The Camera Settings Needed & 9 Extra Tips For Documenting Your Family Christmas

Who doesn't like that beautiful bokeh from Christmas trees? Below I tell you how to get that coveted glowy ball look and more! This article is geared more toward someone who has a digital camera (DSLR), but if you have a manual camera app on your phone that will work too! You'll see results both ways.

First we're gonna get into the camera settings needed to get the perfect Christmas tree pictures, then we're also gonna look at some creativity and 9 extra tips on how you can document your family Christmas in style!

(Want to make it easier for you? Save time and grab a free download with the camera settings needed here!)


The first thing you wanna look at is lighting. It can be tempting to turn on some lights inside the house to help compensate for the low light conditions, but don't do it! If you’re looking to create natural, warm and moody images, make sure you turn off your flash for some (if not most) of your photos. This allows the ambient light of the Christmas lights or fireplace to show up in your images and allows parts of the scene to fall off into shadow. Forget the flash. You’re trying to capture the color of the lights and your flash could interfere with the lights’ color profile.

"Ok, that's great, Drea, but now I'm sitting in a dark room with a beautiful Christmas tree and my camera is taking pictures of blackness" you may say?

Read on for how to fix that part...

Camera Settings

Aha! The part that will dramatically help create the magic you see in your head. Dont forget to take some test shots along the way while adjusting each setting to find your sweet spot. Here we go:

1.) Bump up your ISO. ISO is a number that represents how sensitive your camera is to light. If you raise your ISO, it will make your image brighter buuuut it will also make them grainier. Start with the ISO at around 800. If your photos are too dark, increase it. Any time you’re on a tripod, just go with the lowest ISO possible. Low ISO means higher quality, since using a super high ISO will make your image grainy. But you will have to bump up that ISO, even if that means going up to 1600, 3200 and even 6400 depending on your camera body. On full frame professional cameras, don’t be afraid to go up to 6400. On entry level cameras keep your ISOs at 1600 and below to avoid too much image degradation. 

2.) Use lower apertures. With F-stops (aperture), lower numbers let it more light (like F1.8) and higher numbers let in less light (like F22). You'll be able to create beautiful bokeh of your Christmas lights by dropping your aperture to a low number. You'll have to be very accurate with your focus at such shallow depth of fields, but if you can get your subjects sharp, the low apertures will really make your images pop and bring out those beautiful background Christmas lights. If your lens is capable, try staying at f2.8 or below. A wide open aperture is a must, people! You need to let in a lot of light with a setting like f/2. A wide aperture will make your background out of focus, and your holiday lights should become little luminous balls. You can make the bokeh balls bigger by increasing the distance between your subject and the lights. Play around with this setting until you get your desired bokeh effect!

3.) Keep your shutter speed as slow as you can to let in the most light. Be careful with this one, if you don't have a tripod (or some books to sit your camera on) then your image will be blurry. If you're photographing people then try starting at a shutter speed of 1/125. The higher your shutter speed gets, the crisper your image will be, but you'll have to compensate for the less light by bumping your ISO higher which will make the image grainy. For blinking lights, make sure that you increase your shutter speed to capture the full light cycle.

You'll have to play around with all 3 of these setting to find the sweet spot that works for you, but I suggest starting with:


Shutterspeed: 1/125

Aperture: F1.8 (or as low as you can)

And then go from there!

Additional Tips:

  • A tripod would be super helpful, but a chair or a stack of books works just as well. Without it, you’ll probably end up sacrificing a lot of image quality because of slow shutter speeds. So unless you’ve got superhuman steadiness, bust out the tripod (or, you'no, that stack of books). It’s the only way to guarantee a crisp shot for your long exposures.

  • If you're having issues dealing with all the settings separately, try using just the Aperture Priority Mode on your camera (this mode is symbolized on your camera with an 'A' or an 'Av') and remember to keep that aperture low.

  • If you need more light, increase the exposure time (slow shutter speed, like 1/60) instead of increasing the ISO. This prevents the grain that would’ve been introduced by the higher ISO, just be careful cuz it does leave your photo vulnerable to blurry moving subjects (kids, flying reindeer, trees in the wind). But, long exposure captures the full glory of the light display. Just make sure to have something to steady your camera.

  • The way you give the tree and lights the blurry effect is by moving your subject a few feet away from the tree toward your camera with your camera on a low aperture (like F1.8). The farther from the tree they are, the blurrier the tree will be and the larger the bokeh will be - but consider that the subject will most likely be darker too unless you have other lighting such as a soft lamp, candle, or fireplace to help illuminate your subject.

  • Get low to capture an interesting perspective, especially if your taking pictures of your kiddos in front of the tree. Lay on the ground if you need to!

  • Get close! Putting the subject of your photo closer to the camera can help increase the amount of blur in the out-of-focus parts of the image, which works great for small details like Christmas ornaments. Be sure to keep your apertures low and again, consider turning off your flash to maintain the natural, moody feel.

  • If you're having trouble creating the bokeh you want, you can always use something like PicMonkey and add it onto your image afterwards.

  • If you want to get really fancy, you can always try to take multiple images with different exposures of your background and then your subjects - and then merge them in a composite. You can find a tutorial for that here.

  • Portrait photography isn’t the only genre you have to embrace during the holidays. You can zoom out and take photos of various rooms, stockings, meals, and wrapped gifts. You can also photograph different times of day. What does the living room look like before everyone has unwrapped the gifts? What’s the atmosphere like when everyone has come together to watch a Christmas film at the end of the day? These details, which might not matter so much now, will bring a smile to your face in the future. All you have to do is preserve them through your pictures.

There you have it! The camera settings needed and 9 extra tips for documenting your family Christmas. If you have any questions about this article or want clarification or help on camera settings, feel free to reach out and contact me! I'd be happy to help. :)

Merry Christmas!