Bokeh Photography! A Fun Way to Photograph Christmas Lights

Learning how to photograph Christmas lights is always a fun challenge to take on – why not mix it up a little bit more by being able to create your own custom-shaped bokeh as well?

“Wait, what is bokeh?”
That’s a great question! Bokeh (pronounced “bow-kay”) is essentially the Japanese word for an aesthetic “blur.” Bokeh photography refers to the out-of-focus parts of a picture (most obvious with bright spots in the background). Its most popular usage – and today’s main focus (or lack thereof – ha, ha) – is that it is primarily known for pictures with lights, typically Christmas lights, blurred in the background.

How-To Create Your Own Bokeh

Natural Christmas light bokeh creates a soft, warm glow behind the ornament.

How-To Creat Your Own Bokeh

Ta-da! Custom heart-shaped bokeh creates a more intimate environment.

Bokeh can be seen among all ranges of photography – from being very subtle and gradual to more in-your-face and direct.

Portrait

In portraiture photography, the shallow depth of field helps the subject stand out against the background – especially if it is too busy or distracting.

Cupcake Bokeh

Bokeh adds a twist to food photography – as seen here with these cupcakes.

Patio Lights Bokeh

Help separate an object from the background, so it stands out among the rest!

 Naturally-produced bokeh is circular-shaped (or polygonal, depending on the aperture – the smaller the f-stop number, the more round the natural bokeh will be), matching the shape of the aperture opening in the lens. Imagine what shapes the bokeh could be if the opening was star or heart shaped! Luckily, you don’t have to imagine – with this neat photography trick and a DSLR camera, you can create your own little makeshift cover to fit over the end of the lens to produce whatever shaped bokeh you fancy!

First, we need to create the makeshift lens cover.

What you’ll need:

Bokeh
- 1 sheet of black construction paper
– Ruler
– Pencil
– Scissors
– X-acto knife (any small, sharp bladed knife will work)
– Tape
– a 50mm lens (I used a Nikon f/1.8 50mm lens)

 

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1. Cut a 1 1/4” strip of paper and wrap it around the lens so that it isn’t too tight but not too loose either. Tape the ends together, and then slide it off the lens.

 

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2. Place the ring on top of the remaining black construction paper. Trace around the outside of the ring, and add three tabs to the outside of the circle – as seen in the picture above. The tabs will make it easier when it comes to taping the circle to the ring. Cut out the shape!

 

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3. In the middle of the circle, cut out a small rectangle using the x-acto knife – mine was about 1 1/2” x 1 1/4“.

However, if you plan on only playing around with one bokeh shape, then just cut your desired shape (about 1/2” tall) in the middle of the circle, tape the two pieces together, and skip to Using the Makeshift Cover.
(I happened to be a bit too excited to play around with different shapes, so I’m going to use this as my base and cut out a few different shapes to use, as shown in the next couple of steps!)

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4. Fold the tabs and tape the ring and circular pieces together. The tape can go on either the inside or outside – it won’t affect the picture either way.

 

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5. Now, cut out 2 or 3 (or however many shapes you plan on playing around with) 1 1/2” x 1 1/2” squares from the construction paper.

 

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6. In the middle of each square, use the x-acto knife to cut out a small shape – try to keep it around 1/2” tall. My three shapes were a heart, a star, and a Christmas tree!

 

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7. Tape one of the squares to the front of your makeshift circular ‘lens’! I like to fold one corner of the tape to make it easier to peel off.

Voila! You now have a makeshift custom bokeh cover for your camera! Go ahead and pop it on the real 50mm lens on your camera if you haven’t already.

 

Using the makeshift cover:

Now it’s time to have some fun using this photography trick! Set your camera to M for manual, or A/Av – this means that the camera will adjust its shutter speed to whatever aperture you set it to. Set the aperture to the lowest number – mine was 1.8. Play around with the rest of the settings to achieve the look you’re going for!

How-To Create Your Own Bokeh

Turn red LED fairy lights into hearts!

How-To Create Your Own Bokeh

The tables have turned – changed clear Christmas tree lights into tiny Christmas trees!

How-To Create Your Own Bokeh

Transformation of 5mm LED Christmas lights into tiny stars!

Since I was in the dark for these pictures, I was going to use a tripod because I thought the shutter speed would be slow. However, because I was just photographing the bokeh itself, I didn’t need such a long shutter speed. Most of these were shot using the following: ISO 800f/1.8, and shutter speed at 1/125. You can click through the images to see what lights I used in the pictures!

If you would like to photograph someone (or some thing) in front of the bokeh, you will probably need a tripod for a longer exposure to help light the subject if in a dark setting. If you don’t have a tripod, you can always set the camera down on a coffee table, chair, pile of books – anything sturdy enough to provide a stable surface for it to sit on while the shutter is open. I would also recommend to set a 2-second timer on the camera, to ensure that any motion you might have made when pressing the shutter button would not affect the picture once it started.

How-To Create Your Own BokehHow-To Create Your Own Bokeh
If you are outside and shooting a picture like below, you should be able to handhold the camera. For example, for the photos below, I used the following settings: ISO 100f/1.8, with the shutter at 1/100.

How-To Creat Your Own BokehHow-To Creat Your Own Bokeh

If you cut out more than one little shape, you can carefully peel the square cut-out off the front of the makeshift lens, and tape on a different one!

How-To Create Your Own BokehUsing the star-shaped bokeh square really made the lights pop on this Starlight Sphere!

The possibilities of whatever shapes you can create using bokeh photography tricks are endless, and are fun when learning how to photograph Christmas lights. So have fun, and don’t forget to share your creations on our Facebook page!

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About Katie Dodge

Multi-tasking as Photoshop Guru, writer, and Christmas Lights, Etc Product and Lifestyle Photographer, Katie can be found either hiking, reading, or cooking up a storm in her spare time! Google+

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