How to Make Magical Christmas Bokeh Photographs

In the spirit of the holiday season, we are going to focus on the out-of-focus (yes – pun intended!). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the word, Bokeh is actually a Japanese term referring to the aesthetics regarding the areas of a photograph which are out focus. There are of course, plenty of opportunities to take out-of-focus photos year round, but the art of capturing some beautiful bokeh is perfect for this time of year with all of the twinkling and colourful lights that are around.

Gear and Equipment:

Lens: As you may recall from previous tutorials, the amount of your image which becomes out of focus is dependent on both the distance you are from the subject, as well as the size of the aperture you are shooting with. Therefore, one of the single most important factors when it comes to taking these types of photos, is using a lens which has as low an f-stop as possible. I happened to shoot all of the example images for this article using a Pentax SMC 50mm f1.4 lens. Canon makes a very affordable 50mm f1.8 lens, as do Nikon and many other camera manufacturers.

Tripod: Since we will be capturing the bokeh created by tiny lights, we will be shooting in fairly low light conditions. For this, a tripod is absolutely necessary to achieve a good sharp image, and an optional shutter release cable may also be handy. You can attempt to handhold the camera if you have very steady hands (and if enough ambient light is present), but for shooting in darker conditions you will find that the shutter may be open as long as 2 seconds, which will be much too long for a handheld shot.

Christmas photography bokeh

Camera Settings:

Christmas Photography Tips Bokeh TreeThere are two techniques we are going to look at here. The first will be a more artistic, out of focus image, with no identifiable subject in the frame as shown in the photo here. The second type of shot we’ll look at are the ones where you are shooting a particular subject, while using the bokeh effect to achieve a beautiful background in your photo.

Aperture Priority: In both of the cases we are examining, you’ll want to shoot in Aperture Priority mode.  This way you can open your lens as wide as the specs will allow (lowest f-stop number), and whether you are shooting a subject or not, your image will progressively blur relative to the distance of the background from your camera’s lens.

By shooting in Aperture Priority mode, your camera will then make all the necessary adjustments in shutter speed and ISO to ensure that you get the best possible exposure based on the aperture you are shooting with.

Manual Focus: In shooting the types of bokeh images as seen below, you’ll want to switch your camera’s focusing mode to manual. This way, the autofocus mechanisms inside your camera won’t get upset when you try to explain to your camera that you are actually trying to take a photo out of focus.

By adjusting the focus ring, you will find that you can also adjust the size of the blur that you create. The more out of focus, the larger the blurred lights will appear in your photo.

Creative Bokeh:

The shape of your bokeh highlights actually take the shape of the aperture from your lens (round). However, you can get creative with your bokeh shots by changing the shape of your aperture. You can do this by simply cutting a shape out of a stiff piece of construction paper, or using “punch-out” shape cutters found in most craft and scrapbooking supply shops.

Bokeh Shapes Photography Tutorial Heart shaped bokeh photography example bokeh photography tutorial

Take a small piece of card paper (preferably dark in colour), punch or cut out your shape, and use it to cover your lens. I like to tape the cutout card to a dark coloured CD or DVD, with the cutout shape positioned  over the hole in the disc. Although this is a crude setup, it is an easy and cost effective method for creating different aperture shapes; and works like a charm! Rather than fashioning some type of fixture that fits over my lens, I simply hold the disc flat up against my lens so that no light seeps through the edges.

How to create Bokeh Blur Shapes Photography

Background Bokeh:

The next type of bokeh shot we’ll look at are those in which you do have a subject in your image, where your bokeh is filling the background.

Aperture Priority: Once again, we’ll be shooting in Aperture Priority mode for these types of shots. Set your aperture to the widest it will go and your camera will adjust the other settings for a correct exposure.

Selective Autofocus: In the case of shooting a subject in your bokeh shots (similar to the photo above), you will want to turn your camera’s autofocus back ON. We’re also going to use a focus mode which I hardly ever use personally, but this particular situation makes it the idea method – selectable focus points. Most digital cameras have 3 autofocus options: Spot, Multi-Area, and User Selectable. Since we should be shooting these images with a tripod, composing the scene in the frame, then selecting a “user selected” focus point is the best method to get sharp focus.

Blurred Background Photography Tips

In the above example, I turned my autofocus ON, and selected the focus point using my camera’s directional pad, choosing the closest focus point to Santa’s eye in this case. This told camera’s autofocus system that this was the area which I wanted to be in focus. By shooting with a wide aperture, my background was nice and blurred, and I even held the heart shaped aperture over my lens to create a unique bokeh effect.

Shooting out-of-focus can be a whole lot of fun and is an excellent exercise in pushing our creative potential. Through breaking the conventional rules of photography and pushing out boundaries, we can unlock doors to new worlds hidden from plain sight. The next time you look at your Christmas lights and/or tree, pull out your camera and intentionally shoot it out of focus. Even a beautiful landscape in the daytime sunlight can become something more when photographed “in blur”. I hope you have enjoyed this technique, and find new inspiration in your photography.

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