions, you have a setting ready to create an illuminated holiday tree similar to this one. But it is worth noting that even if you don’t live in a wintry or forested area you can still create a holiday light photo anywhere with a little imagination. A cactus in the desert, a shrub in your yard, a roadside mailbox, a rusty old car in a field, or anything you can attach lights to. You’re only limited by your imagination!

To create a winter wonderland holiday photo like the one above, here’s what’s needed:

Christmas lights for the tree

You can use regular tree lights that use AC power if you have a location to plug them into. I needed 3 long extension cords to reach my garage, for power to run these lights.

There are also battery power lights available that will work wonders if you prefer to photograph further out and away from power sources.

A tree

Ideally, it would be great to head into the forest and find the perfect tree sitting in the perfect spot. Just add the lights, and wait for snow. But finding the perfect tree, in the perfect place can be challenging. When you’re looking to create a well composed image, where the illuminated tree stands prominently in your composition, the search for that perfect tree can be elusive.

Instead, I have found it easier in most cases to bring my own tree and put it right where I want it, in front of a suitable background. Since we live on this property we often cut our own Christmas tree and once the holidays are over, I take the tree outside, still in its tree stand, and place it to fit my composition. I then adjust the lights and wait for snow, which is never long.


Exposure for the scene can be a bit challenging because you are working with two constant light sources. It’s similar to photographing a city skyline where you have constant light that does not change, such as street lights and building windows, and you have constant light that does change: the setting sun and darkening ambient light.

For this winter tree photo you have the same: the tree lights, which remain constant in their brightness level, and the diminishing natural light. After the sun has set there is a ‘window of opportunity’ where these two light sources are closely matched for the perfect exposure: the darker background and the perfectly exposed tree lights.

I set f/16 as my aperture so the tree lights will have that ‘starburst’ or sparkle and then bracket my shutter speed throughout that ‘window of opportunity’ shooting period. I also drop my white balance down to 4000k (if your camera doesn’t offer White Balance adjustments by degrees Kelvin, choose Tungsten or Incandescent from the WB presets) to increase the blue tone of the overall picture, which enhances the feel of ‘cold and winter’. To ensure that I take advantage of that window of opportunity, I start photographing about 15 minutes after sunset and continually evaluate the exposure.

Winter wonderland holiday photo tree 20

If the ambient light brightness level has not darkened enough the tree lights will not stand out as the image above shows. The lights are not bright enough in relation to the background and surroundings, so the solution is to wait a little longer. To achieve that cold winter feel the snow cannot be exposed as white or even slightly grey, but rather closer to middle grey. I often start using Aperture Priority mode with a -1 exposure compensation setting, and continue to use auto bracketing (AEB). Once the ambient light brightness level is perfect, the tree lights will glow brightly and not blow out against the background.


ISO 100, f/16, 12 second exposure

This was my final image choice because the lights glow nicely, even those under the snow, and are not blown out, while leaving some glow on the ground level snow at the base of the tree. The exposure of 12 seconds at f/16 maintained great detail in the background as well.

The time to stop shooting is when the background becomes too dark in relation to the tree lights exposure, which will start blowing out as the shutter speed gets longer.

Winter wonderland holiday photo tree 17

The image illustrates just that. The tree lights are still exposed properly but the surrounding ambient light is border line too dark, as details in the darker area of the trees are beginning to merge. Of course, it is a matter of taste but for me at this point it is time to pack up and head indoors and review the images.

Plan ahead by testing

As you prepare to venture out and create a Holiday lighting image, a few steps before you leave will guarantee better results:

  1. A day or two before you plan your photo venture, place your lights outside, even around your home, plug them in and wait for sunset
  2. Set your aperture to f/16, place your camera on the tripod, and attach your cable release
  3. 15 minutes after the sun has set take your first picture and bracket your shutter speeds: normal (0), -1, and +1
  4. Wait another 10 minutes and take another set of three pictures
  5. Continue testing until you find the ambient light is to low and you determine that by looking at your Normal test exposures in the series and an image showing the lights blowing out against a very dark background
  6. Download your images and select the image you feel has great background exposure and perfectly exposed lights
  7. Once you find that perfect exposure, review the metadata for the shutter speed used and the time of capture. Then if you plan to shoot in the next day or two you will have a guide for the best time of day, and the best shutter speed, so you can head outdoors with a great starting point for the best exposure.

There are so many subjects that would work well with Christmas lights outdoors and to create something unique it pays to develop an idea first. Then decide on a suitable location that supports the subject rather than detracts from it. If you plan to head out into cold winter conditions be sure and dress warm, protect your gear, and most importantly, have a great time!

Editor’s note: this article is just in time for the Weekly Photography Challenge this week which is WINTER!  If you need more inspiration check out these 30 images of winter photography.

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Charlie Borland
Charlie Borland

Charlie Borland has been a commercial photographer for 30 years and completed architecture photography assignments for hotels, commercial buildings, developers, home builders, and realtors. You can find his online course: Mastering Architecture and Real Estate Photography here.

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