Today, I am going to show you to how to create a bokeh effect with Christmas tree lights. I love doing this, especially for portraits. They make everything sooo elegant! My helper today is Joe, who is the most patient model ever. He has to be for all those Instagram shots.
How To Create A Bokeh Effect With Christmas Tree Lights
The entire reason that I bought a dSLR camera was to be able to take pictures of my kids — at a cheerleading event, before the homecoming dance or prom, or on stage getting an award. I needed a camera that kept up with me, took shots in low-light situations and fast-action scenes. But one of the best things about my Nikon camera is that I can take as many “pro” portrait shots as time (or a teenager’s annoyance) will allow.
Christmas tree portraits really stand out using the bokeh effect, and I love taking pics of the family together – I might take like 1,000 pictures. It’s also really nice to see the pictures year after year. I think you will just love seeing your children every year, in the same pose, with this great background.
Once you have your shots, make sure they are straight with my Lightroom cropping and straightening tutorial!
First Of All, What Is A Bokeh Effect?
The bokeh effect is a blurry background. That means you have a clear image of whatever is in the focus, usually a portrait. But it can also be of an object. Most peeps will want to take family photos, or photos of their kids (or, in my case, my furry kids). You can use these tips with an iPhone, Android, or even a lightweight non-dSLR camera.
For add spiff (make those lights really, really big), use the Fabulous 50 for your Nikon or your Canon. By the way, you don’t need a Christmas tree to make this effect. Any kind of lights will do – this technique is great for all of those outside lights and candles (Christmas service), too!
Joe Paw and I are going to play around with this Christmas tree background. Since he’s not quite tall enough like a bipedal, I needed to boost him with a chair. Sorry about the chair. I know it’s ugly. I really need to buy Joe Paw his own photo chair, since he’s such a great doggy and lets me take all sorts of pictures of him.
Let’s Talk About Depth of Field
Depth of field is actually a really easy concept with a long and foo-foo sounding name. What it means is just how much of a picture is in focus. When you are taking a picture of a singular (or set of) objects, such as a portrait, or a macro shot, then you want everything else in the picture to fall away. Conversely, you want your entire shot in the picture if you are taking a picture of, say, the sky, the landscape, or the sea.
Most of the time, you can control the depth of field with the aperture. The lower the number, the more blurry the background:
Large aperture = Small f = Shallow/Smaller depth of field
Small aperture = Larger f = Deeper/Larger depth of field
As a general rule of thumb, the lower the f-number, then the lower the depth of field, or the more blurry the background. Also generally speaking, the farther you are away from another object point-of-reference, then the lower the depth of field.
So What is Bokeh, Really?
Bokeh is really a shallow depth of field, or a low number on your f-stop. Again, having a blurry background allows your eyes to focus on the subject of the picture – in our case, the portrait. This allows the portrait to really stand out. But, you can create really neat effects in the background of your image using different types of patterns. In our case, we are using Christmas tree lights, which make them big and glowy and round. This creates a luminescent and magical background.
Cut To The Chase & Tell Me How To Create A Bokeh Effect With Christmas Tree Lights
1. Use a Wide (Low-Number) Aperture
My favorite lens is the Nikon Fabulous 50 (50mm f/1.8) (Canon version here). Many photographers also use the 35mm version. These lens are called fixed length lenses, or prime lenses, because you cannot zoom in and out (although the lens do have auto-focus, which I find mandatory in any lens for the dSLR – you can set each lens to stop focusing).
These lens sacrifice length, or the ability to zoom in, with superior aperture, so you can take fast shots in low light and this also creates a blurry background. Which makes these lenses perfect for portrait or macro photography, and I suggest that anyone who has an interest in either gets one or both.
Here’s Joe Paw, acting shy. See the gorgeous lights in the background? (I took these during the day, and you can make an even better effect if you take them at night and use side lamps.)
In order to use these lenses, simply adjust your aperture to the lowest possible setting, e.g. 1.8. If you are using the default lens on your Nikon, that number will be f/3.5. *Note: there is nothing wrong with these lenses, but most photographers who regulary shoot portraits or macros like the low aperture.)
2. Create Your Own Depth of Field by Moving Your Subject Away From the Background
The second way to accomplish depth of field is to move the subject away from the background. In this case, I moved Joe Paw away from the Christmas tree. Here is the picture to give you a bit of reference. The farther away the subject is from the background, the blurrier the background will be. Any camera can take advantage of this – even your iPhone and Android!
Unfortunately for me, I do not have tons of space in my living room. 🙂
For a frame of reference (ha! frame!), here is a picture of Joe Paw right next to the tree, but I am far away.
You then stand close to your subject in order to take a picture. This allows a close-up of the face, but since the tree (and lights) are farther away from the point of focus (the face), this allows for really nice twinkling lights in the background. This is what creates that blurry bokeh background giving you such great Christmas tree portraits!! Of course, if you have more room, you can create a better effect than I did.
And the result:
As you can see, I don’t have a ton of room to work with, so the lights aren’t huge-huge. But they are still pretty. 🙂 And I hope that you can see the depth of field between the two above pictures, the one where I am far away but taking a picture of Joe Paw right next to the tree, and one where Joe Paw is far away from the tree, but I am right next to him.
Hint: Focus on the Eyes
So what happens if you have a lens that offers superior aperture, like the Nikon Fabulous 50 (50mm f/1.8), but then your subject gets blurry, too? This will happen sometimes because the frame is too big. In other words, the edges of the face are also blurry.
In this case, you want to focus on the eyes and keep them in focus. Unless, of course, you are trying to dissuade your viewer from seeing the eyes. But this is usually intentional, and the moment will feel right for this to happen.
In almost all cases, you want to keep the eyes in focus. Because what they say is absolutely true: your eyes are a window to your soul. This technique will help you hone in on your Christmas tree portraits — or really, any portraits!
I focused on the eyes, so that the front of the chair (if the lens does that) would be out of focus, instead of the doggy.
Aperture Priority Mode
My second tip today is, if you have a dSLR camera, then let your camera do the work. Lots of amateurs (and professionals) get hung up on the right “settings” and miss the moment. You might miss some really great candid shots by fiddling with your camera instead of paying attention.
I looooove the aperture priority setting – in fact, I cheat and I use the aperture or the shutter speed priority modes whenever I possibly can. What this does is the camera does all the heavy lifting by coming up with all the right settings. You either pick the aperture or the shutter speed.
On the Nikon, it’s the A on the top of the spinning dial. (S is for Shutter Speed.) On the Canon, it’s Av for Aperture and Tv for Shutter Speed.
So how many Christmas tree portraits will you take this year?