How to Take Photos of Your Christmas Tree – Make it Sparkle with Starbursts & Give it Blurry Bokeh Effects

Over the past couple of years, I’ve received a lot of questions about how I take pictures of Christmas tree lights. From blurred bokeh backgrounds to super sharp tree images that look like the lights are sparkling, I’ve been asked about tips, settings, and if there’s an app I use. The bad news – no, I don’t use an app and I don’t use an iPhone. So, I can’t speak to whether there’s a way to achieve similar photo results in that way. But, if you have similar, basic camera equipment to what I have, it’s not difficult to catch on once you start practicing.

I use the same camera I’ve had since around when I started the blog and everything I know about photography is self taught. I’ve literally Googled my way around my basic little Nikon D3200 since getting it three years ago — I’m always learning, adjusting, and trying to figure out ways to better do things. I rely on using Lightroom for editing but I haven’t come across a program/app in the world that will magically fix everything if the original photo isn’t taken somewhat properly. In this post, you’ll see I don’t use a lot of technical terminology – I know the result I’m looking for and generally, what settings to move up or down to help get me there. But, don’t count on this to be a comprehensive camera tutorial – there are a ton of resources out there that will get you fixed right up 😉

With all the photos you’ll see in the post, I’ve used my 50 mm prime lens (HERE). You can still use a wide angle lens but I prefer the 50 mm when possible. If you’re looking for your first lens beyond your kit lens, this is the one I would recommend, without a doubt. Also, all the lighting conditions for these photos vary – that means, my exact camera settings may be different than yours, depending on your setup/lighting/etc. Another important thing to note- incandescent bulbs photograph way better than LED. And, some LED photograph better than other LED. I’m not sure of the scientific reason of why the can look different and why they can read green in photos but I can’t always make LED lights do what clear, warm, incandescent bulbs do.

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How to Make Your Christmas Tree Lights Twinkle

In my experience, getting that starburst effect that makes it look like your Christmas tree lights are twinkling comes down to how long the shutter stays open. Here’s how I make that happen for as long as possible:

  1. USE A TRIPOD. You can’t pull this off while holding your camera.
  2. Shoot in manual mode.
  3. Turn overhead/lamp lights off.
  4. Set your ISO down as low as possible. I try to stick with 100 – occasionally 200 if it’s pitch black outside.
  5. The darker it is outside, the easier it is to set your camera to have a slow shutter speed without the photo getting overexposed.
  6. Set a small aperture (make the lens hole small) to minimize depth of field and get your photo as crisp as possible
  7. Focus on the tree/whatever subject has the light strands.
  8. Most of my twinkle light photos have an ISO of 100, aperture of f/13-f/16, and will vary the greatest in shutter speed depending on how light/dark it is outside/inside.

I also often get questions about whether I’ve added additional lights to my trees as sometimes they seem to be way brighter or glow from within. It’s all in the camera settings! The longer the photo processes, the more light it’s gathering and emitting from those lights. Here are photo examples in conditions from overcast outside, to twilight/after sunset to when it’s totally dark outside – see settings below each photo.

Tips to make your Christmas tree lights sparkle.

50 mm lens | ISO 100 | f/16 | 4.0 sec

How to make Christmas lights sparkle and twinkle with light bursts

50 mm lens | ISO 100 | f/16 | 15.0 sec

How to take Christmas tree photos at night

50 mm lens | ISO 100 | f/16 | 30.0 sec

How to take photos of Christmas trees with twinkle lights

50 mm lens | ISO 200 | f/13 | 13.0 sec

How to make your Christmas tree lights extra bright and glow-y!

50 mm lens | ISO 100 | f/16 | 15.0 sec

How to take Christmas photos at night in the dark

50 mm lens | ISO 200 | f/13 | 15.0 sec

Tips on taking nighttime Christmas photos

50 mm lens | ISO 200 | f/13 | 15.0 sec

How to Give Your Christmas Tree Lights a Bokeh Effect (Blurry Circle Background)

To achieve a bokeh effect with your Christmas lights, you basically use the opposite settings for most of your photos. You want a quick shutter speed and an intense depth of field (large aperture) (focus on foreground with deep background blur) – this is also where THIS lens comes in handy. You can get this effect at night or during the day and can pull off a blurred bokeh effect with or without a tripod. If your conditions are dark, I’d still use one 😉 But, your ISO is much more flexible with this style of photo.

  1. With a good portrait lens, this is an easier effect to achieve. And, this is a setting you’ll use way more often if you want people in the photos. For example- portraits for Christmas cards.
  2. Shoot in manual mode.
  3. Turn overhead/lamp lights off.
  4. Whatever your subject is, pull it away from the light source, like your tree, far enough in front so it can really blur the background. The closer it is to your tree, the more focus it will give the tree, thus, giving you less bokeh and blurred background.
  5. Get close to your subject and focus on it – not the light source/Christmas tree.
  6. Set a large aperture (make the lens hole big) to maximize depth of field and get your photo as crisp as possible
  7. The larger your aperture and the faster your lens, the more blur you will have. To get more distinct circles, adjust your settings slightly.

Christmas Light Photography Tips

50 mm lens | ISO 200 | f/1.8 | 1/250 sec

How to take pictures of Christmas lights

50 mm lens | ISO 100 | f/2.5 | 1/25 sec

How to photography blurry lights as a bokeh Christmas background

50 mm lens | ISO 400 | f/1.6 | 1/13 sec

Blurry bokeh background

50 mm lens | ISO 200 | f/3.2 | 1/60 sec

How to create bokeh blurry Christmas tree light photos

50 mm lens | ISO 200 | f/2.2 | 1/80 sec

Tips on taking CHristmas photos with bokeh lights

50 mm lens | ISO 200 | f/1.6 | 1/160 sec

When in doubt, pull your camera out and just play around with it! Make your tree the subject when you’re looking for it to sparkle; put your focus on something in the foreground to get a blurred bokeh background. A few final tips in editing:

  1. To really pronounce the starburst twinkle, take your highlights all the way down.
  2. To make your tree glow more, turn up the vibrance.

To catch this year’s Christmas Home Tour, be sure to visit the post HERE and you can check out other posts to get you ready for the holidays on the far right of the menu at the top of the screen.

Get Cozy & Watch All the Hallmark Christmas Movies

Other Photography Posts

Tips on how to take pictures of your Christmas Tree Lights - from twinkle starbursts to blurry soft bokeh

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  1. 12.11.18
    Cecilia from Georgia said:

    This is so helpful for taking pictures this Christmas. I have had a Nikon D5600 for a year and only know the basics. YouTube is good but doesn’t explain IOS and aperture so I can understand how to use them correctly. You have explained it so well! Thanks and Merry Christmas!

  2. 12.12.18

    PERFECT explanation Kelley! I have pinned this and bookmarked too! I am starting a photography course in January…this visual with the cheat notes will be a great source to refer to. I hosted a party yesterday that I’ll be blogging about and to make sure I didn’t screw it up I hired a professional!! Lol

  3. 12.12.18
    Colleen said:

    Thanks for sharing these tips! I always forget when it comes time to take photos!

  4. 12.13.18
    Tamara said:

    Oh I’m loving these tips Kel! Thank you for sharing!! Now if I can only get my photos like yours!!

  5. 12.17.18
    Karen said:

    Thank you!! From: photographer in training ?