5 Ways to Light Your Christmas Tree Portraits This Festive Season

5 Ways to Light Your Christmas Tree Portraits This Festive Season

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You want to snap a picture of the kids around the Christmas tree. But after finally getting a photo where they’re all looking happy, you’re disappointed with how it turns out.

In this scene both the tree and the people are nicely illuminated.

Why is it so dim? Where’s the ambiance? Why can’t I capture what I’m seeing with my eye?

The classic Christmas tree portrait can be problematic. And many of those problems have to do with light. So today I’m going to walk you through the five major lighting solutions for better Christmas tree portraits.

I want you to be able to set up a quick shot in front of the tree and have it turn out well. And to do that you need to light the people in the photo without ruining the mood of the Christmas tree lights.

Nighttime vs Daytime Tree Photos

There’s a big difference between taking a Christmas tree portrait at night and taking one during the day. What’s the difference? Light. During the day you can make use of natural window light. However, at night you have to create your own light, which means you’re often taking your tree portrait in a dimly lit room.

So let’s cover nighttime tree photos first, then daylight. Because shooting photos in daylight is easy.

1. Ambient Light by Accident

Ambient light simply refers to the light already present in the scene – the light from your tree, whatever other bulbs you have on in the room, and maybe some lamps or an overhead light.

Many people prefer using ambient light to their camera flash because the flash often ruins the mood of the scene. Working in ambient light can be wonderful providing you’re intentional about it. You can’t just turn on the tree lights and hope for the best.

This was our first ever family photo around the Christmas tree. Like most families, I propped up the camera and set the ten-second timer. But clearly, it didn’t work. Even though the tree is glowing nicely, we’re not lit at all.

2. Ambient Light on Purpose

If you’re going to rely on ambient light for your photos (rather than using your camera flash), you need to get extra light on the people without it spilling onto the Christmas tree. You don’t want to spoil the mood and glow of the tree lights, but you still want the people to be lit nicely.

Try moving some lamps around. Don’t just turn them on to get more light. Move them closer to the people.

This portrait was taken using only the tree lights and a small lamp. Because of the way they diffuse light, lamps create soft light.

3. Pop-Up Flash

Sometimes the ambient light just doesn’t work. So how else can you light the scene? By using the pop-up flash on your camera.

I can hear you groaning. “But I hate the look of flash.” Me too. But there are things you can do to make it look better. And what you rather have – a photo lit as well as possible with flash or no photo at all?

Remember, the idea is to light the people without ruining the mood of the tree lights.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Move the people in your photo away from the tree a little (three feet or more).
  2. Get as close to the people as you can.

Why do it like this? Because when you’re closer to the people, the flash sends out a smaller burst of light. Once it reaches the people in your photo it fades out quickly, which means it won’t light up the tree too much.

In this photo the pop-up flash has lit the entire scene, ruining the ambient light of the Christmas tree. I need to bring her away from the tree and closer to the camera so the flash lights her but not the tree.

 

While I also used the pop-up flash in this photo, this time she’s further away from the tree. Now she is lit nicely by the flash, while the tree remains untouched by the flash.

4. External Flash

If you don’t like your pop-up flash blasting light directly at your subject, you could try using an external flash instead. It still attaches to your camera, but you can aim it at the ceiling or a wall to bounce the light off that surface and onto your subject.

I used an external flash for both of these photos. For the photo on the left, I pointed the flash at the wall so the light bounced back to light her up. In the photo on the right, I pointed the flash at the ceiling.

Bouncing light can be tricky when it comes to color. As well as the light, it will also reflect the color of the wall or ceiling it bounces off. (Direct flash is a much cleaner light than bounced flash.) As you can see, the photos I took with the external flash look much warmer. But I can adjust that with a program such as Lightroom.

Notice how her eyes are a little dark in this photo? The light is being bounced off the ceiling above her and isn’t lighting up her eyes. To avoid that, back up a little farther so the light bounces back in front of her and not just above.

Tip: If your flash seems too bright, turn down the power with flash exposure compensation.

I turned the flash power down all the way in order to add just a little bit of light to the scene.

5. Window Light

Window light is is my favorite form of natural ambient light. It’s bright and soft, and illuminates people wonderfully for photos.

This works best when the tree is tucked into a corner out of the window light so it still has some glow for the photo.

Here the tree is tucked into a dim corner so the lights can glow. The kids will sit on the stool and be lit by the window.

Have the light from the window lighting people from the side to create some dimension in the photo through shadow.

The window light provides soft light with just a hint of contrast from the soft shadow. Notice that her left cheek is just a little bit darker than her right.

Notice the glow of the tree and the nice soft light illuminating the portrait.

However, try not to get split light. Have them look toward the window slightly.

Because she’s turned away from the window, a shadow is now dividing her face. Even though it’s still a soft shadow, the light on her face isn’t as pleasing.

In this group portrait, you can even see catch lights in their eyes.

They are turned ever so slightly toward the window, ensuring their faces are nicely illuminated.

 

Even though I had no idea what I was doing at the time, this is a good example of a glowing Christmas tree combined with window light. There’s a small window illuminating his face, and a larger one creating edge light around his arm and head.

Practice Makes Perfect

Remember, your goal is to set up a quick shot in front of the tree where you’re lighting the people without ruining the glow of the tree lights.

Practice using both flash and window light so you’re prepared for anything. Feel free to share examples of your christmas tree portraits that you’ve taken and how you lit them in the comments.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Mat Coker is a family photographer from Ontario, Canada. He teaches photography to parents and families, showing them how to document their life and adventures. You can get his free photography ebook, and learn more about taking creative photos.

  • Tom Cooper

    It used to be possible to just warm a strobe up a little (about 1/2 CTO gel) and have a nice color balance between the strobe and tree lights. Done right, you could end with really nice skin tones and still have some warmth in the tree lights. But with all the LED tree lights out there, this is a lot more difficult. About the best you can do is capture the overall color temp of the LEDs, and trying to select gels that bring the strobe into the same ballpark, then do the rest in post.

    I used to point two optical slaves at the ceiling (in opposite corners of the room) then put the on-camera flash on -2/3 of stop. While the direction of the light would vary a little, generally everything would be evenly well lit no matter where the camera or the subject was. It requires a little setup and a little extra equipment, but then it just works for candid Christmas event snapshots.

  • https://www.probegger.com becoming a pro.

  • Mat

    Hi Tom,
    Yes, those LED lights wreak havoc!

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