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How to Photograph Dreamy Images of Decorative Lights

By making the most of the perspective compression effect of a super telephoto zoom lens, and controlling the size of bokeh circles, you too can shoot dreamy images of decorative lights. In this article I will explain the techniques used by professional photographers to take such photos. (Reported by: GOTO AKI)

Decorative lights photographed with the EOS 5D Mark III

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM/ FL: 400mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/5.6, 1/60 sec, EV-0.3)/ ISO 1600/ WB: Daylight

I wanted my photo to convey the brilliant ambience of the blue and white lights spread across the entire screen. If the bokeh circles in the foreground are too big, the lights in the background will no longer stand out, so be careful to ensure balance between the foreground and background when taking your photos.


Technique 1: To make the lights look denser, make use of the perspective compression effect of a telephoto zoom lens

The longer the focal length of a telephoto lens, the closer you can draw in your subjects. If you use a 400mm telephoto lens, the perspective compression effect that arises from the focal length makes it appear as if you are up close to everything in the screen. Because it is difficult to recognize this photographic effect with the naked eye, try looking through the viewfinder for a location where the light is spread out densely across the entire screen, before you release the shutter.

For this shoot, I used the EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. The approximately 4-stop image stabilization effect makes handheld shooting easy even at night, and it enables you to freely search for your desired angle. The lens also employs Canon's latest ASC lens coating technology, which minimizes the occurrence of flaring and ghosting so that you can shoot worry-free even under conditions with multiple light sources.

Negative example: Small, unimpressive bokeh circles at 200mm

EOS 5DS R/ EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM/ FL: 200mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/8.0, 1/6 sec, EV+0.7)/ ISO 400/ WB: Daylight

A focal length of 200mm prevents you from filling the screen with the decorative lights
At the 200mm focal length covered by standard telephoto zoom lenses, the sense of compression is weakened and unnecessary elements are captured in the image.


Technique 2: Larger bokeh circles (1) – Use the maximum aperture

Widening the aperture makes larger bokeh circles, while narrowing the aperture makes smaller ones. For this shot, I used the maximum aperture (f/5.6) because I wanted to make the bokeh circles as large as possible for a dreamy photo. You can achieve even larger circles if you use a lens with a larger maximum aperture such as f/2.8.

The size of the bokeh circles can also change according to the focal length, so note that aperture size is not an essential condition for creating large bokeh circles. If you are shooting in a location filled with decorative lights and want to create an image that is essentially a blanket of lights, you can use an aperture of f/8 to f/11, and even make use of small bokeh circles as well.

Focus on decorative lights in the background
Focus on the decorative lights that are furthest from the camera. I decided on the focal length to use while looking through the viewfinder to check the extent of the bokeh effect of the lights that were closest to me.

Where to focus: The decorative lights at the back


Technique 3: Larger bokeh circles (2) – Get up close to the light source

A maximum aperture of f/5.6 might not seem that wide to some, but you can still create large bokeh circles from the decorative lights with it. The key is in the distance between the lights and the camera. While looking through the viewfinder, get your lens as close to the light source as possible. You can see at a glance that doing so, you can get larger bokeh circles even at the same aperture. Control the size of the bokeh circles by adjusting both your aperture settings and shooting distance.

Decorative lights with large bokeh circles, photographed with the EOS 5D Mark III

EOS 5DS R/ EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM/ FL: 400mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/5.6, 1/15 sec, EV+1)/ ISO 400/ WB: Daylight

You can create large bokeh circles by getting up close to the light source
If you get up close to the light source while focusing on the background, the light sources near you will be turned into even larger bokeh circles. The focal length and maximum aperture might be limited by the lens you use, but you can overcome such constraints by being creative with the shooting distance.


For more tips on creating bokeh circles, check out:
4 Easy Steps to Capture Those Elusive Bokeh Circles!
Where Should I Focus On to Capture Beautiful Bokeh Circles?
Telephoto Lens Techniques – Creating Multiple Layers of Bokeh

For tips on photographing decorative lights, read:
EOS M10 Lesson 5: Ways to Capture Sparkling Christmas Lights

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Born in 1972 in Kanagawa Prefecture and graduated from Sophia University and Tokyo College of Photography. Goto published a photo collection work titled "LAND ESCAPES" and is also actively engaged in works such as “water silence” an installation that merges photographs with videos.


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