Dreaming of a Bokeh Christmas

With individual members of my family traveling before the holidays, it was not possible to take a complete family of five group portrait for this year’s electronic greeting card, so I opted to take individual portraits in front of the Christmas tree over a period of several weeks. With a common theme and background, I should be able to assemble a coherent collage. As I was preparing my “studio”, I was lacking a willing volunteer/model so I can set my camera and off-camera flash settings. For the sake of progress, I volunteered myself as the model and used a wireless remote shutter trigger. After numerous tries and adjustments to my placement and camera settings, I ended up with this self-portrait.

Bokeh Christmas self-portrait

Bokeh Christmas self-portrait.
Nikon D5000 with Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF-S lens in manual exposure @ 1/200 sec, f/2, iso 320, TTL flash with -1 EV, and manual focus.

Read on to see how I capture this self-portrait or “selfie”…

The Concept

I achieved the effect that I was after: a portrait with the subject’s face lit slightly from ¾ with a soft lighting source and no fill light to show form. The background is a bokeh of Christmas tree lights naturally lit with very little key light spill as to not disturb the mood set by Christmas tree lights. Bokeh (pronounced BOH-kay) refers to the aesthetic quality of the out-of-focus (blurry) area of an image, usually created by a very large aperture and close camera-to-subject distance compared to the camera-to-background distance.

The Making Of: A Case Study

Here is how I achieved this shot.

Christmas bokeh layout

Christmas bokeh layout

Light Source. To light the subject with a soft light source, I used a Nikon SB-910 flash unit with a shoot-through 60” Photoflex white umbrella as a light modifier and set the flash unit’s zoom setting to 20mm to spread the light across the entire umbrella. The flash unit and umbrella was mounted on a light stand with a flash unit adapter. I placed this key light source very close to the subject in order to have the light “wrap around” the subject as much as possible. A secondary light source (fill light) was not used. I triggered the off-camera flash unit with a Nikon SC-28 TLL off-camera flash cord connected to my D5000 camera body using the flash hot shoe. This cord allows the through-the-lens (TTL) automatic flash exposure feature to still work and expose the subject properly. Using the flash compensation feature on the Nikon SB-910 flash unit, I dialed down the flash exposure to -1.0 EV.

Composition. I mounted my Nikon D5000 DSLR on a tripod and placed it about 3.5 to 4 feet in front of the subject. I composed and framed the shot, keeping the light umbrella just out of the frame. I placed the subject towards the left side of the frame, with the Christmas tree slightly offset to the right.

Focus. Even with the Christmas tree lights on, the room was still relatively dark. Too dark for my D5000 to focus on the subject’s face. Since I knew where I wanted to place the subject, about 3.5 to 4 feet in front of camera, I took the lens off autofocus and manually set the focus using the focus distance guide. (Alternatively, I could have turned on all the room lights, pre-focused using the camera’s autofocus, then switch the lens autofocus button to the “manual” setting to lock the focus.)

Exposure: Aperture Setting. Using the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF-S lens, I stopped down the aperture slightly to f/2 in order to get enough depth of field for the face to be in focus. You can see that my shoulder is already out of focus. The aperture setting should be large enough to create a nice bokeh of the out-of-focus circles of light from the Christmas tree lights. I experimented with the circles of light by keeping the focus distance manually set at 3.5 feet on lens, while I adjusted f-stop setting to see the effect of the bokeh. Wide open at f/1.4, the diameter of the light circles were too big and would have detracted from the subject. Stopped down to f/5.6 or smaller, the light bokeh was too small and began to look like in-focus Christmas tree lights (which is not the look I was after). The f/2 aperture setting was just about right. So f/2 it is, in Manual exposure mode.

Exposure: Shutter Speed Setting. I set my shutter speed to 1/200 sec, the maximum shutter speed for synching with flash for my D5000. Again, I am using Manual exposure mode.

Exposure: ISO Setting. To achieve my ideal background exposure, which is a little underexposed, so the light circles would “pop”, I set the ISO at 320 through some trial and error. There’s nothing wrong with some trial and error, especially using a digital camera and when you know what you are doing… you’re actually making fine artistic adjustments.

Taking the Shots. Since I volunteered myself as the subject, I used the handy-dandy and inexpensive Nikon ML-L3 wireless shutter trigger to take shots. This saves a lot of time over using the timer feature. I took a series of shots, pausing just long enough for my flash to charge, each time I would move myself slightly fore/aft between 3.5 to 4 feet in front of the camera to make sure that I had at least one exposure with my face in perfect focus.

In Conclusion

In this post, I captured how I went about creating this exposure (the concept, the layout, the equipment used, and the settings used). I hope that you found it useful as a starting point for your own Christmas portraits. It’s not a bad idea to carry around a notebook to jot down some concepts and layouts so you can go back and recreate additional pictures for new subjects or use as a launching point for similar images. Think of these notes as a collection of your photographic recipe.

Additionally, this post also details how I was able to take this self-portrait. In one of the many photography books that I came across, it said that taking self-portraits is a good way for photographers to practice portraiture photography (composition, lighting, posing, etc.), especially when they do not always have access to willing and ready models. (It’s not about being vain in taking your own picture.) As an added bonus, you don’t have to worry about model release forms and the like in case you want to start a photography web site or blog. 😉

Settings & Equipment

Settings: Manual exposure mode @ 1/200 sec, f/2, ISO 320, Manual focus, Nikon SB-910 flash unit set to -1.0 EV flash compensation.


  • Nikon D5000 DSLR
  • Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF-S lens
  • Dolica AX620B100 tripod
  • Nikon ML-L3 wireless remote shutter release
  • Nikon SB-910 flash unit
  • Nikon SC-28 TTL off-camera flash cord
  • Photoflex 60” shoot-through white umbrella (UMRUT60)
  • Manfrotto 1004BAC 12-foot light stand
  • Manfrotto 026 swivel Lite-Tite umbrella adapter

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