O Christmas Tree + Capturing Bokeh

By Kate Riley December 9, 2013

Our family spent the weekend doing all things holiday related, from selecting and decorating our tree to shopping for gifts to attending a production of The Nutcracker. Our little ones are still true believers in Santa so we’re constantly looking for little ways to keep the magic alive and even enlisting help from our two resident elves!

We spent some time decorating the “fancy tree” in the living room – the kids have their own smaller version in the study and we split the family ornaments between this one and the kids tree. After three years of flocked white trees, I was inspired to go au naturel and return to green Douglas Fir and its desirable scent, covering it in gold, silver, and white garland and ornaments.

christmas tree and piano

This year’s tree continues the metallics + touches of green palette that began with the mantel. I was inspired by this beautiful tree at BH&G so I purchased a dozen paper moravian stars online, then painted them white.

Golden leaves, snowflakes, shimmery golden ornaments, and a medley of family favorites are also present on our tree. We reused the same wine barrel from two years ago as a basin for a rustic touch.

christmas tree decorations

christmas tree centsational girl

As nice as it is to see a Christmas tree in focus, we all love those beautiful bokeh shots too! I took a series of images over the course of the day and created a combination of images, turning it into a time lapse .gif – if you have a tripod, it’s easy to do, simply position your camera in one place, then take snapshots as the decorating progresses. (Photoscape has an easy .gif maker if you have a PC.)

christmas tree

You’ll notice there are a series of bokeh shots included. If you want to capture a bokeh shot of your Christmas tree or any holiday twinkle lights it’s a simple three step process.

First, you do need to know how to shoot in manual. To learn how, I recommend classes from Shoot Fly Shoot. Second, use a lens with a low numerical f-stop/aperture capability. I’ve mentioned my 50mm 1.8 specifically for bokeh, but for this tree shot I used this 35mm 2.0 which worked just as well.

Set your aperture at a low numerical setting (anywhere from f/1.4 to f/2.8) for shallow depth of field, then set your shutter speed and ISO so you have ample light entering the lens. The third step is to fool your camera and force it to focus on something in the forefront instead of focusing on the tree in the background.

Hold an object a few feet in front of the camera and focus the camera’s focal point on the object. Matt is demonstrating here, he’s holding up a metal bottle cap in front of the camera about 3 feet in front of the lens. Once I focused on the metal cap, he dropped his hand and I snapped the image. You’ll get larger bokeh orbs by focusing on an object closer to the lens, and smaller bokeh orbs by focusing on an object farther away from the lens. I encourage you to play with the process, it’s fun!

set up for bokeh shot

It’s that shallow depth of field and a focus on the object in the foreground that allows you to capture a tree with bokeh twinkle lights beyond.

twinkle light bokeh

That’s the simple way I capture those pretty little twinkle light orbs from a tree!



    • Vel, it looks so great, thank you for sharing, your dining room is so beautiful!

  1. As a professional photographer, I feel I have to comment. I see a whole lot of bloggers talk about “capturing bokeh”, but they don’t seem to know what bokeh really is.

    Bokeh is a japanese word that refers to the quality of the out of focus highlights in the background. It doesn’t mean just any part of the image that’s out of focus, nor does it mean getting out of focus highlights. That is a function of “depth of field” in photography … it’s not bokeh.

    This is a really good article that explains bokeh with some examples to help clarify:

  2. You’re the first blog I’ve commented on since I had the baby. This post was too good to not read and comment! ;) Great tips (Pinning!) and I think your tree is gorgeous. Ours is still half done and the dog ate like 5 ornaments yesterday, but we’ll get there. Can’t wait to try some bokeh this year!

  3. Gorgeous! Your tree is much more beautiful that the BHG inspiration tree! I’m wondering where you got the snowflake ornaments. Are they made of cloth? So pretty!

  4. This is a lovely tutorial, I love the bokeh effect. I’m so lazy and use my iphone filters for it, but it’s nice to remember I can do it with my Leica too!

    xo Mary Jo

  5. Hi Kate! I hadn’t noticed your French doors are painted dark–they are lovely. I love the movarian stars and gold accents! Fun to see your son in the picture, he has grown up so much since I first started following your blog 4+ years ago:-). Thanks for the years of inspiration! Merry Christmas!:-)

  6. If you don’t have a spare hand to hold something in front of the lens, just switch the lens from Autofocus to Manual Focus mode (it is a physical switch on the lens itself, not a camera setting) and twist the focus ring on the lens until you like what you see through the viewfinder. Less trial and error that way.
    Just remember to switch back to Autofocus after you’re done :)

    • Emily I was just thinking that this morning, moving the switch to Manual Focus for bokeh orbs – makes perfect sense, I’m going to try it!

  7. What a delight to see the Moravian stars on your tree! We have one that hangs from our ceiling. When we built our house we asked for a plug in on the ceiling connected to a light switch. Oh the looks we got from our builder when we made that request. Every year we hang our Moravian Star and let the light shine!

  8. Beautiful as usually but call me crazy but I thought you painted those french doors teal? Or is that a different room.

    • Same room Andrea, when we repainted the walls from blue gray to Rockport Gray, the teal looked off so I painted them black, playing off the piano, love this look too!

  9. Your tree is beautiful! I love the idea of having a GIF that shows the progression of decorating the tree, but I’m not sure I understand the purpose of having the blurry image in the progression.

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