How to Create a Bokeh Portrait for Under $10

How to Create a Unique Bokeh Portrait for Under $10

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This shot was lit with one light on the subject along with the Christmas lights.

You can have a luxurious bokeh in any of your images for the low cost of $4.99. Yes, you heard me right, just $4.99. How, you ask? I’ll tell you, but you won’t believe me – Christmas lights.

Just a single strand of Christmas lights and a couple of flash units are all you need to immerse your subject in full-blown bokeh bliss. This isn’t a double exposure or a Photoshop trick. It can all be done in camera in a single exposure. I bought a strand of cheap Christmas lights from the store, draped them over a C-stand arm so that the lights were layered and overlapping. I used a Canon 100mm f/2 lens that I had borrowed from my buddy for the shoot.

I also had two flashes. The background light was set to 1/8 power (in manual mode) and gelled red, aimed at the red wall behind the subject. The second light was set to 1/16 power and shot into a silver umbrella about seven feet away from the subject.

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Note that the output on both speedlights was set rather low so that I could shoot with a wide open aperture. The large aperture, combined with a slower shutter speed of 1/30th, helped me attain a proper exposure when shooting the low watt Christmas lights. In order to properly pull off this technique, the room you are shooting in can’t be too bright, whether it be overhead lights or window light – the ambient light can’t overpower the Christmas lights or this won’t work.

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Once I was ready to start shooting, I made sure that I was standing within two to three feet of the lights and the subject was five feet beyond the lights. Depending on how close I was standing to the Christmas lights, the size of the bokeh would change. When I was closer to the lights, the bokeh spots were larger and, accordingly smaller when I was further away from them.

Focus issues

One issue that you may encounter when shooting through an object is that the lens will try to focus on anything in the foreground. This is a problem, since what you want to focus on is behind the Christmas lights. There are a few ways to get past this. The first is switching to manual focus. But I don’t trust my eyes enough for this option.

The second option is the enabling back button focus on your camera. This is the option that I use. Enabling this feature is a bit different for each camera, so you’ll have to look up how exactly to do it on your specific camera body. Basically what it does is allows you to shoot without the interruption of autofocus, and when you want to re-focus, you simply press the assigned button on the back of your camera and resume clicking.

The third option is only available if you have a zoom lens that allows you to set your focal distance. For example, I have a Canon 70-200 f/4L IS which has a switch that, when flipped one way says 1.2m to infinity, and the other way says 3m to infinity. That means that if I don’t want to focus on the object in the foreground, I would select the 3m to infinity option so the lens doesn’t look for anything closer than 3 meters, which saves the lens and battery some focusing time.

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This shot was lit with one light on the subject and one light gelled red on a red background.

Now you’re ready to shoot. Play around with your camera’s placement in relation to the Christmas lights. As you move around, pay attention to where the colored bokeh is falling in the frame. Is it on the subject’s face? Maybe move an inch to the left so their face isn’t green. Or maybe you want it to be green. Take a shot and then move a bit and take another. Play around with size and placement of the bokeh and have fun!

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Standing further away from the Christmas lights makes the bokeh smaller.

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Standing closer to the Christmas lights makes the bokeh larger.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Nick Fancher is a portrait and commercial photographer based out of Columbus, Ohio. His clients include The New York Times, ESPN Magazine and Forbes Japan. He specializes in a no-frills, run and gun approach to lighting. His two ebooks are available here. You can connect with him on Instagram.

  • Awesome stuff man, I will def give it a try. This set up It’s a lot more simple and fun than creating this effect during the post.

  • Indeed!

  • Xaos

    The best idea I’ve seen this year! Simple, ingenious and brilliant! Thank you.

  • Guest

    Happy to help. Thanks for reading.

  • Happy to help!

  • jack

    For a little more of an effect, consider shaped bokeh? There is a tutorial on dps from a couple of years back on this.

  • Delyne

    This is actually really awesome! I’ve never thought of putting the lights IN FRONT of the model. Thanks for the idea, will try this! 🙂

  • Susie Otto

    This would be great for holiday sessions!

  • Quan Vinh

    Very creative. Thank you so much for the tips 🙂

  • Jon Reynolds

    I would really love to try this, but I don’t have a second flash unit. What modification/s would you recommend? Great idea, by the way.

  • The image shot on the dark background is lit with one flash. You can place the subject near a white wall, bouncing the light into it to create a larger, softer source. Or just use an umbrella.

  • Jon Reynolds

    Thanks! I’m trying it this afternoon. I might post the results later.

  • Awesome. Please do.

  • vatchner

    nick this is amazing thank you! I would love to speak with you on some issues do you mind me having your email?

  • I hate to say it, but there’s an app for that.

  • Grisel Kastre-jon

    I really like the first shot but you mentioned one light was on the subject. Was the flash on her left to light up the face or at her front? I’m trying to sketch the set up in my mind. Great article, loved it and going to try with a friend! 🙂

  • on her left- actually bounced off of a white wall next to her.

  • Grisel Kastre-jon

    Thank you! Wonderful creative ideas! 😉

  • Jon Reynolds

    Okay, here is one of them. This is the first time I have done an indoor “shoot” involving off-camera flash. I cannibalized an umbrella and spray-painted it a reflective silver to help bounce the light. I tweaked a few of the settings and used a black backdrop The additional light was not ideal, so next time I’ll take your recommendation and move the subject closer to a white wall to bounce the light a little more. Any other suggestions would be appreciated! Thanks again.

  • Jon Reynolds

    Okay, here is one of them. This is the first time I have done an indoor “shoot” involving off-camera flash. I cannibalized an umbrella and spray-painted it a reflective silver to help bounce the light. I tweaked a few of the settings and used a black backdrop The additional light was not ideal, so next time I’ll take your recommendation and move the subject closer to a white wall to bounce the light a little more. Any other suggestions would be appreciated! Thanks again.

  • Bokeh looks nice, and the lighting is decent. I’d raise up the exposure a bit in post. Well done!

  • Jon Reynolds

    More like this perhaps? Thanks again! I’m going to try it again soon. (By the way, I just bought your book. Looking forward to reading it!)

  • Thanks for your support!

    Did you raise the exposure to the raw file or the jpg? The highlights look blown.

  • Jon Reynolds

    In the PSD file, actually, but I’ll go back in and adjust the raw.

  • Jon Reynolds

    More like this? Thanks again.

  • Yeah, that looks better.

  • Jon Reynolds

    Thanks again! I really look forward to trying some of your other setups in the your book. I’m new to indoor portrait work (mostly do landscape work), so I really appreciate your taking time to respond. Take care.

  • Abiel rodney

    gonna try this out later on today 🙂

  • Zack

    Nick,
    Thanks for sharing this idea. I really like it. At 1/30th of a second with your shutter, were you able to hand hold the camera without getting the image being to shaky or did you have to use a tripod?

    Thanks,
    Zack

  • Shots @ Cannes (France) at the christmas market
    Nikon D5200, Nikkor AF-S 80-200 mm f/2.8 D
    1/80 f/2.8 ISO 500 200mm

  • Ken Poe

    thank for the idea. I didn’t have a model, but I did have a mannequin.

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