Bokeh refers to the out-of-focus area of a photograph, usually created by sources of light and color behind the subject. This quick tip will show you step-by-step the process of creating your own artificial bokeh using Christmas lights.
This is especially helpful if you wish to achieve a bokeh effect in the background, and you happen to be in an indoor environment lacking light sources best for bokeh. Adding artificial bokeh can create a very interesting and visually-pleasing effect for your photos.
Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in March of 2011.
What Is Bokeh?
Bokeh is essentially blur. Many people take it as referring to the out-of-focus area of a photograph, which can be impacted and enhanced by sources of light and color behind the subject.
I am a huge fan of creative bokeh in photography, and because of my busy schedule, I end up having to shoot a lot of my photos at night in my house. I found out that shooting in this environment was very limiting, and that forced me to use other resources that you would not normally use in photography during the day or outside.
This quick tip will show you step-by-step the process of creating your own artificial bokeh out of Christmas lights for indoor photography. This effect is particularly useful if you are taking photos of a small inanimate objects or shots of pets and people.
What You Will Need
- The Right Lens: To obtain the highest quality bokeh you can get, it is recommended that you use a lens with a very wide aperture, such as f/1.8 or f/1.4. For this tutorial, I will be using a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 lens. Other lenses you could use include the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, or Canon's 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.4. If your lens is f/2 or smaller, you can still create bokeh, but your bokeh's size and quality will suffer.
- Christmas Lights (Any Color Will Do)
- Tripod (Optional)
- Flash + Flash Equipment (Optional)
Set up your camera as you normally would for indoor shots, but set your camera's aperture to the widest setting, preferably f/1.8 or f/1.4 (depending on your lens).
For this tutorial, I will be using a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8.
Step 2 (Optional)
If your indoor lighting is sufficient enough, you do not have to use flash. Try to set up your flash off your camera, aimed towards your subject. If the area in which you plan to place your lights has reflective surfaces, you could also aim your flash towards the background so that the light's reflection off those surfaces create bokeh as well.
If you do not have a flash and your lighting is poor, you should use a tripod, and set your camera to a slower shutter speed.
For this tutorial, I will be using a Nikon SB-600 shot right of camera, diffused.
Set up your Christmas lights. Try to spread the lights evenly across the background you plan to use, or arrange them to your taste. If you cannot find a way to prop up your lights, you can use a plain bookshelf and use binder clips to fasten the lights onto the shelves.
The Christmas lights that I used for this tutorial are automatically changing lights that go from white to blue.
Set up your subject. I find that my bokeh turns out better if I place the subject at least four to five feet in front of the Christmas lights. The farther away you place the subject, the better.
The first image represents bokeh taken from 4-5 feet away, and the second image represents bokeh taken 1-2 feet away.
Of course, if you prefer your bokeh to be smaller, that's up to you. It is just my personal preference.
If you are not using a fixed lens, zoom your lens in all the way. This shot was taken using my Nikon Zoom Lens (55-200mm) at 95mm (the most I could zoom in the space I was in). Although my aperture was only set at f/4.5, I was able to achieve a better bokeh effect than if I had not zoomed in at all.
Focus on your subject. Try to stay close to the subject, because if you are too away from it, your bokeh will suffer and appear smaller. This shot was taken with the same 50mm lens used in the final shot, but taken farther away, resulting in smaller bokeh.
Release your camera's shutter, and voila! You have produced a photo with artificial bokeh obtained from simple Christmas lights.