There’s one main reason why I love photography at Christmas-time, and that’s CHRISTMAS LIGHT BOKEH! This bokeh is best achieved with a fast lens, say the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 (check out my review of the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 here) or the ever-popular 50mm f/1.8 lenses. Even f/2.8 lens, like my Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 VC work.
However, if you don’t have a fast lens, the long end of a telephoto lens (say a 18-250 lens at 150mm or above) will work. Better yet, reach for a fast telephoto lens for the ULTIMATE BOKEH MACHINE.
The ‘intensity’ of the bokeh will depend upon the distance between your subject and the lights behind it, your aperture, and the focal length of your lens. The greater the distance between subject and lights, the more intense the bokeh. The wider the aperture, the more intense the bokeh.
The longer the focal length, the more prominent the bokeh (due to compression). For this reason, my preferred combination is a subject with lights at least 5 feet behind it, an f/1.4 to f/2.8 lens, and a focal length of 70mm or above. Compromises can be made (I don’t have a 70mm+ f/1.4 lens, so I either have to go with a shorter focal length or a slower lens), but that’s my ideal scenario.
Your mileage may vary…
You can also get even more creative with Christmas light bokeh photos. We recently did a post on creating custom bokeh, which is a really fun (and rewarding!) method, but requires some DIY crafting effort. If that’s not your style, consider setting up Christmas lights specifically for a bokeh shoot!
You can also put the bokeh in front of your subject, or make bokeh the subject itself by manually adjusting the focus until it’s entirely out of focus (this works particularly well with Christmas trees and other objects with that will still have identifiable shapes when out of focus). If I manage to make it onto the “nice” list, I might be playing with a macro lens this Christmas, which should make for great ornament/bokeh possibilities.
Star Filter Effect
I mentioned in the settings section that I usually use an aperture of f/11 to f/16 for photos of lights. One reason for this is because (on the lenses I own, at least), these higher apertures have the effect of producing a natural star effect. As with all things science related, I don’t know why this happens, but here is some proof that it does. I love the look this gives to Christmas photos. It’s like a more natural and less over-the-top version of a star filter. Note that in the photo above, the effect is only really noticeable in the foreground bushes; with an actual filter, there’d be streaks in the actual ‘it’s a small world’ facade, too.
The exact aperture you need to use for this depends upon the lens. I have one lens that creates stars on points of light at f/8. Another of my lenses doesn’t do it until f/20. It’s usually somewhere in between. Be warned that as you stop down, you’ll notice a slight drop in image quality. With some lenses at f/20 or f/22, this can be quite noticeable.
The alternative to this is an actual star filter. These filters were really popular in the 1980s (if you have any Disney souvenir book from then, I guarantee you’ll find at least one star filter photo in it), but since have sort of faded away. They were a photography fad, to be sure (I wonder how many things today will be cringe-worthy in an decade?), but I think they can still be fun in small doses. Part of this is probably my nostalgia for Christmases then, but I think these photos have a warm, home-y feel to them. Sort of like a Campbell’s Soup commercial from back then just made you feel warm.
Photos produced with a star filter definitely have a different look than photos produced with the aperture technique. Star filter photos generally have longer streaks of light, with this light often having a bit of color to it. I recently bought a cheap star filter set (4 point, 6 point, and 8 point) to play around with, and I’ve enjoyed the results. If you are going to get a star filter, cheap is definitely the way to go. There will be a loss in image quality, but no one should be getting enough use out of a star filter to justify spending $60-100 on one.
Up to this point, this article has mostly focused on Christmas lights. This is for good reason, as the lights are probably the most photogenic aspect of Christmas. However, the story is told through the details. Ornaments, gifts being wrapped, table settings, stockings, etc., all make great photo subjects.
We spend a lot of money and put a lot of effort into making things “just perfect” for Christmas (I know my family never uses nice table settings any other time of year!), and the upside to that is that is that virtually every aspect of Christmas is like a perfectly-staged photo op. Think of it this way: virtually everything that you spend money on as part of Christmas is a potential photo subject.
One storytelling detail that is priceless is the family moments that happen around Christmas. Due to all of the excitement of Christmas, people often let down their guard and allow for some great candid moments. People sleeping next to the fire, opening presents, and baking holiday treats are just a few examples. (Tip: think twice before posting that photo of your wife while opening presents in her PJs after she just woke up…not that I know from experience or anything!) These great moments in the pretty Christmas environments can make for exceptional photos, so don’t overlook the people that make Christmas so special!
Hopefully this guide gives you an idea of how to improve your photography for Christmas with some new techniques and ideas to try. Like I wrote at the top, I think Christmas is the most photogenic time of year, with so many great scenes and details to shoot, and nearly infinite ways to get creative. This article just scratches the surface on those–if you have other creative ideas for Christmas photography or tips, please share them in the comments!
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
For trip planning tips and comprehensive advice, make sure to read our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide and Disneyland Trip Planning Guide.
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Do you have any questions about taking photos at Christmas? Have any tips of your own? Please share your own tips and any photos you’ve taken! Hearing from you is half the fun, so share your thoughts in the comments!