Christmas is a wonderful time of year for us photographers because we get to experiment with all of the beautiful colors and shapes associated with the season. I’m always striving to find new ways to be creative, so last year I challenged myself to produce creative interpretations of Christmas tree lights.

I’d like to show you six different techniques I used that should help get your own creative juices flowing. Since these images require long exposures, you’ll need to use a tripod. Also, you’ll need to use a zoom lens that allows manual focusing. For each of the photos in this article, I used a 70-200mm that has separate rings for zoom and focus. Some of the images require a slow rotation of the zoom and focus rings, while others require fast rotation.

Technique 1: Zoom, defocused image, long exposure

Nikon D850, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. Settings: ISO 100, f/8, 4s

For this image, I started the exposure with the tree out of focus. This approach gave the image a very creamy/soft overall look. I exposed the photo for approximately two seconds before I started zooming the lens. Doing so allows the colors of the tree (green) to register before creating the zoom effect.

Technique 2: Quick zoom with slow focus rack

Nikon D850, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. Settings: ISO 100, f/8, 4s

To achieve this look, you’ll need to start by focusing on the tree, so everything is sharp at the beginning of the exposure. Then, don’t change zoom or focus for approximately two seconds so the tree registers in the exposure. During the third and fourth seconds of the exposure, quickly zoom the lens to achieve the light trails, then at the end of the exposure, slightly rotate the focus ring to produce the small dots of light at the end of the light trails.

Technique 3: Quick zoom with fast focus rack

Nikon D850, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. Settings: ISO 100, f/8, 4s

This technique is very similar to Technique 2, but the difference is that you make a much faster/larger rotation of the focus ring at the end of the exposure. Start the shot by focusing on the tree for the first two seconds of the exposure. Then, during the third second, quickly zoom the lens. Near the end of the fourth second, rack the focus ring all the way to the focus stop. The rapid rotation of the focus ring at the end of the exposure will lead to the large blobs of light (that’s a technical term).

Technique 4: Rotate camera around lens

Nikon D850, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. Settings: ISO 100, f/8, 4s

For this image, you’ll need a lens with a built-in lens collar. Start the photo with the tree in focus, then expose for approximately two seconds to register the tree on the exposure. During the last two seconds of the exposure, rotate the camera around the lens collar in order to achieve the circular look. This technique can also produce some really great effects if you rotate the camera while simultaneously zooming or defocusing. Producing that look will require two people; one to rotate the camera around the lens, and the other to zoom/focus the lens.

Technique 5: Blue Hour, slow zoom and focus

Nikon D850, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. Settings: ISO 100, f/8, 2s

The key to achieving this look is to shoot during the blue hour. Since our Christmas tree was positioned in front of a window, I waited until about 30 minutes after sunset and began shooting long exposures during the blue hour. For the specific photo shown here, I slowly zoomed while rapidly rotating the focus ring during the 2-second exposure. Moving the zoom slowly made the light trails short while rotating the focus ring quickly made the blobs of light change from small to large.

Technique 6: Use a computer screen

Nikon D850, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. Settings: ISO 32, f/4, 1/8s

For these images, I started with a photograph of a Christmas tree taken with a star filter. After completing the shot, I opened the image on my computer and displayed it on my monitor with a black background. Finally, I used the zoom and focus techniques shown previously during the exposure to produce some creative results.

I hope these shots provide you with some creative ideas to start producing your own version of creative Christmas tree photographs. I’d love to see some of your examples and hear what works well for you. Leave a note in the comment section below to let me know what you came up with.