Monday, January 30, 2012

Capturing Holiday Bokeh in Portraits

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This post would have been a little more helpful to you all back in November.  You know…when you were actually gearing up for holiday cards and all snap happy with your kiddos and dogs.  Oh well.  Better late than never and I have actually gotten a few e-mails about how I got the “white lights” in my backgrounds.  Hopefully it will help you prepare for next year’s holiday shoot.

Or maybe you’re a super duper clickin’ mom and you can use this for your Valentine’s Day shoot?  Dunno.

I’ve wanted to try the Christmas light bokeh thing for a while and snagged this picture during the Christmas 2010 festivities.


Yes, I know you’ve all seen it before, but I loved creating the glowing orbs of Christmas bokeh.  Just screams holidays to me.  Fast forward to Christmas 2011 and I decided to try it out again, this time with human subjects.

After a little research, I stumbled upon this quick “how-to” on Flickr.  The photographer also shared some updated pictures in a later shoot as well.  Fantastic!

From inspiration to application…I just had to figure out how to string white Christmas lights in a fashion that was easy to move in and out of my portrait area.  Also, I knew I wanted to use a white background instead of black, so I wasn’t sure how the bokeh thing would work.  You never know until you try, so this was my basic set up.


Looks highly technical, doesn’t it?

To create my “light board”, I bought a large piece of heavy duty white cardboard from Michael’s for under $5.  It is the kind of board you would use at a presentation booth.  Look for it near the poster board.  I wrapped two 50 light strands of lights around the cardboard…


…and then taped them in the back to hold them in place. 


Nothing too fancy, just spaced them out and taped them down.


To get the bokeh effect you should be shooting from far enough away that you won’t see the pattern of the lights anyway.  Well…that’s how you’re supposed to do it, although I had trouble with a few shots.  See my boo boo shots near the bottom of this post. 

I took my “light board” with me to Katie’s for the WOWN Holiday Shoot.  If you missed it, please take a minute to check out the adorable offspring of my hood friends.  For the shoot, I set up my large white muslin backdrop in her living room.  I took photos of each family with just the white background…


Then I would have my “assistant”…errr…Katie, move the “light board” into the portrait area to get this look…


The light board has to be WAY farther back then you would imagine to create enough depth of field to get the “orb” look…or bokeh.  You also must use a very low aperture and get up and personal with your subject…not too hard with these cuties.  Just be sure to focus on their eyes and you should get that wonderful holiday bokeh.

Here are some more shots, first with just the white background…



And then with the added light board…




Some of the shots with the bokeh look turned out better than others.  It was trial and error.  The better pictures came from using a lower aperture and an increased distance between my subject and the light board.  Since this was my first time using the board and I was trying to keep a ton of kiddos smiling, happy and in one place, the set up wasn’t always perfect. 

For instance, this shot is not my favorite…


Of course, the little guy is gorgeous (THOSE EYES!) and his look is adorable.  However, the bokeh isn’t the greatest.  The orbs are a little small.  You can see the dark lines of the lighting cords.  Maybe I’m being too picky, but its something to work on next year.

I’d also like to work on getting my white background whiter.  That blueish tint kind of irritates me.  Although, from the research I’ve done, I’ve realized that getting that “high key” look involves much more artificial lighting than I want to get into at the moment.

Again, I LOVED trying this out and will for sure do it again next year.  Maybe I’ll even tackle getting Dixie the wonder pooch in the mix.  I hope this gives you all a little inspiration for next year’s holiday photos as well.

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  1. Hey stranger! For starters use lights with a white cord. Beautiful photos.

  2. Oh I love this post. Thank you for sharing and the portraits are beautiful! Hugs and blessings, Cindy

  3. Thanks for the tips! Great examples- love the bokeh against white. Lovely photos and models:).

  4. These are fantastic! I can't wait to try this myself for Christmas photos 2012 :) Mind if I ask what lens/settings you used?


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