Andrew Bartlett Photography - Baby and Christmas Lights

How to Photograph Babies and Christmas Lights

So I’ve gotten a lot of questions on how to take a picture of a baby/child with Christmas lights and now that it is the holidays, I figured why not give a little tutorial?

Before we begin, take note that most Christmas lights have lead on them, so make sure the baby DOES NOT put them in their mouth and that you wash their hands immediately afterward!

Now, let’s take a look at what we are trying to accomplish:
Andrew Bartlett Photography - Baby and Christmas Lights
f2.8, 1/125, ISO 1250 – using 80-200mm at 105mm

Andrew Bartlett Photography - Baby and Christmas Lights
f2.8, 1/160, ISO 1600 – using 50mm

The goal is to have the lights glowing and the face of the child well lit. Let’s start with the basic camera settings and then we can get into other lighting tips and tricks.

I’m going to assume that you have a DSLR and are familiar with the basic controls. In order to pull in the amount of light in a quick enough time that your subject isn’t blurred, you will need to do two things:
1) Set a wide aperture (low f-stop number) like f2.8
2) Bump up your ISO to around 800-1250 (not an exact science)
3) Make sure your shutter speed is at least 1/100th to freeze the subject

Now those numbers above aren’t the magic formula, but they give you a good starting point. If the Christmas lights aren’t bright enough, bump up the ISO or slow down your shutter speed (just not too slow!!).

The tricky part now comes down to having the child lit enough that you can see them too! I’ll admit that I tried all kinds of things to get that “perfect shot” and I’ve found that the best look was having some natural light come through a window in the direction of the child. Basically, any soft diffused light will work. You don’t want them sitting in sunlight, but not in the complete darkness either.

I took lots of practice shots when the room was really dark and I got cool pictures, but the child was mostly lit from the Christmas lights and that produced uneven bright and dark spots on them. If your focus is to just get the lights or be artistic, then by all means go this route. I happen to like it when the child is evenly and well lit and the Christmas lights are brighter.

Here is the picture from above before I touched it up:

Andrew Bartlett Photography - Child wrapped in Christmas lights

In this setup, the lights were off, but the window was directly to my left, lighting up the side of her face. (just a little light coming in around 6pm) The Christmas lights are lighting up the other side of the face that is in soft shadow.

I hope this helps you! Again, the main focus is to have your ISO bumped up and your aperture open wide (lowest f-stop number).

If you have any questions or comments, leave them below and I’ll make sure to answer them!

15 replies
  1. Anne says:

    Thanks for the lesson! I’m tinkering with my new camera and have yet to figure out the best settings. I, too enjoy taking photos outside instead of indoors. I can’t seem to get the lighting right. I should probably take some lessons somewhere local. In the meantime, I’m enjoying just taking photos of the new little ones coming into the family. No, I’m not a grandmother yet but I’m prepping. Photography to me is theraputic. Based on the photos I’ve seen on your site her, I feel your love of photography. Great job!

  2. Jessica Selden says:

    Maybe this is a silly question, but how did you “touch up” the picture?

    • ajbartlett says:

      Not a silly question at all. I used Photoshop to change it to B&W, used a curves layer to darken the image and then masked out what I wanted to remain bright (ie: darkened the edges and kept the subject the same).

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Do you use a dark back ground? I’m doing Christmas pics by the tree and also Alabama pics with my boys and using light’s in the pics what kind of back ground color do I need

    • ajbartlett says:

      Depends on what look you are going for. If you want a black background, then you can set one up. I prefer not to set up backgrounds and just use what is around me. If you put up backgrounds, then you might as well do a studio shot IMO.

  4. Joni says:

    I have been wanting to do this shot with my kids for a long time. Definitely going to do it soon. Do you think I could take the picture with all the lights off and with only the Christmas lights on them? I guess playing with it to see what works best is the way to go but I just don’t want the kids to get impatient.

    • ajbartlett says:

      You could, but the chance of actually seeing the kid’s face is slim to none since the only light will be coming from the actual strand of lights. If you want to see the child too, you will need some sort of extra light on them – window, lamp, etc. If you don’t have lighting equipment like an umbrella, you could try a bright light coming through a white bed sheet. This will soften the light and you can control how much you want on them.

  5. Tedi says:

    I found your tutorial via Pinterest and I just wanted to tell you thank you! I’m new to photography, and your instructions made a world of difference for our Christmas photos. Thanks!

  6. Dana Graham says:

    Thanks for sharing! Never thought to turn the lights pic black and white but I love it!

  7. Carla says:

    How far away from the subject were you standing/sitting/lying? 🙂

    • ajbartlett says:

      Hi Carla,
      The top two pictures were taken with my 80-200 lens at 105mm. So, in that one, I was probably 15ft away or so laying on the ground. The other picture was with the 50mm, so I was probably only 5ft away or so.

  8. Sofie says:

    Nice pics,

    What white balance did you take ?
    I’ve tried this kind of photo and my child looks yellow :-/ ..


    • ajbartlett says:

      Thanks! I usually just have it set on Auto WB and then make any white balance edits in Lightroom. If you are taking the pics next to your tree inside your home with typical tungsten lights, you’ll most likely get that yellow cast…. If you don’t want to do any post editing, you can put your WB on Tungsten and it should help bring that yellow cast down. I find it easiest to just use the white balance dropper in Lightroom to fix mine (plus give it more or less warmth for my own pleasure). Hope that helps!

  9. Kris says:

    You should probably also mention that these lights are coated in LEAD. Also these types of photos are not recommended for small children due to dangers.

    • ajbartlett says:

      Hi Kris,
      Thanks for posting. I’m not sure you read the post? If so, you missed the second sentence at the beginning of the post that was in bold italics that warned about lead and the dangers associated with them.


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