Well, it’s that time of year. Dragging the Christmas tree to the curb and packing up all the lights and paraphernalia, for many, is a yearly tradition. But before you go throwing your giant knot balls of Christmas lights back into their dusty seclusion, consider playing¬†around with them a little first.

I’ll use anything I can create myself to come up with the visuals I am looking for. I have been working with different light patterns and glow effects in some of my personal projects lately, so naturally, when I saw the colorful Christmas lights we had laying around, it got me¬†thinking of ways I could use them. I grabbed my digital camera, took a couple of pictures, and immediately realized that when I moved while taking the pictures, it would create trails of light. This is similar to the old effect you have probably seen photographers use, usually in pictures of vehicles moving on highways at night. I started moving the camera around on purpose, making circles with it, wavy lines and random abstract patterns as i took the picture. Even though my camera is very “middle of the road”, I felt some of the results had potential, but there was still a lot of background in the pictures and all I really wanted was the light effect.

A couple of weeks passed by, and as we were putting everything away, I grabbed the camera and the string of lights and went to work. Now, there are all kinds of different Christmas lights: small, big, blinking, all different colors, shapes, and sizes. The ones I used were small. Here is some helpful direction:

Turn off the Flash

You’re going to want to turn the flash off on the camera. The flash offsets the lights and kills the whole thing.

Lighting Environment

The room needs to be dark; Optimally, pitch black, I-can’t-see-my-hand-in-front-of-my-face dark. This way, you shut out everything else and the camera will only pick up the lights. The lights need to be placed against a dark background if you only want to capture the colors and the trails. I did this by placing them on a dark wood floor. The best method would be a black, matte background, but this isn’t exactly required since the movement of the camera usually blurs the background into the darkness. You’re going to be running the images through Photoshop anyway. Hanging them in a large black box or in the middle of a dark room could also work well. Experiment.

Lights Arrangement and Camera Operation

You can arrange the lights in different patterns and shapes for different effects. Hold the camera above the lights (or however you have it set up), push the button, and while it is taking the picture, move the camera around in different motions and at different speeds to achieve your desired effect.

After you’re done, you can run the ones you like best through Photoshop. Play with the tone and levels to kill any remaining background you have and voila!

Here are a few low-res examples:
light trails arcnerva

christmas light trails

graphic design blog

web design blog

beautiful christmas light trails

Now all that’s left to do is for you to manipulate them in Photoshop. The results are fairly abstract so you can use them however you like. Be creative.

photoshopped light trails

20 minute photoshopped Christmas light trails

I was very pleased with the results. If I ever use them in a project I’ll try to link to it from here.

Thanks and have fun.