Photograph by Jeff Heimsath
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A festive Christmas tree lights up the courtyard of the Lotte New York Palace Hotel in Manhattan.

Photograph by Jeff Heimsath

4 quick tips for photographing Christmas lights

A National Geographic Travel photo editor visited New York City to capture its glittering holiday lights. Here are his top photo tips.

Every December, millions of sparkling lights illuminate cities across the globe, and perhaps none are more dazzling than New York City’s iconic Christmastime displays. Whether you’re wandering through the steel skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan or the frost-coated streets of Brooklyn, here are a few tips for getting the most out of your photos of Christmas lights–in New York City or in your own backyard.

Find a Great Spot

Each year New York City strives to make the holiday season as big and bright as the Big Apple itself, so if you're heading to the city, you'll have lots of options. From elaborate displays like the Lotte Palace Hotel to time-honored traditions like the Rockefeller Christmas Tree, there’s no shortage of photogenic locations to choose from. South of the glitz and glamour of Manhattan, residents of the Dyker Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn string up lights on dozens of houses, creating a deluge of over-the-top displays that are a feast for the eyes. For an inside scoop on the Brooklyn lights go with a local tour guide.

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Sam "the Greek" Bilas decks his home in colorful lights, one of many over-the-top light displays in the Dyker Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Timing Is Everything

The trick to getting good photos of outdoor light displays is to start shooting at dusk. Get to your location early so you don’t miss out on this short window. If you shoot too early in the evening, the lights won’t pop in your photos. If you shoot too late, the lights will look like tiny points floating in empty space.

Why doesn’t the photograph simply mimic what you see? Unlike your eyes, cameras have limited dynamic range. They can only focus on either the bright lights or the dark surroundings—not both simultaneously. The human eye, on the other hand, has the incredible ability to compress a wide range of lights and shadows into a single image.

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Glowing angel sculptures frame the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in Midtown Manhattan.

Pack the Right Accessories

Since you’ll likely be using a slower shutter speed to shoot in the low-light setting, bring a tripod to avoid taking blurry images with wobbly hands. It will also be especially handy if the lights are timed to music or flicker. If you don’t have a tripod, you can improvise by balancing the camera on a car hood or tree to reduce camera shake. Learn more about our favorite compact cameras here.

Lights? Camera? Action!

Once you’re all set up, watch the sky. As it slowly darkens into a deeper blue, you’ll notice the Christmas lights will appear to shine brighter. The best time for photos usually lasts a fleeting 10 to 15 minutes, so snap away and don’t be afraid to pause and check the photos on the back of your camera to make sure everything is turning out the way you want.

When the sky is completely dark, you’ll notice your photos starting to lose detail and look empty. Then it’s time to put the camera away, grab some hot cocoa, and enjoy the lights through nature’s original lens—your eyes.

This story has been updated. It was originally published in December 2016.