It’s Christmas-time, and that means lights galore! Lights galore plus a prime lens means crazy light bokeh. Here’s a fun way you can add a twist to your Christmas light bokeh photos: custom bokeh! All you need to make this, besides a camera and some lights, is some black construction paper/card stock, a straight-edge craft knife, and black electrical tape. I also highly recommend a couple of custom paper punches, but they aren’t strictly necessary. You’ll also want to channel your inner-MacGyver.
I first read about creating custom bokeh a couple of years ago and tested it back then, but with poorly-made shapes I cut free-hand. Since then, this DIY photography idea has gained a lot of popularity, and there is now even a kit for it! If all of this sounds like too much work, you can just purchase a pre-made custom bokeh “masters” kit for $25. But what fun is buying a kit when you can do it yourself…right?!
Most of the things you need here are pretty common household goods, so let’s start out with the most difficult part of equation: the lens. If you don’t have a fast, f/1.4-f/2.8 lens, you aren’t going to have much success doing this. I used my 50mm f/1.8 lens and 70-200mm f/2.8 lens (almost exclusively above 100mm), and even neither of those are ideal lenses. They’ll work, but I’d really recommend using an 85mm f/1.8 lens if you have one. Longer primes will work even better, as will f/1.4 lenses.
Once you have a lens in mind, you need to make one of the bokeh-hood-things above. This may look “craft-y,” but I assure you that it is not difficult to make. (If I can do it, anyone can.) Basically, to make this, just draw a circle around your lens for the top part, and cut out that circle. Tracing it around the top of your lens will ensure that it’s just larger than your lens, but not so large that it doesn’t fit. Then use a craft knife to cut a square hole in the middle of it where your custom bokeh cards will go, cutting a 1.25″ by 1.25″ (or so) square in the exact middle of the circle.
After that, wrap a “sleeve” of construction paper around the lens and tape it off at a point that provides a good fit (not too loose, not too snug). If you’ve done everything else right, the sleeve and the circle should basically be the same size. Now attach them to one another with electrical or duct tape. After I did this, my “bokeh hood” looked hideous, with random cut lines and stray tape everywhere, so I completely wrapped it in black electrical tape. This may be difficult to follow, but you should be able to pretty easily reverse-engineer it by looking at the end result. This isn’t rocket science–it’s really not even remotely difficult to make.
If you’re using a custom paper punch, you can test out the whole concept by cutting a circle out of the back page of a magazine, punching the center of that, and tapping it to your lens and taking some test shots. This rudimentary version won’t give perfect results, but it will give you a good idea whether or not this will work. You can also try this without the custom paper punch, but that means spending a lot of effort cutting out a custom shape for something you’re going to end up throwing away.
Next up is creating the bokeh inserts. You obviously want to use a piece of paper slightly larger than the hole you’ve cut into the bokeh hood. The size this bokeh-hole should be is a tough task. I won’t pretend to understand any of the science behind how this works, but the rough “rule” I’ve heard is that it can be as large across as your focal length divided by your maximum aperture. In the case of a 50mm f/1.8 lens, it can be 50/1.8, or 27.78mm. Now, this is the maximum width. In an ideal world, you’d go slightly smaller than this to ensure that the bokeh at the edges of the frame looks better, but the smaller you go, the less light coming into the lens, and the more likely you are to need a tripod.
If you’re planning to use punches, two I use and recommend are this snowflake punch and this Mickey Mouse head punch. These both are around 24mm across, making them theoretically perfect for a 50mm f/1.8 lens. A snowflake is near-impossible to create free-hand with a craft knife, and a Mickey Mouse head is deceptively difficult. Since these were the only two designs I wanted, neither of which are in the Bokeh Masters Kit, I opted to buy these punches and make something myself rather than buying the masters kit.
While I’ve played around with them at home, I did my first (and only) field test in the parks with these in Hong Kong Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland while we were there recently. The results were somewhat mixed, but I’m generally happy given the circumstances.
With my 50mm f/1.8 lens, I had some issues with bokeh not near the center of the frame having part of its custom look cut off. I believe this is due to the angle. There are two ways to correct this: use a smaller cut-out that won’t be cut off by a bit of an angle or make sure that the cut-out is flush with the glass of the lens. With the 50mm f/1.8 lens (at least the one made by Nikon), this second solution would be difficult, as the glass is recessed in the lens. The first solution also is unappealing, as it means less light coming through the lens, necessitating a tripod in virtually every situation. This is not a big problem with the snowflake design, as a partially cut off snowflake still looks like a snowflake. A partial Mickey Mouse head just looks bizarre.
I discovered that the bokeh I made worked better with my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens above 100mm (100/2.8=35.71), which didn’t have fringing issues. This is why I suggest the 85mm f/1.8 lens above (85/1.8=47.22), as the cut-out will be large enough to let a lot of light into the lens and won’t have fringing problems. The problem with the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is that it had problems hunting for focus, requiring grabbing focus and locking it with the bokeh hood removed, or manually focusing.
In the parks, light is also an issue. Christmas lights typically are turned on when it’s dark, making a tripod almost a necessity as it’s dark, plus you have less light hitting the sensor because of the cut-out. Since we had limited time in Hong Kong and Tokyo, I didn’t want to “waste” my tripod night shots on toying with custom bokeh, so I mostly grabbed handheld shots here and there. In some cases, this pushed my ISO up to the stratosphere (in situations where it otherwise might have been around ISO 1600 or 3200).
The best places I found for taking this type of photos was gift shops, where the Christmas lights are on all the time, plus other lights are on to illuminate a subject. This is where I’d recommend taking your custom bokeh photos if you want to do so in the parks. The downside of this is that you might come across as creepy while you pose plushes in front of lights (a crowd of guests and Cast Members literally gathered around me in Hong Kong Disneyland as I tried to balance the attached Chip ‘n’ Dale plushes in the first photo…although I think they were impressed when I got the plushes to balance, not weirded out), but the results can be pretty good.
Other options that would work well include topiaries with lights behind them, details at the Osborne Lights, and the little statues in front of the Castle dream lights. Really, virtually anything will work that would normally have light bokeh behind it, though. Unfortunately, Hong Kong Disneyland doesn’t do much for Christmas, and Tokyo Disney Resort was packed (and most of my good light bokeh photos from those places are being held back for another purpose) making some of the ideas I had for this difficult to execute. I plan on trying it at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, when I have more time and scenes that better lend themselves to it. I’ll update this post with some of those shots, because I don’t think the photos here do this concept justice.
If you want to take custom bokeh photos in front of your Christmas tree, you should be able to get great results. You control the lighting and (hopefully) don’t have crowds of other people getting in your way or rushing you.
Ultimately, taking photos with custom bokeh at Walt Disney World or Disneyland is going to require some time and patience. Your best bet will be setting up shots in well-lit gift shops with Christmas lights in the distance, sort of mimicking the type of shoot you’d do at home with a smaller object positioned a good distance away from your Christmas tree. Other, more creative options are possible, but they will possibly require a tripod. If you’re a casual tourist, you may not have the time for unique applications of this idea in the parks. Still, it’s something fun you can test out, and even if you can’t get awesome photos in the field, you can stage some awesome shots at home when you have some time to spend in front of your Christmas tree!
If you’re interested in improving your Disney photography, check out a few of my top photography blog posts:
Photography Buying Guide: Everything from Underwater Cameras to Software
Best Books for Improving Your Photography
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Choosing the Best Travel Tripod
Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel
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Do you have any questions about creating a custom bokeh hood for your lens? Have you created custom bokeh before? Please share your own tips and links to any photos you’ve taken! Hearing from you is half the fun, so share your thoughts in the comments!