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How to: Holiday Lights Bokeh Tutorial

‘Tis the season: pine trees, ornaments, carols and jingle bells, stockings hung by the chimney with care, and Christmas light bokeh in your holiday photos. So how can you get these gorgeous orbs in your images?

Peppermint Mocha Bokeh - how to make beautiful blurry Christmas lights bokeh

How to get beautiful blurry Christmas light bokeh:

Tip 1:
Choose your lens with the largest aperture possible. You need a low aperture number which equates to a wide open aperture. f/1.4, f/1.8 is good. f/4+ is not good. I used an 85mm f/1.8 and shot at f/1.8.

Tip 2:
In order to get circles, your lens’s aperture must be at its most open. If not, you’ll get hexagons. Those are pretty, too, but a bit different. Depends on what you’re going for.

Hexagon Bokeh created with increased aperture

In this example, the aperture is f/2.8 – not all the way open at f/1.8. So the lights look hexagonical. Is hexagonical a word?

Tip 3:
The farther away your subject is from the lights, the larger the orbs will appear. If you want tiny sparkles, put your subject close to the lights. If you want big glowy orbs, pull the subject away from the light source.

Tip 4:
With a little craftiness, you can make shaped bokeh. Stars, hearts, snowflakes – anything you want. Rather than reinvent the wheel, go check out Amanda’s tutorial at Kevin & Amanda.

Now it’s your turn!


On Thursday, I will be having a Holiday Bokeh linky party! The linky goes up on Thursday (late Wed at midnight central!). You have a few days to practice and get those Bokeh shots ready. Anything is game – Menorah Lights, Christmas tree lights, pick your poison!

Sweet Shot Tuesday will run as usual this week, but Thursday’s linky is created just for you to show off your lights.

Here is a post-sized graphic for you to use in your blogs. Feel free to invite your friends to participate.

boken party at http://my3boybarians.com

See you there!


  1. we’re actually putting up our christmas lights right now!! thanks for the tutorial on how to take a pic, i will give it a shot and if it’s good enough i’ll link up!!!!!! :D

  2. Hexagonal, I believe, is correct. Thanks for the tutorial! I was just looking at the shadows of the tree branches the lights make on the floor last night. I think tonight will be playtime!

  3. Looking forward to trying this out this week the the tree goes up…Great tips as ever Darcy

  4. GREAT tutorial! Love this subject matter.

  5. Darcy – your shots are gorgeous! GREAT job with the food :-) You have mastered this too – pretty quickly!!! I might add :-)

    I tried the link to Kevin and Amanda – didn’t work for me. Is it just me?


    • Hey Jill!

      Amanda’s site was down for a little bit yesterday – but it’s back up. Try it again – it’s a great post.

  6. Um, help?!

    I’ve taken almost 100 shots throughout the day experimenting with different lighting situations. I’m not happy with any of my shots. :(

    My tree is up against three big windows and there is hardly any natural light filtering in from the other direction.

    Your candy canes and coffee cup are so bright and crisp. You did a phenomenal job on those shots!

    • Try using a different strand – not on the tree. Having the window light behind the tree might work better after sunset.

      For these, I used a tripod so I could shoot longer.

      Told ya’ Night Photography class would come in handy! ;)

  7. Oh, I wish I had a lens that would work. How beautiful!!!

  8. After reading your tweet and here, I will have to figure out the pronunciation and definition of “bokeh.”

    • You’ll find lots of answers. Many say “BOH-kuh.” Many say “boo-KAY.” And there’s about 1/2 dozen other variations.

      I tend to type it to avoid offending any camp. ;)

  9. thanks for the tips! I want to try and get some sparkly lights/kids pictures this year and need all the tips I can get. I absolutely LOVE the picture you posted for the Food + Foto. makes me feel all warm and cozy

  10. ok so like how did you know as soon as I got that 105mm that I would be snapping pictures trying to get Bokeh and not knowing how in the HECK y’all did it!

    I tried to get a picture of a Christmas cactus flower blooming with the bokeh lights behind it but that crazy lens kept re-focusing. Grrrr… haven’t learned how to master the Bokeh yet!

    Bokeh photo: FAIL :)

  11. I can’t wait for the party!

  12. Very cool! I wonder … will this technique work with LED lights? We switched out all our old Christmas lights for the new energy efficient LEDS. Pretty … but not as pretty as the old lights. :o(

  13. I love this Darcy! already took some bokeh pics of my tree!! will probably take more just in case lol. love to be back again, I took the 31 day photo series with you. Now I have to figure out how to do the linky thing. lol!

  14. Darcy, do you use the flash when you take the picture? And how do the pictures come out so clean and crisp being so close to a subject? Do you think a nice camera plays part in this? thank you for a great tutorial and great info! I will try it out for sure!!!

    • I don’t use flash ever. At least not the one that comes attached to a camera.

      As long as the subject is in focus, it will be sharp. Focus on the closer object (in this case – the cup) – not the lights.

      I think a point and shoot could accomplish this if: the distance was far enough between the subject and the lights, and the camera was on portrait setting or some sort of low-aperture setting.

      I bet I could get my son’s $180 point and shoot to pull it off with a little playing. But admittedly, it’s much trickier than with a camera that has a manual setting. It’s infinitely easier with a dSLR.

  15. What do you use for good foregrounds? Do you use a piece of glossy white countertop or a mirror?

    • I’ll go over more of the methods to my madness on Thursday!

      • I’m looking forward to what you got up your sleeve… well, your keyboard, maybe. :)

        I was wondering how you got it so bright and white, too. I got some kinda cool ones from the lights on my trees. I may break out the extra strands of lights tomorrow evening and see what I can come up with…

  16. LOVE this tutorial. You know I always love your tutorials though because you are a Nikon girl and I can always relate to your settings and such. I wish I had more time to play with my photography.

  17. I am still learning but i think i have taken some pretty good shots so far in my practice and look forward to participating.

  18. thanks for unravelling the magic! can’t waiti to get to work! :)

  19. Stephanie says:

    Did you use regular lights? If so how did you get them so white? When I do it with regular lights it comes out almost a yellow color. Yours are so pretty!!!

  20. Thanks for posting the tutorial for the custom bokeh! I went to Hobby Lobby today and did it myself.

  21. love your tutorial and I am having so much fun playing with lights and bokeh! The white lights you used with the Christmas mugs and matching sprinkles are great!

  22. Hi Darcy! Thanks for the tutorial, I just had a quick question: can you do bokeh with a point-and-shoot camera? I am getting the Nikon Coolpix P100 and really wanted to take some bokeh shots with it…but I’m not sure if it will work.
    Also, how do you pronounce bokeh? Haha! That might sound stupid, but I am clueless!


  23. I wish you could see me flipping back and forth between your Bokeh instructions, your 31 days series, my owners manual, and my canon in my lap…all trying to figure out how in the world to shoot a picture of my Christmas tree without it looking like…well lets just say “junk”! Its so frusting when I hit a road block right off the start because my apeture wont go below f/3.5…I guess my lens is not capable…its 18-55mm. Bummer. The good news is I always learn a lot about my camera when I start visiting here and playing with my camera at the same time…even if its not what I was originally trying to figure out :)! Your 31 day series is like finding gold!

  24. Love to take bokeh shots – am blogging daily in December, and most photos include some bokeh. Just a question about the link up – do I need to have a separate post, or can I link to any one of my posts as long as I include the button?

    Thanks, and love your blog :)

  25. So beautiful!! I’ve added it to the M&T Spotlight! http://www.makeandtakes.com/spotlight

  26. Great explanation – thanks for sharing. I just love that top photo.

  27. Re you question on the word “Hexagonical” the correct word you are looking for is “HEXAGONAL” pronounced hex-agon-al. Hope this helps, the tut is great too !!!!

  28. Hi. Found you through Amanda’s site. Love your white bokeh shots. Thanks for the how-to. :)

  29. I’m going to try this with 3 kids in the picture. I’m shooting with my 50mm so i need to keep usually around f/4. Would this work to keep kids in focus and give bokeh effect?


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