*Funny thing about the holidays…

christmas bokeh boy

While many of us are forced to spend a good amount of our time indoors this time of year, there are some fun ways to photographically take advantage of this seasonal necessity.  One that pops into mind each and every year for me is shooting with Christmas tree lights as a backdrop.  With a shallow depth of field, you can turn these bright, blinking, energy bill inflating little guys into a multicolored, bokeh ball explosion.  Here’s how…

bokeh under the christmas tree

For those not fully fluent in Bokeh, feel free to read my earlier post HERE, it’s alright, we’ll wait for you to get back…… Okay, so that is about a software program which simulates it, but the first couple paragraphs explain what bokeh is in a photographic sense.

Alright, now that we have that sorted, the easiest way to create these blended balls of festivity requires an elementary understanding of your depth of field.  To achieve an out of focus background, you need a shallow DOF.  DOF is the area parallel to the sensor that is “in focus” which grows in depth when the point of focus gets further from the camera, and will also do so as the lens’ aperture is stopped down (higher f number) creating a deeper slice of focus comparatively at any focus distance based on the way light is focused through the lens (lots of math, long story short, large aperture ie: f/1.4 = shallower dof, small aperture ie: f/22 = deeper dof).  So, to shallow it up all we need to do is firstly, get close to our subject/point of focus, next, open the aperture up, and finally get the background/lights as far away as we can so that they fall further outside of our DOF.  Focal length will also play it’s part.  The longer the focal length, combined with a larger aperture and close focusing distance, the easier it is to accomplish this type of shot.

The other variable is the sensor size.  The smaller the sensor, the harder it can be to shallow up your DOF.  Not that it is impossible by any means, and in certain cases it’s actually a benefit to have a smaller sensor when wanting to shallow up your DOF (if shooting from a fixed location and set focal length for example), but long story short, if you’re trying to accomplish this with a compact camera, you may have a much harder time as your DOF is inherently deeper with smaller sensors.

Check your camera and lens’ DOF capabilities with this handy online DOF Calculator.  If you want an even more in depth article on DOF, sensor sizes and focal lengths, and would also like to potentially confuse yourself (or understand the basic math behind DOF, you know yourself better than I) you can read a bit more about that HERE.

Here’s the part where we just skip ahead, ignoring the previous links to the other articles.  Really, you don’t need to know any of that to accomplish this and with that said, here’s how you achieve the bokeh ball look.

1) The longer the focal length, combined with the closer the point of focus to the camera and further the background is from the subject, along with a larger aperture (lower f number), the shallower the DOF and more out of focus the background will be.  Easy.

2) There really isn’t a number two.

See this diagram for an idea on how the top image was shot.


So, all you need to do is try to get whatever you’re focusing on a good distance away from the lights while close to your camera and shoot at a wide aperture with a longer focal length, viola!  For an explanation on the first shot above (as documented in the above diagram).  I focused on LBWHF (little baby what’s his face), who was about 5 feet away from me.  Our Christmas tree was about 15 feet behind him.  I shot with an 80mm lens at f/2.8 on a micro 4/3 camera (2x EFOV crop factor) which gave me a shallow enough DOF to keep his eye in focus while throwing the background, and everything in it, completely out of focus.

christmas bokeh ornaments

But, wait, how about the shot of the presents under the tree, or whatever this shot is above?  That doesn’t make any sense based on this DOF mumbo jumbo we’ve been spittin’ here.  Ahhh, well, you see, another fun way to play around with DOF is with a selective focus optic.  If you’re a doctor or lawyer, this may mean a nice, fancy tilt/shift lens.  For the rest of us, we can use T/S lens mount converters or, my personal fave, a Lensbaby.  For the three shots above, I used my micro 4/3 Composer Pro on my OMD EM5 with the Edge 80 optic (read more HERE).  In these shots, I’ve actually altered my plane of focus from being parallel to the sensor (as a standard lens will) to being skewed by physically tilting the optical elements which changes the angle that the light enters the lens and is projected onto the sensor allowing me to play with that “slice” of focus.  Lots of fun!

Well, it’s a fun time of year to play around with what we have at our disposal, and for many of us, this means lights, and lots of them.  Enjoy your holiday season wherever you may be and hopefully this was helpful.

Happy holidays and shooting,


4 thoughts on “*Funny thing about the holidays…

  1. Yep, love the eye color! Still making my peace with TFX but thanks for looking out for us.

    BTW – just back from Vietnam, Cambodia and Taiwan. Not sure how the photos are yet – still plowing slowly through about 6k shots from nice little Pana FZ20 that went with me everywhere as part of my outfit and the GH1.

    Happy holidays, Tyson and family.


    • Thanks Terry!

      We’re getting over a collective family stomach bug to finish off the year and start the new, but otherwise all is well. SE Asia is on my travel bucket list, I’m jealous, and look forward to perusing through your shots to perhaps vicariously occupy my travel bug.

      Happy new year!


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