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Tips & Tricks

How To Use Inexpensive String Lights To Make Foreground Bokeh

By Amii & Andy Kauth on February 12th 2016

We love when our clients inspire us to do something that involves us gettin’ funky. This happened recently when we were late-night prepping for an engagement adventure with a rad couple who absolutely adore Christmas lights. Christmas was over (Jan. 3), and we realized at about 2 a.m. that we absolutely needed a battery-operated strand of Christmas lights to add an unexpected element to their upcoming adventure with us: foreground bokeh via a string of lights. And it was our local 24/7 Wal-Mart to the rescue!


After scrounging the sketchy section in the back (the section with all the gardening supplies and grills and various odds and ends, including all the post-holiday junk that didn’t sell) for what seemed like hours – but was realistically probably only a mere 15 minutes – we scored one of the very last strings of battery-operated Christmas lights (likely in the entire state of Arizona, with 3 C batteries not included). They weren’t optimal (model: 66-126C, if you really need to know). And despite being a strand of some 50 mini globe-shaped lights that were most likely factory “etched” to give them that wintery/frosty look, we knew we had secured that last minute item that would allow us to hack our way into something our clients would love.

Here’s how we did it.


Get Some Lights

Okay, first things first. You gotta score some lights. Ours were “mini globe-shaped 12mm diameter nuggets of light that offer brilliant light disbursement through a diamond faceted bulb design, creating a radiant light halo to brighten the night,” at least according to the only ‘site we could find that sells something similar. Ha! Personally, we think you’ll have great success if you get any small string of LED lights; and Amazon is ripe with other options. So, experiment away!

Check Your Distance

The technique is really pretty straightforward. Just dangle the lights in front of your lens. That’s it. Simple. If you hang them close (almost touching, if not actually touching the lens) and get two or three lights in the frame, the result will be some large, beautiful foreground bokeh. If your goal is smaller foreground bokeh, dangle the lights up to a few inches from your lens. Here are two examples with our 50mm f/1.8G; the first is with the lights right on our lens, and the second has the lights dangling a few inches away.

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Open It Up & Fire Away!

Our personal preference when using Christmas lights to create some foreground bokeh is to keep the lights close and make the bokeh large. That said, keep in mind that a wider aperture will essentially allow for larger bokeh. And your choice of lens is something to consider as well. For example, our 50mm f/1.8G is able to create a larger foreground bokeh than our 24mm f/1.4G because our 24 is a wide angle lens and our 50 is able to produce a more shallow depth of field (i.e., more of the foreground and background are able to be out of focus). We shot the following two images with our trusted 50mm f/1.8G and our 24mm f/1.4G. Same lights. Same distance. Notice the difference? Yep. The 50 gave a larger bokeh than the 24.

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And you also need to keep in mind that the size of the bokeh increases as the f-stop decreases. Here is an example of our 50mm f/1.8G at f/3.2, f/2.8, and f/1.8.

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Just because winter is almost over (or never really got started if you live in the desert like us), doesn’t mean you can’t whip out a string of lights for your next session. We’d love to hear about (and hopefully see!) what you’ve used to create some foreground bokeh (Christmas lights, a drinking glass, etc.?). Let us know by leaving a comment below and/or by posting your legit foreground bokeh shots over in SLR Lounge’s growing Facebook Community group, which you need to join if you haven’t got around to it!


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Terms: #Foreground

Amii & Andy are a wife and husband team of rad portrait and wedding photographers (Sunshine & Reign Photography) who absolutely love life and are generally just stoked! Yeah! When they aren’t photographing or writing and teaching about photography, you’ll find them off on a seriously legit adventure with their little ones, lifting weights in their garage, training jiu-jitsu, refining their archery skills, or surfing every chance they get. And on the rare chance they escape off on a “date night”? Yep! They’ll find a wedding to crash (true fact).

Website: Sunshine & Reign Photography
Instagram: @sunshineandreign

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Ant Motton

    I have a small set of Christmas lights and will often use them for ring shots, never thought about using them for portraits and foreground interest so thanks guys!! I’ve just purchased a prism to give me a bit more creativity, it’s probably easy to over use it though!!

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    • Andy & Amii Kauth

      Thanks for checking out the article, Ant. There are loads of “tools” and techniques to try. And they can definitely help w/ creativity. Anything could easily be used to frequently or not frequently enough. We find that staying true to ourselves, our style, and what our clients expect (based upon our style) allows for a good balance of using a prism, etc. or not. Cheers!

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  2. Bob Davis

    I keep a couple of strands of LED’s in the studio…

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  3. sam tziotzios

    I think the most important element which was not mentioned here, but possibly implied, is that the light levels in the shot need to be low for this to work. Otherwise your bokeh lights will not be picked up by the sensor. Twilight exteriors, Dark interiors, Night-time.

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    • Andy & Amii Kauth

      Thanks for commenting, Sam! Yep. We didn’t talk about flash (we tend to light up our subjects more often than not) or time of day/night. Sure will work best in overcast or lower light environments. Thanks for pointing that out!!

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    • sam tziotzios

      thank you for the article!
      true some flash added helps bring out the couple on overcast days or any low light environment needed for the bokeh effect.

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    • Andy & Amii Kauth

      Thanks for reading it and commenting, bro! We just checked your website, btw. Really nice stuff. And we absolutely love your bio and how much you love what you do! Cheers!

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    • sam tziotzios

      Thanks guys! Of course the same applies to your story/work/website. Keep up the good work!

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  4. Chris Biele

    I carry a blank DVD with me which can create some awesome bokeh reflections, especially with fluffy clouds in a blue sky or flowers / trees. I really need to pick up a few different coloured prisms though.

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    • Andy & Amii Kauth

      Awesome, Chris. We love using prisms. Just a mere string of Christmas lights here though . . . Cheers!

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  5. Derek Couts

    Did this at while hosting a photo booth at my family’s Christmas party this past year. It was great.

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  6. morgan glassco

    Mill Ave! Nice shots

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