With just under 24 hours before we hit Christmas – in this slice of the world, at least – this might be a tad late. But, if you live around these parts, chances are great that you won’t be taking down your Christmas lights until well into the new year. There’s still time to do this!
By “this,” I mean using creative aperture techniques to add shape to background lights and highlights. See the above photo? Look at the stars. See how they shine for you. No, that is not a Photoshop trick. I’ve transformed the pinpricks of light coming from a string of Christmas lights into five-point stars by modifying the shape of my camera lens’ aperture. In this case, I am using my favorite lens for this type of shot: the Lensbaby 2.0. If you don’t know what a Lensbaby is, just follow this link.
Lensbaby lenses don’t have adjustable iris apertures the way most lenses do. To adjust the opening, either to open it wide or stop it down, you have to insert aperture disks manually onto the front of the lens. Normally, those aperture disks just have circular holes punched into them, corresponding to a particular aperture size, say f/8 or f/2. What’s neat is you can also have aperture disks with different shaped holes. In this case, a star-shaped hole.
When you focus a lens with a modified aperture on a subject, that subject will appear sharp and in focus (uhm, yeah). The out-of-focus background highlights, however, will take on the shape of your aperture, which could be a five-sided star, a heart, the Thundercats sigil, the bat signal, whatever you can carve onto an opaque disk that you can fit in front of your lens. The more out-of-focus your background highlights are, the stronger the effect.
I’m using a Lensbaby in my samples, but you can easily do the same thing with any manual focus lens on a film camera or digital. Just cut out a mask you can put on the front of the lens, covering the glass completely except for your creatively carved opening. If your lens has an adjustable aperture, open it wide and just let the mask dictate the amount of light that enters. Compose your shot with a subject in the foreground and your Christmas lights in the background. Meter accordingly (I use Aperture Priority on my Canon then just compensate by tweaking the EV) then shoot.
An alternative to the Lensbaby and the utterly DIY method is to purchase the Bokeh Kit from Photojojo.com. But if you check it out, you’ll see how easy it is to just go for the DIY method (and save US$25).
More experienced photographers might notice that I am avoiding the term “bokeh.” I’ve found that the mere mention of this term opens up a can of worms as there seem to be different notions as to what it is exactly. Some describe it as the overall quality of a background blur. Others say it only refers to background in the highlights. Others throw it around when they just mean out of focus areas. So, I’m sidestepping all that and just using the term “creative aperture.”
Oh and let’s throw in a couple of non-Christmas animations for maximum effect.