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.

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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.