5 Tips to Capture Beautiful Christmas Tree Light Bokeh in Your Holiday Photos

cat in christmas photo
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The holiday season is a magical time of year for our families and can be for our photography as well.

Many portrait photographers do mini Christmas sessions and people like to get their family photos taken this time of year.

To take better photos of the holidays in general, check out the tips in this blog post —> 10+ Ideas to Make Your Holiday Photos Rock This Year.

But one thing that really stands out about many holiday photos are the blurry lights in the background. They make the photo pop and feel festive.

These blurry backgrounds are achieved with bokeh, which we talk about in this blog post —> 5 Ways to Get A Blurry Background In Your Photos.

As a recap from that post, Nikon USA defines Bokeh as “the effect of a soft out-of-focus background that you get when shooting a subject, using a fast lens, at the widest aperture, such as f/2.8 or wider.”

Bokeh is the look you get with of out-of-focus blur in a photograph.

So today, we are going to talk about how to get Christmas tree light bokeh in your holiday photos and how you can maximize this effect in your photography.

christmas tree with lights

5 Tips to Capture Beautiful Christmas Tree Light Bokeh in Your Holiday Photos

1. Use a wide open aperture

In order to get bokeh, you need to have a blurry background. In order to achieve this look without blurring your subject, you need to shoot in manual mode with a low aperture number.

The best lens to use is the one that goes the lowest with aperture. Anywhere from f/2.8 or wider is preferable, but even f/4 can get you decent bokeh.

Focus on your subject, so it is clear, and use the lowest (or close to lowest) aperture you can. Then adjust your other settings to make sure you have proper exposure.

For more information on aperture, read this blog post —> 10 Steps to Manual Mode: Aperture Basics.

2. Create distance between your subject and the lights

Because of depth of field, the distance between your subject and the background will affect how blurry the background is.

So if you are using a wide open aperture (as suggested above) and you want a blurry background, you need to separate your subject from the background for best results.

Instead of standing your subject right in front of the tree or lights, have them take a step or two forward. This will give some distance between the two and increase the bokeh in your photo.

Here are two shots I took of a wooden nativity in front of our Christmas tree. One is closer to the tree than the other.

christmas tree with lights
nativity in front of christmas tree with lights
Settings: 50mm 1/160 ss, f/2, ISO 800

And this one is pulled further away from the tree:

christmas tree with lights
nativity in front of christmas tree with lights
Settings: 50mm 1/160 ss, f/2, ISO 800

I think the one further away looks creamier and lighter (higher ISO).

FYI: If I were going to use this photo for something else, I would have put a board under the nativity to make it look better.

3. Use a higher ISO (if needed)

Since we are talking about Christmas lights, we are often going to be shooting in the dark outside or a dimly lit room inside.

To counteract the lack of light while shooting in manual, you will most likely need to increase your ISO. This will help get more light in the photo without using the flash (that’s a no-no!).

Normally, we use the lowest ISO possible to get the shot, so we don’t introduce noise into the image.

But it is better to get enough light to see your subject than to worry about the number. So bump that baby up until you have your desired exposure.

You can see in the two nativities above that the one with the higher ISO looks lighter and IMO better than the other.

For more information on ISO, read this blog post —> 10 Steps to Manual Mode: ISO Basics.

4. Use manual focus

I would say 98% of the time, when I’m shooting I use auto focus on my camera.

Christmas lights are one of the few exceptions (so is astrophotography).

I love the look of out of focus Christmas lights in a photo. This would be a photo where there is no subject except the lights. It reminds me of the holidays and looks very dreamy.

In order to do this, stand in front of your Christmas tree. Get your settings right for the photo. Then turn your lens to manual focus and make the photo go out of focus.

It is fun to play with light photos in this manner, as it is a different kind of photography than most of us are used to: very abstract and surreal.

Here is a photo of my tree out of focus.

christmas tree with lights

FYI: I think it would look better if we didn’t have the burlap wrapped around the tree for this experiment. It seems to have blocked some of the lights.

5. Use a tripod

Anytime you are shooting in low light or dimly lit scenes, you will need a tripod to get clear, in focus photos in manual mode.

Shooting Christmas lights is no different. Use a tripod so that you can get your subject in focus and your background out of focus.

You don’t want blur or camera shake in your overall photo. Your subject should still be crisp and bright.

I hope these tips help you take amazing holiday photos this year with creamy, beautiful Christmas lights bokeh in the background.

These tricks might take a little while to master, but you will be so glad you took the time to test and practice. It’s worth the effort to get your holiday photos right for future viewers to enjoy.

You can do this!

What is your favorite tip given in this post? Let us know in the comments below. And if you found this post helpful, please share. Thanks!

man taking a picture with a monopod and DSLR camera

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