Photography Tips {Christmas Lights}

It has become quite the rage to get the awesome “bokeh” (blurred background) of Christmas lights.  Whether multi-colored or clear, on a tree or on a house, it just makes a photo fun to look at.  Nothing screams “Look how adorable my kid is” like a nice starry background.  I am more of an expression focused photographer, so the background is secondary to me.  However, I like to create fun images as well, and I know many of my readers want to know how to get the dreamy Christmas lights look.  So, here is a quick lesson.  If you like this, come try it out at the “Basic Photography” class I’m teaching next Tuesday.

NOTE: I assume you are using your own kids for models for this exercise, which is why step 1 exists. 

STEP 1.  Take a deep breath.  Maybe drink a glass of wine.

STEP 2. Get your camera out – check for charged batteries and an empty memory card.

STEP 3.  Ideally, your Christmas tree will be close to a window.  Like this:

STEP 4. Think about lighting.  Because you want those bulbs to glow, you want to make sure they do not get as much light as the subjects (your kids’ faces).  So, just pull the curtain so that any part of the tree that is in front of the window is blocked from the direct light.

STEP 5.  Set your white balance.  Either use a custom white balance, or try out a few different settings: shade, daylight, tungsten, to see which you like best.

STEP 6. Find something to use as a test subject – a large stuffed animal, a chair, anything that is NOT one of your children, set it a few FEET in front of your tree.

STEP 7. I would start with setting your ISO.  If you have an entry level DSLR with a kit lens, you will probably need to set it at 800.  If you have a 50mm 1.4 or 1.8 lens, you could probably get away with 400.  (If this whole sentence confuses you, look in your owner’s manual to find out how to adjust your ISO and set it to 800)

STEP 8. Next, you’ll need to open your aperture to it’s widest setting.  This is the f-number, and reads something like 1.4, 1.8, 2.0, 2.8, 4.0, 5.6, 8.0, etc.  Set it to the smallest number.  On the Canon digital Rebel camera, you’ll need to hold down the +/- button, and then turn the dial to change the aperture.  On some Nikons there is a separate dial for the aperture.  Again, check your manual if needed.

STEP 9.  Look through your viewfinder and fill it with your test subject.  Adjust your shutter speed to get a correct exposure.  How do you know the exposure is correct?  You’ll see a sliding scale that looks something like this:  -2—-1—-0—+1—+2 .  Under this scale (or on top of, depending on your camera) you’ll see an arrow or a line that is solid or blinking.  The arrow, or line should be on the “0” or “in the middle”.  If it’s blinking, you do not have the exposure correct and you’ll need to keep adjusting.  (Getting a correct exposure is the main focus of the Basic Photography class, and once you master using your camera to get a proper exposure, your world will change.)  Once your exposure is correct, step back into position.  (Remember, this will probably make the arrow start blinking, but that’s okay because we know it’s the correct exposure for our subject.  This is how your setup should look:

STEP 10.  Take the exposure. (Press the shutter button).  How does it look?  Are you happy with how the blurred Christmas lights look? Do you want to make changes?  When you are happy with your test subject images, grab your kids.

STEP 11.  Because you are shooting on a wide aperture, you’ll want your kids faces to all be on the same plane (imagine a pane of glass parallel to the lens and all of their noses should touch it):

STEP 12.  The kids moved.  Coax them back into position WITHOUT threatening, sighing, throwing your hands up, or yelling.  Recheck your exposure to make sure it’s still correct.

STEP 13.  Shoot away!

There are two key factors to getting the super blurry lights:  aperture and distance.  Using a wide aperture narrows the depth of field, so a wider aperture gives more background blur.  Same with the amount of distance.  The further your subject is from an object the less “in focus” that object will be.   So, the further your kids are from the Christmas tree,  the blurrier your lights will appear.

Some examples:

Thomas was standing about three feet in front of the tree in this image.

Thomas was standing less than a foot from the tree in this image.

I used a wide aperture (low f-stop number) for this image. f/1.8

I used a narrower aperture for this image. f/6.3




One thought on “Photography Tips {Christmas Lights}

  • November 29, 2012 at 9:00 am

    bravo!! I am the world’s WORST photographer and I understood what you meant!! Thank you!!!!

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