How to photograph LED Christmas lights

Dec 8, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

How to photograph LED Christmas lights

Dec 8, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

Join the Discussion

Share on:

christmas_leds

At this time of year, having Christmas lights in the background of your shots is not only common, it’s desired. Especially for those bokeh fanatics. The last few years, though, there’s been a trend away from the more traditional Christmas lights toward low energy LEDs. Being in the room with them, just looking at them, it’s likely that most people will never see the difference. To a camera, however, it’s a different story.

In this video from LensProToGo, Mike shows us the different types of LED Christmas lights available. He goes through the qualities and issues with each of them, and how to overcome those with our photography.

YouTube video

Mike demonstrates the problem of many modern LED Christmas lights early on in the video. It’s a problem that’s quickly and easily identified for filmmakers, but not so much for photographers. If your shutter speed is too quick, you can catch them at the wrong time in their cycle, and they can all appear to be turned off.

christmas_led_lights_framerate

These types of LEDs are called pulse wave LEDs. The power is supplied in one of two states, either fully on or fully off. In order to not blow the lights or shorten their lifespan, the supply is pulsed on and off (hence the name). This also allows the lights to be turned up or down in brightness while still receiving full power when the light is on. They’re just turned on for a much briefer time.

The rapid on and off pulses are usually far to fast for the human eye & brain to pick up on. Cameras, though, can easily catch them in their cycle, especially at faster shutter speeds, as shown in the clip above.

There are, of course, LEDs that don’t work these way, which are called full wave LEDs. These actually change the amount of power going to the LEDs, but keep them on all the time. They’re typically denoted by the fact that they have 3 wires coming from the plug instead of 2.

full_wave_led_plug

It’s a little bit like the way speedlights vs strobes used to work. Speedlights always put out light at maximum power. If you wanted to reduce the exposure, dialling it down simply reduces the amount of time the light was on. With strobes, the light would generally always output for the same amount of time, but dialling those down reduced how brightly the bulb burns. More recent strobes are starting to incorporate more speedlight-like technology, so this isn’t as true as it once was, but you get the point.

The difference with the Christmas LEDs is that this process happens constantly, over and over, in order to provide what our eyes perceive as constant illumination.

With the full wave LEDs, you can photograph them just as you would incandescent Christmas lights in the past. But, you can still photograph the standard cheap pulse wave LEDs with your camera, you just need to shoot at slower shutter speeds. It’s that simple.

Have you ran into LED flickering situations with stills or video? Did you slow down your shutter? Or just switch to full wave LEDs? Have you started practising with your Christmas lights yet? How have your results been? Let us know and show off some of your Christmas lights shots in the comments.

Filed Under:

Tagged With:

Find this interesting? Share it with your friends!

John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

Join the Discussion

DIYP Comment Policy
Be nice, be on-topic, no personal information or flames.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 responses to “How to photograph LED Christmas lights”

  1. Michael Turcotte Avatar
    Michael Turcotte

    I have been working and playing with electronics for more than 30 years and have never heard of full wave or pulse wave LEDs. The author speaks English so this isn’t a case of bad Google translate. Do some research before writing.

    LEDs fed with an AC signal will flicker, LEDs fed with a DC signal will not and depending on the current and voltage be almost on to fully on to overdriven, and fed with a PWM (pulse width modulated) signal will flicker but not be visible to eye or camera if the frequency is high enough. Most LED drivers that use PWM for dimming run at 10,000 to 100,000 Hertz (cycles per second). For reference, mains voltage (the wall outlet) runs at 50 or 60 Hertz.

    1. Kay O. Sweaver Avatar
      Kay O. Sweaver

      Yeah, that full wave/pulse wave stuff sounded like BS to me.

      Another thing worth mentioning about LEDs Christmas lights is color temperature. Cool white and warm white sound like they’d correspond to daylight and tungsten, but they really don’t, so if color is critical, have fun. Also many LEDs have built in lenses, which results in a hotspot in front of it and a less intense diffuse light around it.

    2. 'smee Avatar
      ‘smee

      PWM will flicker intermittently, especially in video with an electronic shutter, or in camera: a harmonic ‘beat’ can occur, just like the old-time strobing effect of wagon wheels, resulting from the periodicity in the shutter, the pwm periodicity in the led, and the on-camera chip-scan period. (None of these processes are immediate or instantaneous…)

      The latter is also why DSLR video has a rolling shutter issue.

      So while the factual basis of the article is, indeed, horsepuckey of a particularly fine vintage, the effect is real!

    3. Pete Woods Avatar
      Pete Woods

      haha. This it what happens when you let your marketing people run-amok with your technology. Marketing people are good at making sh.t up and spouting meaningless techno-sounding-verbiage that only impress our uneducated plebeian. Certainly verbiage that would make an engineer cringe at every misspoken word. Judging by the video I’m guessing they got their “full wave” and “pulse wave” BS off the Christmas lights packaging, e.i. from the marketing dept.

  2. Ralph Hightower Avatar
    Ralph Hightower

    The flash sync for my A-1 is 1/60; the flash sync for my F-1 is 1/90. But why use flash for Christmas lights?