How to Take Photos by the Christmas Tree

Drew is a family photographer and owner of DrewB Photography. In addition to her blog, Mom*tog, Drew has released her new photography guide UnManual2. To see more of Drew’s work, follow her on Instagram.

Even though most of our days are still over 80 degrees and we definitely won’t be getting snow here in Southern California, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas at our house! And with Christmas comes lots and lots of pictures to capture all of those memories. And where better to take pictures then in front of your Christmas tree?

When you see the really blurry lights in pictures of Christmas trees that is called bokeh. Bokeh, which means blur, refers to the area of a photograph which is intentionally blurred. In this case that would be the Christmas lights.

A prime lens (a lens that does not zoom in or out) helps to get Bokeh as you can shoot with a wide aperture (small F-stop number). If you are not comfortable shooting on Manual mode, you can shoot in Aperture Priority mode. In Aperture Priority you will set the aperture and your camera will do the rest.

I took this images at a time of day where I had enough light that I didn’t have to use a flash, but also where the lights were able to shine bright. These images were shot with my Canon 5D Mark II and my 50 1.2 lens. I had my aperture set at 2.0, my shutter speed set at 1/125, and my ISO was at 1000.

In the first image you can see my daughter, Kennedy, is very close to the tree and the lights are pretty much in focus.

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When she moved up a few feet the lights got a little more blurry.

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And then when she moved up a few more feet the lights are totally out of focus.

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I stayed in the same place the entire time. It was only Kennedy that moved. So, not only will your settings make a big difference, but also where your kids are placed in front of the tree makes a difference as well.

Don’t have a prime lens? No problem. You can use the longest focal length of your zoom lens. This works best if you have a lens that zooms to at least 200mm. Get as close to your subject as your lens will allow and try it out!

When taking pictures at nighttime with a Christmas tree I also prefer not to use flash. I just feel that it ruins the mood of the pictures. Christmas trees look so much more magical without flash.

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You will need a prime lens for these types of pictures because since you aren’t using flash you need another way to allow more light in. Shooting with a wide aperture, like F 1.2, will allow the most light in possible. I shot these with my Canon 50 1.2 lens and my settings for all pictures were F 1.2, 1/100, ISO 1600. With a shutter speed of 100 you will get motion blur if your children move so be sure to have them stand or sit still. And be sure to overshoot so you get one without blur.

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If you want the lights of the tree to illuminate your child’s face, have them stand very close to the lights. It also helps to use white lights so you don’t get a funny color cast on their faces.

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Remember to also hold your camera still. It helps to take a breath in, press the shutter, and then exhale. When shooting with slower shutter speeds even a little motion from you will produce a blurry image!

For more photography tips from DrewB, check out 7 Tips for Photographing SiblingsTips for Summer ShootingPhotographing Young ChildrenPhotographing Your Own Baby, and Understanding Cropping.

61 Responses to “How to Take Photos by the Christmas Tree”

  1. Lesley December 2, 2014 at 1:14 pm #

    Great tips! I am always scared of using the manual settings on my canon bc I don’t want to miss a great pic if I don’t know how to use it! Thanks for giving the different setting numbers and making the camera seem less scary! Lol

    • Miles December 2, 2014 at 2:13 pm #

      Keep in mind that the 1.2 lens Drew mentions is essential to getting this done.

      Trying to get shots like these with a kit 3.5 aperture will be significantly harder and may require a higher ISO or slower shutter speed.

      • Ed Macke December 2, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

        For Nikon users, there have some great 50mm “prime” lenses with f/1.8 apertures (not as fast as f/1.2, but close enough) that are super affordable.

        The older (but still great) “Nikon Normal AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D Autofocus Lens” can be picked up for around $115 and the newer “Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G Lens” is around $220.

        Also, if your camera is a Nikon “DX” format (which is most non-professional cameras) the 50mm prime equates to 75mm focal length which is great for portraits.

      • Drew December 2, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

        Miles – Yep! That’s why I said a prime lens is essential 🙂

    • Drew December 2, 2014 at 4:00 pm #

      Lesley – It’s all about practice, practice, and more practice 🙂

  2. Mark Chamberlin December 2, 2014 at 3:15 pm #

    The average photographer can get this shot if they
    1. First take their camera out of GREEN mode
    2. Set it to aperture priority
    3. Zoom back the lens to the shortest focal length
    4. Set the aperture to the smallest number i.e. 3.5
    5. Increase the ISO setting to it’s highest number i.e. 3200 or 6400+
    The suggestion of using a 1.2 prime lens is not very practical for any but the best equipped pros.
    Merry Christmas! Hope this helps.

    • Drew December 2, 2014 at 3:58 pm #

      Mark – Canon makes a great 50 1.8 lens that is inexpensive. I recommend it to all those that are not professional photographers as it is very inexpensive. You can shoot at 1.8 and either increase your ISO or lower your shutter speed.

      • Jenny December 6, 2014 at 10:14 pm #

        Drew- I have the Canon 50 1.8 and just tried this ! worked great ! thanks for the tip!

    • Drew December 2, 2014 at 4:06 pm #

      Although… I wouldn’t recommend using an aperture of 3200 or 6400. You will get too much noise. Even with the Mark II at 1600 I still got noise. I would just shoot manual, set your aperture to the smallest number, and decrease your shutter speed until it looks exposed correctly. And I would either use either a tripod or set your camera on a chair or table and use the timer in order to avoid shaking the camera when you press the shutter 🙂

  3. Doug December 2, 2014 at 3:27 pm #

    Also keep in mind that the Canon 50mm 1.2 is a $1500 lens.

    • Drew December 2, 2014 at 3:58 pm #

      Doug – Canon makes a great 50 1.8 lens that is inexpensive. I recommend it to all those that are not professional photographers as it is very inexpensive. You can shoot at 1.8 and either increase your ISO or lower your shutter speed.

  4. Michael December 2, 2014 at 3:34 pm #

    That was good starting point for shooting without flash in Christmas Tree lightening. Well, you have very advanced and very expensive Canon 5D Mark II. Plus it was coupled with also expensive prime lens 50 mm f/1.2. Most of us can’t afford as a hobbyist to own that dream DSLRs. So I own my still good Canon EOS 20D (2004 release) which cannot give me that ISO performance of 5D Mark II. However, I would use ISO 400 with my $125.00 Prime Canon 50 mm f/1.8 and a tripod with a shutter release cable that would allow me any slow shutter speed safely to capture shake-free photographs. Yes, I have to tell kids don’t move as much as possible because I probably would use the shutter speed in the range of 1/10 or even slower of a second. When using a tripod, do not forget to switch IS to off position on your lens that will really stabilize the camera.

    • Drew December 2, 2014 at 3:59 pm #

      Michael – You are totally right. You don’t need the 50 1.2. You would just need to decrease your shutter speed and would also need a tripod!

  5. Jessica December 2, 2014 at 3:37 pm #

    Those are really beautiful shots! Thanks for the tips; I will try them tonight when we decorate our tree.

    • Drew December 3, 2014 at 10:28 am #

      Thank you, Jessica!

  6. Lisa Gibalerio December 2, 2014 at 4:06 pm #

    Thanks, Drew. Beautiful shots! I am a huge fan of bokeh and recently learned that trick of pulling the subject away from the background to get a really nice blur. I do have one question – I was always taught to keep the ISO as low as possible to keep the shots clear and crisp (100, 200 for outside and 400 to 800 indoors). However, you are using a high ISO setting. Any thoughts you could share on your choice?
    Thanks,
    Lisa

    • Drew December 2, 2014 at 4:25 pm #

      Hi Lisa! Yes, you are correct. You should always use the lowest ISO possible. However, in this case I needed to allow more light in. I didn’t want to lower my shutter speed anymore because I risked getting motion blur and I didn’t want to open my aperture anymore because I wanted my wiggly toddler to stay in focus. So my only option was to shoot with a higher ISO. When shooting with a higher ISO just make sure your image is properly exposed or even a little overexposed. The noise won’t be as noticeable.

  7. parker December 2, 2014 at 4:32 pm #

    thanks for the tips!!! would love to see more of these on mpix.

  8. Michael Henley December 2, 2014 at 4:37 pm #

    Good suggestions. I prefer to use a tripod to eliminate the camera motion part of the problem and I also love to use a off camera flash dialed down so as not to blast out the scene but it also helps to freeze action in case the kids move a bit. If using TTL I suggest a minus 1 or minus 2 setting depending on your taste. I use the flash on manual and a flash meter to get it correct.

    I most often would use a white shoot thru umbrella to lessen contrast and look more natural. If you want a more natural color balance you can gel the flash to match the lighting on the tree and use the Tungsten color balance on the camera. I personally like the warmer lighting from tree combined with the flash without a gel. It is again a matter of taste.

    • Miro December 2, 2014 at 5:42 pm #

      A similar approach to Michael’s which can be done with at f/2.8-4 is first move your subject away from the lit Christmas tree – maybe 7-10 feet. In a dim room, then get a manual exposure for your tree lights. Adjust to your preference. Now, with your flash in TTL mode (off camera if possible) shoot the subject with the same manual exposure settings. Adjust your flash compensation/FEC to balance the flash to ambient light (the tree lights) to your taste as Michael suggested. A 1/4 to 1/2 CTO/CTS gel on the flash will help with balance the colors too. By moving the subject away from the tree you can control the spill from the flash onto the tree and just light your subject.

      Positions something like this:

      (X) – tree (S) – subject (P) – photographer

  9. David December 2, 2014 at 5:18 pm #

    Your pictures are so sharp. I have invested in a canon mark 5DIII but I cannot seem to achieve the sharpness that you demonstrate. As a amateur striving to get better, it’s very frustrating. Any advice?

    • Miro December 2, 2014 at 11:23 pm #

      Sharpness depends on many variables. The first thing that comes to mind is if you are handholding and are using a slow shutter speed like below 1/60 any movement will result in blurry not so sharp results. Also typically the min shutter threshold for a handholding is the reciprocal of the focal length used. Eg if your zoomed in at 200mm you’ll probably want atleast 1/200 shutter speed or have a tripod or have a lens with good image stabilization.

      With a 5d mk 3 you should be able to crank your ISO to 1600-3200 to get the shutter speed a little faster. Obviously if you hAve a fast lens f2.8 or better you can open that up to also get faster shutter speeds.

      Hope this helps

  10. Daniel December 2, 2014 at 5:59 pm #

    If I may offer this, it is a little more stable and more comfortable for the shooter to shoot at the bottom of your breathing cycle when trying to hold steady at slow shutter speeds. Take a deep breath in, exhale completely and snap the shot at the bottom of that cycle. An old Army tip that works for marksmanship, as well as holding a camera steady.

    • david December 3, 2014 at 9:55 am #

      Thank you for the advice. I will keep plugging away.

  11. Liz December 2, 2014 at 7:44 pm #

    I have a Canon 7D and a Canon 50 mm prime 1.4. That should work, correct?

    • Drew December 3, 2014 at 10:27 am #

      Liz – yep!!!

  12. Amy December 2, 2014 at 11:00 pm #

    I love Christmas tree pictures but have pretty much come to the conclusion that if you have a “point and click” camera, good pics are basically impossible. I don’t understand the whole aperture and settings stuff, so I guess I’ll learn to live with my blurry pics and hope for a miracle shot once in a while! :0)

    • Drew December 3, 2014 at 10:27 am #

      Amy – I got a great shot on my iPhone. You don’t need a big, fancy camera. But, yes, an understanding of how to use your camera and shoot on manual will help you out a lot!

      • Jenny Watson May 23, 2015 at 2:25 pm #

        WOW! These pictures are really in HD. I was very busy and that’s why I was not able to capture the main images into my camera. But you did outstanding job. Thanks and keep us updating.

    • Ed Macke December 3, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

      Many of the tips here can be used regardless of the type of camera (e.g. positioning, turn off the flash, hold the camera steady or use a tripod).

      Point-and-shoot cameras are set out-of-the-box to give the best results with minimum fussing. But many times there are settings that you can manually tweak.

      For this specific scenario, see if you can manually set the aperture – just set it as large as you can (i.e. the smallest f/ stop). If you can, the camera might try to compensate by adjusting the shutter speed to give you what it thinks is a “properly exposed” picture, so you might need to switch to fully manual and override both the aperture and shutter.

      You’ll definitely need to look into your specific camera to see what it can/can’t do, but I haven’t seen a camera yet that didn’t have some sort of manual overrides possible.

      Feel free to experiment – that’s the great thing about digital is you’re not wasting film so it’s literally free to try things out. And it’s usually very easy to set things back to “Auto” so you’re not going to screw up your camera by playing with the settings.

      It’s definitely possible to get some decent pics from a point-and-shoot camera, so don’t give up!

  13. Don December 3, 2014 at 1:39 am #

    People that say you have to have a prime lens to make the certain shot are usually trying to sell prime lenses. Or don’t know better. You have a variety of ways. Such as, opening up your aperture as wide as lens will allow(4 – 5.6 or lower). ISO 800, shutter at 1/60. Dim the lights, put subject 6′-8′ from tree and use light source that will be directed just at subject. You can use a off camera speedlight, set to manual and increase it until you like. This will light subject nicely and have a blurred glow of lights around the old Christmas Tree.

    • Drew December 3, 2014 at 10:26 am #

      Don – Of course, you don’t have to have a prime lens, but I believe it makes a shot like this much easier and much better. All lighting circumstances are different. In my case my image would have been completely black if I would have used an aperture of 4, shutter speed of 1/60, and ISO 800. And I prefer not to use flash for images like this. There are a whole variety of things you could have done differently, but I preferred to shoot it this way and I love the way the images turned out.

  14. Janine December 4, 2014 at 10:09 pm #

    Now to get my kids to stand still and move where I want, that will be the trick.

  15. Alice Donaldson December 6, 2014 at 10:06 pm #

    One word Tripod

  16. Jack December 23, 2014 at 6:43 am #

    Really nice pics Drew and a wonderful illustration. I am never able to picture those lights properly while having photo shoot with Christmas tree. Your pictures are really nice.
    Wish you all a Merry Christmas

  17. Christmas Wishes September 15, 2015 at 12:29 pm #

    Collection of these photos is awesome. I am happy to see these photos. I was looking for some best Christmas pictures 2015 to celebrate Christmas 2015. I have shared it with my friends.

    • Tish January 7, 2017 at 5:57 am #

      Woot, I will certianly put this to good use!

  18. Janet October 8, 2015 at 6:44 pm #

    I’m thrilled I came across these comments. Just getting ready to purchase a Canon Rebel iOS T5i. I’m marking this page to come back for the tips I’m reading hear.

  19. Janet October 8, 2015 at 6:50 pm #

    Getting ready to purchase a Canon Rebel iOS T5i Glad to have come accord theses tips. Hopefully I can bookmark this, but can’t find the right icon. I’ll try to find my way back for tips.

  20. Josh November 17, 2015 at 4:13 am #

    Amazing camera art. I specially like pic-3 that blur effect….
    Nice HD pics, keep it up…

  21. Nishant November 18, 2015 at 10:57 pm #

    Awesome Tips Thanks for sharing

  22. Christmas November 21, 2015 at 10:23 am #

    This are really nice christmas pics

  23. Alina December 2, 2015 at 10:20 pm #

    Hi Dear,
    This is really very superb ! beautiful images of Christmas day Xmas tree indeed here and you have sheared with a lovely description.
    Thanks 🙂

  24. Jones December 9, 2015 at 1:21 am #

    Thank you for sharing awesome tips. Appreciated. 🙂

  25. Happy New Year December 9, 2015 at 10:03 am #

    Happy New Year 2016 To the blogsite….wish you all the happy new year

  26. this is a best website to download December 10, 2015 at 3:02 am #

    Awesome and interesting article.

  27. dowload christmas images December 10, 2015 at 3:03 am #

    Great things you’ve always shared with us.

  28. christmas December 20, 2015 at 6:43 am #

    hey those images look like xmas in my home thank you sharing this

    merry christmas pictures

  29. Garima February 5, 2016 at 4:20 am #

    Thanks a lot for these tips. You know what? It’s February but I am going to do a Christmas photoshoot of my baby today. I was not keeping well in December so I missed it. Don’t want to miss as it was her first Christmas. I have made a Chimney 🙂 plan to use cotton as snow and a Christmas tree. I have a 50 mm prime but looks like I can’t cover much area as its not wide. Not sure how u got these full pics. I am Just abe to cover v small area. I will try with prime and my zoom as suggested 🙂

  30. Paras Sharma May 7, 2016 at 1:41 pm #

    its cool

  31. aufastupdates June 2, 2016 at 9:50 am #

    Thank you for sharing awesome tips dude…

  32. pappu August 21, 2016 at 9:21 am #

    What a superub post. I have learnt lot of things and going to implement on this Christmas with my special Christmas Tree. I hope people will get good knowledge from this special post. Thankyou so much my dear friend…

  33. Tsunami Day October 4, 2016 at 3:36 am #

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  34. vicky October 13, 2016 at 11:45 pm #

    Nice post Buddy I Wish I can Plant a Tree this Year

  35. Advance Christmas Day Wishes November 16, 2016 at 5:24 am #

    Thank you for the amazing post, I will be awaiting for your next post.

  36. Shinobi Paul December 6, 2016 at 8:58 am #

    Many of the tips here can be used regardless of the type of camera (e.g. positioning, turn off the flash, hold the camera steady or use a tripod).

    Point-and-shoot cameras are set out-of-the-box to give the best results with minimum fussing. But many times there are settings that you can manually tweak.

    For this specific scenario, see if you can manually set the aperture – just set it as large as you can (i.e. the smallest f/ stop). If you can, the camera might try to compensate by adjusting the shutter speed to give you what it thinks is a “properly exposed” picture, so you might need to switch to fully manual and override both the aperture and shutter.

    You’ll definitely need to look into your specific camera to see what it can/can’t do, but I haven’t seen a camera yet that didn’t have some sort of manual overrides possible.

    Feel free to experiment – that’s the great thing about digital is you’re not wasting film so it’s literally free to try things out. And it’s usually very easy to set things back to “Auto” so you’re not going to screw up your camera by playing with the settings.

    It’s definitely possible to get some decent pics from a point-and-shoot camera, so don’t give up!
    Christmas Text Pictures
    Christmas Greetings and Wishes
    Christmas Images and Photos

  37. Snapback Caps December 14, 2016 at 8:58 pm #

    I have learnt lot of things and going to implement on this Christmas with my special Christmas Tree.

  38. Amy December 17, 2016 at 11:37 pm #

    Just make sure your kids hold still…HAHAHAHAHAHAH. yeah right!

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