I don’t think I have ever published a specific “How to” post before, but after shooting some Christmas cards again this year, using a simple and fun technique, I thought, “Why not?”
So, here it is.
First, I should mention that this is by no means a complete tutorial; the shots you see here were taken using external lights on my main subjects. That is kind of what makes what I did a little unique, but that is not the only idea I am trying to pass along.
Second, I am by no means the first one to use this idea; though I think my way is a little different than you usually see. My shots are “studio style”, with strobes lighting my subject; often you see people doing something similar with available light when there are small, dense highlights in the background.
Starting off, you will need to create artificial apertures for your lens. Everything you need is seen below.
First, you need to cut a circle that will fit within the filter thread of your lens, right up against the front element. Since my 50/1.4 uses a 49mm thread, I cut to about 48mm and that worked perfectly. Inside that circle, you will cut the shape you want to appear in the background. I used a compass and some simple math to create a five pointed star, but any other shape can be done too. As you can see, I also tried some Christmas tree shapes, though never actually took the photos using that. It does work though. You can do some not very advanced math to figure out how much light will be going through relative to your focal length and figure out an exact aperture if you like; I never bothered with that. It is easy enough to try making your shape bigger or smaller and seeing what the result is. Generally speaking, my experience is that you want your shape to come pretty close to the edges of the circles, otherwise your shapes will end up being less distinct in the photos.
Also, be careful when doing your cutting; you want good, clean cuts with no little bits hanging at the sides or frayed edges. A new blade on the utility knife is a good idea.
I should mention that you will need a relatively fast lens to do this. The kit lens that comes with your camera isn’t going to work; I would guess that an aperture of f/2.8 is the absolutely smallest you can get away with. Better would be f/2 or even wider. For my shots, I used a 50mm f/1.4. The “nifty 50s” out there that are 50/1.8 are obvious choices.
Once you have cut out your aperture, you are pretty much ready to go. In the shots you see here, the backgrounds were created by small Christmas tree lights.
When you are taking your shots, you need to shoot in manual mode with your lens wide open. If you don’t have your lens wide open (the biggest aperture/smallest f/stop number), the tips of the star will be cut off, or the stars will appear to be blob like. I set my white balance to flash, assuming I remember to. Otherwise, that can be adjusted in Photoshop/Lightroom later.
If you are going the flash route, you will not need much power at all. You will be shooting with a large effective aperture and using somewhat longish shutter speeds, making it very easy to blow your subject’s face out. Of course, that will be dependent on the flash and the modifier you go with. My guess is that true studio strobes would overpower things no matter how low they are dialed down.
Some final thoughts. First, since you will be using longer shutter speeds, you might want to use a tripod. Personally, I did not, so I needed to find a shutter speed that I could handhold effectively without blurring things in the background. With the VR (Vibration Reduction) on my camera, I find that 1/10th of a second is often enough and 1/20th is always enough. What works for you will likely be different depending upon both your equipment and your technique. Second, the general rule will be that you will need to be very close to your subject and the background will need to be some distance away. Of course, this will change depending on your lens choice, but for the most part, the greater the distance between your subject and the background lights, the better off you will be. Also, because this is very dependent on magnification, how big your subject is in the frame relative to actual size, you really are going to have the best luck shooting head and shoulder shots, not 3/4 or full body. Related to that, you will not have much depth of field (DOF) at all here, so best to shoot a single subject rather than a pair or a group. Finally, because of the combination of longer shutter speeds, darkish environment and a possibly active subject, you will likely have a good number of photos coming out blurry or out of focus. Don’t assume you will nail things the first time. Assuming you are shooting digital, it only makes sense to shoot quite a few shots, knowing some won’t work.
Just to mix things up, and maybe to give some further ideas how you can use this, I will attach a few more shots showing other possibilities and other cutout shapes. These shots are not at all contextually coherent, as they are all kind of themed after western holidays, but I shot them this morning at a Taoist temple in Taipei, a place where I knew there would be lights that would work in the background. These are more illustrative than editorial.
So, there you have it; some ideas about how you can do some in-camera tricks and make special looks for the holidays, not to mention a reasonable amount of cultural misappropriation.