Christmas time is upon us, and I know a lot of you are looking for some fun ways to make your holiday photos more interesting. Well, what better time to introduce you to bokehs than right now? Chances are you’ve got a lot of Christmas lights around the house, and they’re just dying to make a star appearance in your holiday images. Here’s a little tutorial on making custom bokeh shapes using your digital SLR and the Christmas lights in your house.
What is a bokeh?
Have you ever seen those gorgeous holiday images with balls of light everywhere? Those out-of-focus lights are what is known as bokeh. The actual term “bokeh” has Japanese origins, and it was adopted by the west to describe this peculiar yet beautiful photography phenomenon.
Bokehs happen whenever you shoot bright lights using a lens with a very wide aperture. How wide are we talking? Well, you’ll really start to notice them once you use apertures in the F1.4 to F1.8 range. The aperture makes the light so out-of-focus that it get splashed across the frame, making these circular shapes.
I don’t like to say it, but a lot of cameras (especially point-and-shoot models) don’t have apertures that get anywhere near this F-number. Even if you do own a digital SLR with a basic kit lens, you can’t create images like this. Your best bet is to purchase a fixed focal length lens that can get you an aperture of at least F1.8. A “normal” 50 mm lens at this focal length won’t set you back that much, and you’ll use it for a bunch of other images. It’s the best starter lens when you’re looking to add something new to your kit.
To get the bokeh effect, set your aperture to F1.8, find some lights in the foreground or background, and take a picture. Your camera can help you out if you’re not too familiar with manual photography. Just pick aperture priority mode on the top dial, and then go to F1.8. Your camera will pick the right shutter speed for you, and you’ll get this lovely bokeh effect.
I’ve got two more things to say about bokehs. First, if the lights are in the area of the photo that’s in focus, they’ll just look like normal lights. To make a bokeh, the lights need to be out of focus, and that means they need to either be in the foreground or the background of the shot.
Secondly, you’ll eventually want to learn the art of manual photography. Cameras are okay at picking the right shutter speeds, but you can get a lot more color when you pick the shutter speed yourself. Just try a bunch of different shutter speeds, and if your subject isn’t lit correctly, adjust the shutter speed up or down to add or subtract more light from the shot.
How To Make A Custom Bokeh Shape
Once you’ve mastered the art of making normal bokeh shapes, you can take it to the next level by making your own custom bokehs. To do that, you’ll take some black construction paper (think elementary school), cut out the shape you want, and cover your lens with it. Before I get started with this, I like to wrap the construction paper around my lens to shape it into a cylinder. Those of you who are more craft-minded probably have a better solution, but this is quick and easy, and it works for me.
You’ll end up with something like this:
Shooting with a custom bokeh mask is no different than shooting normal bokeh light photos. You’ll be using nearly the same aperture and shutter speed settings as before, but the only difference is the resulting bokeh. It will be some slight variation of the shape you’ve cutout.
There are all kinds of ideas worth pursuing here. We’ve really just begun. With that said, I’d love to see some of your custom bokeh photos. Show me what your Christmas tree looks like with your own creative shape (my favorite is the bat signal). Upload to the special Bokeh section of the gallery.
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