Tis the season for holiday lights, with festive displays dotting the landscape from coast to coast to brighten the waning daylight hours. From the graceful lights and majestic tree in New York’s Rockefeller Center, to the whirlwind of sound, color, and lighting in a holiday theme park, such displays are a fantasy land for photographic exploration.
To aid you in capturing photogenic moments that convey the spirit of the season, we’ve developed this list of popular holiday lighting displays in locations throughout the United States.
Above photograph © John McEvoy
Operating hours, dates, and admission costs for each venue vary widely, so please check event websites for specifics before planning a visit. As for cost, many of the venues have a primary goal to raise money for local charities. In such cases, consider the admission fee as a benevolent effort to spread some holiday cheer.
Thirty minutes southeast of Mobile, the Gulf Coast serves up southern hospitality with an elegant display of holiday lights at Bellingrath Gardens and Home’s 22nd annual presentation of Magic Christmas in Lights.
From November 24 through December 31, guests are invited for a two-mile stroll through a dazzling display featuring more than three million lights set among the 65-acre Garden estate. The Bellingrath Home is also decorated in its holiday finery, with tours offered every half hour, and choral performances scheduled on the South Terrace many nights. Special evening hours run from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. nightly, except on Christmas.
“My wife Beth had visited Bellingrath as a young child, but I had never been there before,” says photographer Chhorn Lim. “I admit being somewhat skeptical at first, but I was instantly blown away when we arrived. It's truly something you have to experience in person.”
“The sheer [number] of lights, and the way they are organized, as well as realizing the amount of preparation that had to occur, was simply mind-blowing!” he exclaims.
From November 24 to December 30, the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden holds its annual Las Noches de las Luminarias event, with thousands of hand-lit luminaria bags to guide visitors through the various garden displays. Each night from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., visitors can sip on hot, spiced apple cider while enjoying a varying array of live music in different corners of the garden.
During his first visit to the event in 2014, photographer Wade Lengele captured a display of luminarias that reminded him of a Fibonacci spiral. “There must have been hundreds of luminarias, so I wanted to capture the scale of the display,” he explains. Using a a Velbon tripod to steady his Canon 6D and EF17-40 F4L lens, he moved in close to shoot this image of the tail. “Simplistically beautiful,” he notes.
Arkansas hosts an annual statewide event, where more than 60 communities offer light shows, parades, tree-lighting ceremonies, and other harbingers of the holiday season. With The Trail of Holiday Lights, visitors can find a light display to brighten up their night in every region of the state. From the enchanted lit walkways of Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs, to the one-mile drive-through experience at Sherwood's Enchanted Forest Trail of Lights and beyond, this 22-year-old holiday tradition brings more festive joy to the state today than ever.
The Golden State hosts a diverse array of festive light events—from San Francisco’s artsy Illuminate Festival of Lights to the LA Zoo’s interactive Zoo Lights display, and many more. In the seaside city of San Diego, a transitory holiday light show offers a nautical twist, as sailors assemble for a festive procession in the San Diego Bay Parade of Lights. Now in its 46th year, this themed parade is an annual tradition with more than 80 boats and yachts setting sail from Shelter Island at 5:00 p.m., on Sunday, December 11, and again on the 18th. The scheduled route passes Harbor Island, the Embarcadero, and Seaport Village, ending at Coronado Island’s Ferry Landing.
Photographer Nathan Rupert captured the action with a Canon 7D and 50 mm f1.4 lens. He notes, “The hardest part was shooting in such low light with no flash, and getting enough shutter speed to stop the action, since the boats are moving pretty quickly.”
From November 24 through January 1, the Denver Botanic Garden hosts the annual holiday lights extravaganza Blossoms of Light. During special evening hours, the garden is transformed into a twinkling winter wonderland with an interactive light display featuring a large field of sound-reactive LED lights.
To capture the image above, photographer John McEvoy placed his Nikon D90 and Sigma 17-35mm lens on a tripod, and bracketed several exposures with a one-stop difference between them. He combined the files in post using Photomatix Pro 5.1 HDR software, for a final scene that captures the full contrast range, from highlights to shadows.
“This event is always worth the numb fingers, toes, and nose that usually accompany one strolling along during the night in December,” he says. “Granted, while making each image, I was standing still for several minutes rather than sauntering along like most other visitors.” His ultimate tip: “Dress warm and bring a friend you can hug to help keep warm. It is quite romantic!”
Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park comes alive for the holidays with Winter WonderFEST. Taking place Thursday through Sunday evenings from November 17 through New Year’s Day, festivities include a Light Spectacular with more than 90 dazzling light displays along a 1.5-mile ride through the park. In addition, a Christmas Village at the Cape May Lewes Ferry features a 70-foot Ferris wheel, carnival rides, live entertainment, a special ice rink for skaters, a s’mores fire pit, and Santa’s Workshop.
“The WonderFEST lights are spectacular, nestled on a long winding road through Cape Henlopen State Park, with new scenes at every turn, illuminating the beach grass, evergreen trees, and other native vegetation,” says local photographer Victoria Pickering.
Miami boasts the world’s largest holiday theme park at Santa’s Enchanted Forest, and Daytona Beach welcomes the Magic of Lights holiday light spectacle to the Daytona International Speedway, but as the oldest continuously settled city in the US, St. Augustine draws on the more civilized Spanish tradition of placing white candles in the window during the holidays. For the past 24 years, this ritual has reached new festive heights in Nights of Lights, where some three million points of light illuminate the 144-square-block historic district. This season, the event runs from November 18 to January 31, 2018, featuring live music on weekends, several specialty tours to choose from and much, much more.
Photographer Justin Hankins explains, “Millions of twinkling lights illuminate the St. Augustine waterfront to promote a sense of warmth and hospitality.” The photo above was taken at the mouth of the city’s historic Bridge of Lions. Working with a Canon EOS 300D and an 18-55mm lens set at f/11, Hankins made a five-second exposure shortly after sunset to preserve some of the deep blue of dusk, while also allowing the car headlights to contribute to the scene.
Festive light displays at private gardens are a much-loved holiday tradition in Georgia. From Fantasy in Lights at Pine Mountain’s Callaway Gardens, to the Lighting of the Ruins at Barnsley Gardens and Resort in Adairsville and beyond, the holiday season is a great time to explore the region’s top lighting displays.
From November 11 to January 7, the Atlanta Botanical Garden is transformed into a holiday fantasy land for the Garden Lights event. Impressive light displays include the high-tech Nature's Wonders, where countless strands of dancing lights are strung high over the woodlands and synchronized to illuminate the setting’s natural flora.
Working on a Vanguard Alta Pro carbon fiber tripod, photographer Mark Chandler captured the image above with his Canon EOS 7D and 18-55 lens. “Garden Lights is a wonderful annual event, and many photographers enjoy trying to capture the beauty and holiday spirit of the display,” he says. “The event is popular and tends to sell out, particularly on weekend nights, so those planning to attend this year should get their tickets early.”
Do you have a favorite Holiday Lighting event not mentioned above, or a cherished memory at one of these sites? Tell us about it in the Comments section, below!