Holiday Lights in 9 States: NY, NC, PA, SC, TX, UT, VA, WA, WI

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For the last installment of our series on holiday lighting displays, we feature light shows in the states of New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin, to aid you in capturing photogenic moments that convey the spirit of the season.

As noted in Part 1, 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.

Please note: Where camera models are mentioned that are no longer available, links have been updated to display comparable, current generation products.

Above photograph © Van Sutherland

New York

With all due respect to New York State, the hub of holiday lights and festivities is generally centered in New York City. From the intimate glow of department store window displays, to the bold lights and decorations erected throughout Midtown Manhattan, the entire city oozes holiday spirit. Yet, equally magnificent as these iconic sites are DYI neighborhood displays that dot the five boroughs, such as Christmas in Jamaica Estates, Queens or the Holiday lights of Dyker Heights, Brooklyn.

Olga Doubravova

“Once a year, Dyker Heights is transformed into magical place,” says photographer Olga Doubravova. “Many houses get decorated with spectacular holiday lights and ornaments, bringing joy to both children and adults. I love to bring friends and visitors here right before Christmas, to see their surprise and excitement. It is one of my favorite ways of getting into the holiday spirit.”

With her ISO set to 2000, Doubravova handheld her Canon EOS Rebel T2i and 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens, exposing for 1/30 of a second at f/3.5.

North Carolina

Now in its 26th season, Tanglewood's Festival of Lights transforms the rolling countryside of Clemmons, North Carolina into a winter wonderland of giant, twinkling snowflakes and other whimsical scenes. Open to visitors during evening hours, from November 17 through January 1, the five-mile drive-through route contains more than 100 displays, comprising more than a million LED lights. Additionally, through December 3, visitors can bask in the splendor of the lights while camping out at the Tanglewood RV Campground.

Chris Whitted

Photographer Chris Whitted visits the Festival every Thanksgiving, after dinner with his family. “My wife drives while I stick my camera through the sun roof, and I use the LCD screen to see my shots,” he says. “With traffic constantly moving, I find my favorite shots are long exposures of light tunnels. I don't use a tripod, so I have to hold the camera down against the roof as strong as I can and hope for the best.”

Whitted’s photo above is a five-second exposure using a Canon EOS 7D Mk II with a Canon EF 28-135 f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens, wide open.

Pennsylvania

The Keystone state is home to a wide range of holiday attractions, from the French-inspired holiday display A Longwood Christmas at Longwood Gardens, in Kennett Square, to a Christkindlmarkt in the Christmas City of Bethlehem.

For some old-fashioned Pennsylvania Dutch flavor, head to Koziar’s Christmas Village, near Bernville, where more than a million lights decorate the farmhouse and barn, as well as the lake, walkways, trees, and fences. This family-run operation is currently celebrating its 70th season, and is open nightly until 9:00 p.m. from Thanksgiving through January 1, offering indoor and outdoor holiday displays, miniature trains, fresh treats from the country kitchen, and much more.

A holiday extravaganza on an even grander scale awaits visitors to Hersheypark, which is draped in more than 4 million lights for the holidays. Inside the park, at Christmas Candylane, visitors can enjoy NOEL, a choreographed light show synchronized to your favorite holiday music. Outside the park, Hershey Sweet Lights holiday drive-thru spectacular features nearly 600 illuminated, animated displays along two miles of wooded trails.

Amy Spangler

Photographer Amy Spangler is well accustomed to the challenges of working in low-light conditions. “When creating night shots, I am usually equipped with a tripod and time my shooting to a half hour after sunset or before sunrise, to pick up some color in the sky,” she explains. “But on this family excursion to the park, I traveled light.”

Spangler captured this image of the Christmas Candylane Light Show using a Nikon D600 and a 24-70 mm F 2.8 lens. “In lieu of a tripod, I looked for sturdy surfaces like a flat-topped trash can, railing, or bench to stabilize my camera,” she notes. “To freeze the action of this animated display, I used a 2-second exposure at f/5.6.”

South Carolina

On the South Carolina coast, just outside Myrtle Beach, Brookgreen Gardens hosts Nights of a Thousand Candles, from November 30 through December 17, with evening hours each week from Thursday to Sunday. Visitors can stroll the grounds illuminated by the soft glow of more than 5,500 hand-lit candles and 60,000 sparkling lights on the garden’s 80-foot fir tree.

Van Sutherland

Photographer Van Sutherland notes, “Brookgreen Gardens is an amazing locale for photography any time of the year, but this event offers something out of the ordinary. Numerous ponds and fountains are illuminated by candles floating in glass bowls, with lights strung though ancient live oaks.”

Sutherland captured the image above using an Olympus E-M1 and M.Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8 lens. With his ISO set to 200 and his lens at f/8, he shot an 8-second exposure with the camera resting on a low wall enclosing the pond. He offers prospective visitors a valuable photo tip: “No tripods are allowed [although monopods are permitted], so photographers will need to be creative to capture the lighting.”

Further along the coastline, Charleston's Holiday Festival of Lights, at James Island County Park, offers visitors a driving tour of more than 700 displays and 2 million lights. Open evenings from November 10 to January 1, the event also allows visitors a chance to park the car and see the lights from the vantage point of a holiday train, ride a Victorian carousel, sample treats from Santa's Sweet Shoppe and admire seasonally themed sand sculptures and gingerbread houses.

Joseph Nienstedt

“The James Island Festival of Lights is a Charleston tradition that gives you an excuse to listen to holiday music and indulge in some hot cocoa and s'mores,” says local photographer Joseph W Nienstedt.

To capture this 1-second motion blur shot, Nienstedt handheld a Nikon D90 and Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 lens wide open, while riding as a passenger in a car. “I experimented with slow shutter speeds while in motion to capture the movement through the bright colors,” he adds.

Texas

The city of Austin hosts a Texas-sized tradition for holiday cheer, which dates to 1965. The Austin Trail of Lights features 2 million lights, more than 40 displays, and activities such as a community stage with nightly entertainment, a Ferris wheel, food trucks and more. Located in Austin’s Zilker Park, the Trail runs from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m. nightly, December 9 to 23. This event is also a fundraiser, with a goal to collect 25,000 meals worth of canned food items for the Central Texas Food Bank.

Photo Credit: Steve Hopson

An ISO of 6400 allowed Texas photographer Steve Hopson to handhold his Nikon D700 and AF-S Nikkor ED 24-85 lens for this 2008 photo of crowds moving through a light tunnel. With the lens racked wide open, he exposed the image for 1/20 second at f/6.3.

Hopson notes that, the year after he made this photo, the Trail of Lights was canceled for several seasons. “During the Trail’s 3-year hiatus, the viral popularity of this photo may have played a role in bringing back this holiday tradition,” he says.

Those who prefer to view the holiday lights from a moving vehicle should head to the Gift of Lights display at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. The drive-thru light park features more than 2 miles of displays, comprising almost 3 million lights, and is designed for enjoying the lights and displays from the comfort of your car, while listening to holiday music on the radio. Gift of Lights is open nightly from 6:00 to 10:00 p.m. from November 23, 2017 to December 30, 2017, and a portion of the proceeds is donated to five local children’s charities.

Carrie Lindsey

Photographer and blogger Carrie Lindsey snapped the photo above with her Android as she drove through Texas Motor Speedway with her kids. “It was such a unique experience, there were photo opportunities at every turn,” she says.

Utah

In Utah, Christmas in Color brings holiday lights to the cities of Provo (at Provo Towne Center Mall), and South Jordan (at the Salt Lake County Equestrian Center), in a charity event featuring drive-through tunnels illuminated by more than a million LED bulbs, and synchronized to holiday music accessed through your car radio.

Midway between these sites, in the city of Lehi, the farm, garden, and museum complex Thanksgiving Point hosts Luminaria: Experience the Light, which transports visitors to a magical holiday world during a mile-long walk through Ashton Gardens.

Aaron Hawkins

Aaron Hawkins stood at the top of the Grand Allee to capture the 8,000 shimmering luminaries at a moment when a rainbow of different colors created a sweeping pattern from bottom to top. “I did not have a tripod for this shot, so I had to stay as still as possible for this relatively long exposure,” he says. “Hand-holding my Nikon D3200 and a Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM Lens, it was hard not to shiver, because it was cold outside.”

Virginia

Nestled amid the southern coast of Virginia, Norfolk Botanical Garden offers two consecutive light shows to usher in the holiday season. From November 10 to 30, visitors can stroll through more than a mile of spectacular holiday lighting displays, during the Million Bulb Walk, from 4:00 to 9:00 p.m.

Then, from December 1 to 30, the Gardens host its 24th annual light show extravaganza, Dominion Garden of Lights. In this 2-mile drive through experience, the Garden is transformed into a winter wonderland featuring a million sparkling lights that bring the four seasons to life.

Mario Barkley

Photographer Mario Barkley highly recommends this event to holiday visitors to the Hampton Roads area. “Spectators travel across the gardens in their cars to view the wonderful decorations,” he says. Barkley captured the image above using a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and EF 17-40mm f/4L lens.

Washington

While the largest holiday light display in the Pacific Northwest is reportedly Stanwood, Washington’s The Lights of Christmas, in the Seattle area, the Bellevue Botanical Garden has organized an annual Garden d’Lights holiday event for the past 23 years. More than half a million sparkling lights are shaped into plants, flowers, birds, animals, and cascading waterfalls, to enchant visitors from November 25 through December 31 during special evening hours.

Monica Sapek

Local photographer Monika Sapek captured the magic of the season in this 2011 image. She used a Manfrotto tripod equipped with an Acratech Ball Head and a Kirk camera plate and L-Bracket to secure her Nikon D200 and 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G lens, set at f/8. Then she set her exposure compensation to -0.7 EV for a ½ second exposure that skillfully balances the sparkling lights with a faint glow of sunset.

“The Seattle area gets very dark and wet during the winter, which makes it hard to find something to photograph,” she says. “This has always been my favorite garden for photographing flowers and other plants, and the holiday display is filled with whimsical creations and bright colorful lights that are really fun to shoot.”

Wisconsin

In the state of Wisconsin, two holiday light events brighten the long nights of the northern Midwest. Now in its 16th season, Oshkosh Celebration of Lights features a 100-foot tree and three-quarters of a million lights, with a philanthropic goal to collect non-perishable food items for the United Way.

Eric Reischl

“Even with the cold Wisconsin weather, I enjoyed photographing something that produced so many ooh’s and ahh’s from my kids and myself,” says photographer Eric Reischl. He captured the image above with a Nikon D40 and 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens.

“We really enjoyed all the different displays encompassing Menominee Park,” he adds. “This has become an annual tradition.”

In the city of Milwaukee, a century-old tradition lights up the downtown area with the annual Holiday Lights Festival with a November 16 tree lighting and fireworks program that heralds the illumination of more than 500,000 lights that burn until January 1, 2018. Throughout the festival, the city offers 40-minute narrated bus tours aboard the Jingle Bus for $2 per person.

John December

Photographer John December captured a classic view of Milwaukee’s Cathedral Square Park, featuring the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Working on a tripod with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, he used a High Dynamic Range (HDR) technique to capture the range of luminance by making three bracketed exposures with exposure bias at -0.7, -2.7, and 1.3 for 20 seconds each. He then blended the files into an HDR image using Photomatix Pro software, before making final adjustments and correcting for perspective distortion using the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP).

Click below to read the companion articles in this series, Holiday Light Shows Part 1 and Holiday Light Shows Part 2

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!

2 Comments

I don't have any photos of these events in Columbia, SC.

But Riverbanks Zoo has the "Lights Before Christmas": https://www.riverbanks.org/events/lights-before-christmas.shtml

And there's "Holiday Lights" along the river: http://www.icrc.net/holiday-lights

Hi Ralph, thanks so much for chiming in with these Columbia, SC holiday light displays. There were so many wonderful displays that I found in my research, if I had listed them all this series could have turned into a book! Seasons greetings, happy shooting and thanks for reading the Explora blog!

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