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Have you ever seen a photo of a child in front of a Christmas tree and wondered exactly how to achieve those nicely blurred lights in the background? I have good news for you–it’s so easy! In this article, I’ll walk you through it step by step so that you can create special family photographs of your kids by the Christmas tree this holiday season in almost no time at all.
A DSLR or mirrorless camera, and a lens with the capability to shoot somewhere between f/1.8-2.8. For these particular images, I typically prefer my 50mm lens.
When taking photos of my kids in front of the Christmas tree, I prefer to shoot during the day rather than at night. I find that doing so allows me to take advantage of the available light indoors to capture natural skin tones, and still allows me to capture the blurred lights in the background as well. Plus, my kids are much less tired and grumpy before 2pm than they are after the sun goes down. So shooting in the morning or early afternoon a few weeks before Christmas is a win-win for us all.
Once you’re ready to begin, set a chair or ottoman about 2-3 feet in front of the Christmas tree, and have your kid or kiddos sit down with the tree in the background behind them. If possible, angle your subject(s) so that they’re facing a window in order to most easily achieve catchlights in the subject’s eyes.
In order to achieve those beautiful blurry lights, you’ll want to shoot with a relatively wide open aperture, which means that you’ll probably want to shoot somewhere between f/1.8 and f/2.8. Keep in mind that just because your lens has the capability to shoot at f/1.8 doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best choice in terms of settings. Try shooting one frame at f/1.8, another at f/2.0, and a third at f/2.5. Take a look and see which you prefer.
I find that f/2.5 is the sweet spot when shooting two children with my 50mm lens. But every lens is different, so take some time to experiment a bit with your aperture and discover what works best for you and the equipment that you are using.
My house tends to be fairly dark in the winter months, so I typically set my shutter speed to the slowest speed that I’m comfortable hand-holding, which is 1/60th of a second. Your mileage may vary, but setting your shutter speed to 1/60th or 1/80th is typically a good place to begin when shooting indoors in a home with average natural light.
I typically set my ISO at around 200 for these images. Start there, as keeping your ISO as low as possible will help reduce grain/noise. That said, don’t be afraid to increase your ISO or even set it to Auto ISO if needed. When it comes to most newer DSLR cameras, you have quite a bit of wiggle room before you start to see significant noise in your final images.
Perhaps the most important factor in taking really strong photos of kids in front of a Christmas tree is to make sure that your camera is level with your subject. In order to create the best bokeh possible with the Christmas lights, you do not want to shoot on either a downward or upward angle. This may require you sitting or laying on the floor in order to get your camera at your subject’s eye level. It’s worth it!
If you’re shooting in RAW with colored LED lights in the background and plan to import your images into Lightroom, let me show you something that will save you all kinds of time and frustration. Lightroom does not handle blue or purple LED lights very well.
Everything may look fine and dandy in camera, but when you import them into Lightroom, all of the blue and purple lights will likely look crazy. The best description that I can give is that it will look like you have highlight clipping enabled even when you don’t. It looks terrible, but it’s an easy fix.
Scroll down to “Camera Calibration” in the right-hand menu. In the Profile drop-down, try changing the setting from “Adobe Standard” to “Camera Standard”. Just that one small change makes a huge difference in the way that the lights look in the background of the image.
Once you’ve mastered these settings, you can take what you’ve learned and apply it outside of the holiday season as well. Need a fun backdrop for a party or event? Hang some colorful lights on the wall, and use these same settings to capture some fun and colorful images year round.
Are photos in front of the Christmas tree part of your family’s holiday tradition? If so, please share your favorite image in the comments below.