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Christmas Light Bokeh

November 20, 2012

Using Christmas light bokeh, or twinkle light bokeh is a fun way to add a festive touch to your photographs during the holiday season.  This tutorial will give you a few tips for how to take your own twinkle light photographs.

Twinkle Light bokeh is what we refer to as the dots of light in the background of a photo taken in front of small lights (usually strings of Christmas lights).  The bokeh appears very round because the photos are taken with a wide-open aperture.

This blog post is written with as much detail as possible, in case you are not confident with using your camera in manual mode.

Supplies you’ll need:

-strings of lights (usually clear lights, but coloured lights will work and offer a different effect). Lights on a white wire are preferable to those on green wires (unless you are using a dark background).  The white wires usually blend into the background better so that the wires don’t show up at all!  Some people have had success hanging the lights behind a white sheet so that the green wires don’t show up.

-backdrop stand of some sort (back of a couch, chairs, headboard,  or wall that you can attach things to)

-sheet to hang lights in front of (optional, depending on your set-up)

-area with good natural light

-reflector (optional, depending on lighting in the room.  A white sheet, white posterboard, or commercially made-reflector will work)

-50 mm lens or another lens that has the capability to open up to a a large aperture (small f/number) such as between 1.4 and 2.8. The 50 mm 1.8 or 50 mm 1.4 are great options for this type of photo.

What you need to know:

-bokeh is determined by the focal length of your lens, the distance from your camera to the subject, the distance from your subject to the background, and your aperture.   The same principles apply if you are taking photos of ANYTHING and you want to blur out the background.

Step by Step Directions:

1) Set up the twinkle lights on the backdrop stand in an area with ample natural light. Turn off overhead lights if at all possible.  Make sure you have enough twinkle lights, so that the bokeh is filling in enough of the frame.

2) Set up an inanimate object such as a stuffed animal or a container of some sort on the spot that you will place your child later.  If at all possible, try to place the object at the same height as your child will be, so that you can determine if the lights are placed in the proper area of the background.

3) Set your aperture “wide open”.  On a 50mm 1.8 lens, that would be at 1.8.  It is important for your aperture to be “wide open” so that the shape of the boekh is as circular as possible.  Also, the wider open the aperture is, the more blurred out the twinkle lights will be, and the less of the wires and details you will able to see.

4) Either spot meter or get in tight to your subject to meter for the skin.  Adjust your ISO and shutter speed to obtain a correct exposure.  Ensure that your shutter speed is at least 1/100 of a second to avoid motion blur and/or camera shake.  Try not to underexpose your image.  If you need to use a higher ISO to avoid having too low of a shutter speed, that is a better option.  A noisy photo is better than a blurry photo.  After metering for the skin, take a test shot.  You want the skin to be well exposed.  The bokeh will be brighter than the skin.  Once your settings are set, you shouldn’t need to change them.  When the twinkle lights are in the frame (if you’re not spot-metering) your meter might jump around.  Don’t adjust unless your LCD screen or histogram are showing that you are under/over exposed.

5) Set your white balance.  Take a test shot, if you don’t like the colour of the whites, try a different preset.  Set a custom white balance if you know how to do that.  (Check your instruction manual).

6) Decide on a composition for your photo that will allow the bokeh to show up and that is pleasing to you (rule of thirds, etc.)

7) Use your focus points.  Toggle (adjust the focus point) or Focus-recompose using the center focus point.  I find that it is better for this situation to toggle, as you will be quite close to your subject, and the simple act of recomposing your shot at such a wide aperture might cause you to lose focus.  When you have a human subject later, you will lock focus on the eye.

8) Lock focus and press your shutter button.


Problem: Entire face isn’t in focus

Solution: Learn about focal planes: Because you will be using a wide aperture, it is best to make sure that your subject is facing the camera directly.  That will enable you to keep both eyes in focus.

Problem: One eye is in focus, and the other isn’t

Solution: Focus on the eye closest to the camera if the person isn’t facing you straight on, otherwise, have them face you directly if you want both eyes in focus

Problem: Size/Quality of bokeh isn’t “good enough.”   If the bokeh is very small, you need to adjust one or more factors:


1)Get the camera closer to the subject

2) Move the subject farther from the background

3) Choose a wider aperture (smaller aperture number) (f/1.4-f/2.8)

Problem: You can see the wires of the Christmas lights

Solution: Ensure that your subject is far away from the lights and that you are close to the subject.  This will blur out more of the wires.  Alternately if you have green wires, you can try putting a thin white sheet in front of the lights. This doesn’t no always work, but you can try it.

Aperture is too closed down (the f/number is too large). More is in focus, so you can see the wires.

Aperture is wide open, so the lights are blurred. In hindsight, I should have had fewer lights, as the effect is VERY blurred. But you get the idea!

Problem: Subject is blurry

Solution:  Your shutter speed might be too slow.  Adjust your shutter speed so that it is a bigger number (ie. If it is blurry at 1/60 second, adjust so that you are at 1/125, and so on.)

Problem:  There is an orange glow on top of the person’s head.

Solution: Some of the glow might be from the Christmas lights.  Otherwise, it could be happening if you have overhead light on.  Turn the overhead lights off.  Make sure you are using the proper white balance setting.

Problem: The subject is underexposed (too dark)

Solution: You need to choose a bigger ISO number or a slower shutter speed.  (ie. If your ISO is at 400, bump it to 800, or if your shutter speed is at 1/400, change it to 1/200 and so on).  Meter off of the skin.

Problem:  The subject is overexposed (too bright)

Solution: You need to choose a smaller ISO number or a faster shutter speed.  (e. if your ISO is at 800, change it to 400, or if your shutter speed is at 1/400, change it to 1/800 and so on).  Meter off of the skin.

There are so many creative things you can do with twinkle light bokeh.  These above examples are very simple.  I have plans to do some more creative set-ups to play around a bit more.  How about you?  Do you have plans to try out twinkle light bokeh?  Leave us a comment if you have anything to share or any questions!

For our Fraser Valley MWAC club members, we are having a special “photo challenge” with twinkle light bokeh.  You can submit up to five images and they don’t have to all be of your kids!  Get creative.  E-mail them by 1:00 on Monday, November 26th to or put them in our MWAC members dropbox.  Shari will make a slideshow for us to enjoy at our final meeting of the 2012 season which is happening on Tuesday, November 27th.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 20, 2013 10:15 pm

    I’m sorry that’s happening! I’m not sure that we are able to unsubscribe you from that list. Are you able to hit “unsubscribe” at the top of the blog?

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