How to Shoot Portraits with Christmas Lights

Holidays are just around the corner, and with holidays come dazzling colored Christmas lights. It is but natural that you try and capture photos of your friends and family with beautiful lights in the background. In this brief video, Daniel Norton from Adorama demonstrates how you can mix strobes with Christmas lights to create beautiful holiday portraits:

Most studio photographers shooting portraits prefer to use an aperture somewhere around f/5.6. As Norton explains, it allows you to keep a reasonable depth of field so that the whole of the subject’s head is in focus. Even if the subject moves in between frames, a slightly larger depth of field ensures nothing goes out of focus.

Shallow Depth of Field

For this shoot, however, an extremely shallow depth of field is necessary. This is so that the Christmas lights in the background can be blurred out so that all you see are large blobs of light. The strings and supporting tools are completely obliterated.

A simple rule of background blur is the closer you are to your subject, relative to the background, the more background blur you can achieve. Norton moved as far back as possible, almost standing against the wall so that the model can move closer, and as a result, the background is as far away as possible.

portraits with christmas lights

Move your subject farther from the background and closer to the camera.

Lighting Setup

For this shoot, Norton used a Profoto B2 with a beauty dish to ensure that the light was zeroed in on a specific area. He used a kicker light in the back to isolate the subject from the background.

At f/5.6 this is the result:

Shooting portraits with Christmas lights

Shot at f/5.6

Watch how the background lights have blurred. They are now tiny dots of color with no visible strings and other contraptions. But the result is nowhere close to what Norton had in mind.

To get the desired effect—larger circles of light—Norton opens up his lens. At a larger aperture, the lens opening tends to make the out of focus lights appear larger. This is the result at f/2.8:

how to shoot portraits with Christmas lights

Shot at f/2.8

Notice how the lights have increased in size. As the aperture was increased to f/2.8, the shutter speed was also adjusted in the other direction to give the same exposure. With TTL metering the flash adjusted accordingly to fire the optimum amount of light to give the same exposure. The lights are, however, not bright enough.

To make the lights just a tag brighter Norton slowed down the shutter and that produced this image, shot at f/2.8 and 1/15 of a second:

how to control ambient light with shutter speed

f/2.8, 1/15 of a second

He even experimented by keeping a chain of light in between the subject and the camera. That way it was possible to capture some nice bokeh in the foreground. The trick with foreground bokeh is that it shouldn’t obscure the subject and shouldn’t look out of place.

Using Christmas lights to shoot portraits

With lights in the foreground and background

Give these tips a try while you celebrate the holidays, and show us your results!

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