In this project we’re going to combine the out-of-focus fairy lights with glowing city lights in the background to accentuate the dreamlike effect. To capture the city lights we had to wait until after sunset and shoot in the ‘blue hour.’ This is the period before it gets truly dark, when the landscape is bathed in a cool, blue light. The combination of the blue light of the sky, the background street lights and the orange glow of the fairy lights will complement each other wonderfully in the final shot.
You’ll need a lens with a wide maximum aperture – we used a 50mm f/1.4 – but any lens with an aperture of f/4 or wider will work fine; you can use a narrower aperture, but the bokeh won’t appear as large in the frame.
STEP BY STEP GRAB YOUR KIT AND HEAD OUTSIDE
1 CHOOSE YOUR LENS
A lens with a wide aperture and a longer focal length will produce a shallow depth of field; this means more of the scene in front of and behind the point of focus will be out of focus, which in turn means you’ll get more prominent bokeh effects in the foreground. Here you can see the difference between shots taken at f/2.8 and f/1.4, with an f/1.4 aperture creating bigger circles of bokeh. You can create magical looking portraits by simply dangling fairy lights in front of or around your subject and trailing them up towards your lens to produce dreamy bokeh – circles of out-of-focus highlights that take on the shape of the lens aperture.
2 CHOOSE YOUR LIGHTS
Not all fairy lights are created equally – they come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours. We found that these warm, yellowish ‘micro lights’ looked the best because of their small copper connecting wires and dainty LED bulbs. Bigger lights have thicker cables, which will be a lot more obvious in the photograph.
3 PUT ON SOME GLASSES
This technique is all about the sparkling bokeh, so introducing any kind of reflections to the scene will multiply the amount of lights in the shot and enhance the overall effect. We brought along some aviator-style sunglasses for our model to wear. Their large frames mean they contain plenty of glass, giving us a few more reflections.
4 WAIT FOR THE LIGHT
We want to create a cosy, intimate mood in our portrait, so we need to shoot after sunset (aka the blue hour) when light levels drop and become bluer, but before the night sky turns completely black. The orange colour from the lights complements this blue tone, and the glow of the lights will be more noticeable on your model’s face.
Our picture stands out on its own as a strong image with minimal processing. However, in the editing software of your choice, adding a little Vibrance boost and lifting the shadows will make this shot a little punchier. Lowering the white balance to around 3300K makes the blues even bluer.
ESSENTIAL SKILLS BUILDING UP YOUR MAGICAL PORTRAIT
1 APERTURE IS KEY
When shooting this project set the widest aperture your lens will allow, to get the perfectly circular, defocused bokeh shapes that are synonymous with a shallow depth of field.
2 STAY FAST
Aim for a shutter speed of 1/100 sec minimum to reduce camera shake. The blue hour means it’ll be darker, so you’ll need to increase your ISO in order to maintain this fast shutter speed.
3 LIGHT IT UP
We’re shooting on a hill looking down on a city to capture its lights, to increase the bokeh in the background. The street lights are orange too, which complements the cool and warm tones in the shot.
4 WRAP YOUR LIGHTS
Wrap the lights around your model’s shoulders and trail them towards the front of your camera. This creates a pleasing leading line towards your model, and bokeh circles in the foreground.
5 BUNDLE THEM UP
Alternatively, you can try bundling the lights in your model’s hands and have them hold the lights close to their face. This works well if you want to capture more reflections in the glasses.
COOL DOWN YOUR WHITE BALANCE
Try selecting the Tungsten or Fluorescent white balance preset to prevent shots looking overly warm. If you shoot in raw you can alter this afterwards, but it’s nice to see the effect it has on the picture while you’re shooting.