Bokeh Christmas Light Technique
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How To Create Good Bokeh Backgrounds With Lights - This tutorial will show you how to use Christmas lights to add interest to your indoor portrait shots.
Any camera where you can control the aperture, such as the Nikon D800 or P7700, will be fine for this technique, however a camera with a bright aperture, say a f/1.4 - f/2.0 compact camera would be ideal. If you use a mirrorless or Digital SLR it should be easier to acheive the effect.
The brighter the lens you're using the more impressive the effect should be, making a lens such as a 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.4 perfect. The larger the sensor the greater the effect will be too.
Your Christmas lights need to be place on or against a dark background and you need to position your subject or model as far away from the background as possible, while still keeping the lights in the background.
To keep the black background as dark as possible, switch off your room lights and use a smaller, portable light to ensure your subject is correctly illuminated. We didn't use the studio flash for this, instead we just used the prop lighting, but any lighting should be suitable, and incandescent lighting will give the subject a warm feel.
Make sure you position the model light towards your subject at an angle, so as to not throw any light from this front light onto the background area.
Occasionally the lights in the background (if bright) can confuse the camera and cause it to under-expose the subject, so it's important to try and get the foreground lighting nicely balanced.
You may need to be careful with white balance settings, so shooting in RAW will help if you have any problems or you could use a grey card and manually set white balance based on the model's lighting. We used a white card to manually set the white balance, with the model holding the card in front of her face where the strongest lighting was.
You need to use your lens at its widest aperture to focus on the subject or model and keep the Christmas lights as far away as possible for increased blur / bokeh effect in the lights.
Keep the model or subject closer to the camera and adjust your framing depending on where you want the lights and the subject to be lined up / arranged. The closer the subject to the camera, the closer the focus distance is, and the more the camera and lens will throw the background out of focus (see the example below).
We shot our portraits indoors, however this technique can be used outdoors at night with street lights or cafe lights etc. You just need to get the lighting right on your subject. An extreme or exaggerated example of a shot taken outside can be seen here. The image was taken using the full frame Nikon D600 and Nikon 50mm f/1.4.
You can alter the shapes of the Christmas lights with Bokeh kits or you can use black card and a pair of scissors to change the shapes that appear. You need to decide on a shape, cut it out of the card then fasten the card around your lens like you would a lens hood.
Different lenses will give different effects as well, for example you could use an old lens with an adapter on an SLR to see what different lenses do. Examples of this can be seen in Pete's vintage 200mm lens comparison test.
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