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How to use your DSLR to take pictures of your Christmas Lights: Bokeh, Blur, & Starburst

I must confess, I put our tree up early in order to be able to take cool pictures of it and achieve some pretty cool bokeh (blurry background). This is my first Christmas shooting manual mode, and I couldn’t wait to play!

1. (the bokeh) If you have a DSLR camera, turn the dial to M (or AV-aperture priority) to start playing. You might be able to achieve this look by putting your camera in portrait mode too. The biggest thing you need to get right for the bokeh (this is achieved in camera; NOT through photoshop) is to have a foreground and background. DO NOT put your subject on the same plane as the tree. Bring him/her a few steps forward.

For this first picture, I didn’t really do anything special. I simply needed to have the tree in the background, put my focal point on something in the foreground, and shoot with a wide aperture. I spot metered off my daughter’s skin and put the focal point on her eye. I shot this with 35mmL lens.  My settings were ss 100, ap 2.0, ISO 400.

Ann Arbor Photographer

2. (the blur) This next one is allll about the bokeh. I did not do anything fancy here. I turned off all the lights in the room and adjoining rooms (it was dark out). My settings were ss 200, ap 1.6, ISO 1000. Then I switched the focus on my lens (35mm) from auto focus to manual and twisted it until I achieved a look I liked.

Ann Arbor photographer

3. (the starburst) This last one is my favorite. I love creating a starburst with the sun, and with my new tripod, figured I could do it with Christmas lights as well. You will need a tripod or flat steady surface to place your camera.  I shot this with my 50mm 1.4 lens: ss 30 sec (hence the tripod–this means the shutter stayed open for 30 seconds before clicking shut–this is how the star is created), ap 22, ISO 100. The slow exposure lets in all of the light; by closing down your aperture, you capture the detail; and the low ISO prevents noise.

Ann Arbor photographer

Another way to achieve the starburst is with a filter. For this one, I placed a 52mm Star-8 filter ($6 on amazon!) on my 50mm 1.4 lens. This was shot with only the light from the tree. My settings were ap 2.5, ss 125, ISO 16,500. I added a little noise reduction in light room.

Ann Arbor child photographer

Because the only light I worked with for the last 3 photos came from the Christmas tree, I set my white balance to tungsten. For the first picture I had nice light coming from a north facing window in the morning, and I set Kelvin to 5600.

I hope you are able to play around with your DSLR camera this holiday season and enjoy the Christmas lights as much as I do.