Creative Lighting Failure: Christmas Lights

Ever since I first watched the behind-the-scenes footage from Lord of the Rings I’ve wanted to try an idea.  I heard that they lit this scene with Christmas lights to give it an ethereal feel, so I bought over 2,000 Christmas lights in hopes of using them for a photo shoot.  For over 2 years they sat in my closet collecting dust.  Finally in July I decided to give it a shot.

I wanted to go big and do it up right, so I set a date and got five friends on board to help.  Two models, two assistants, one videographer, and me; tethered shooting, video documentary, and a controlled environment.  No elves, sorry.  I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to create some elegant, mood-lit photos.  I was excited and even a bit nervous.

We got together and began to set up; all the while I kept hoping for a spark of inspiration. And then…

nothing happened.

Nothing worked the way I wanted it to.  I got frustrated and disappointed.  I felt like I let my friends down and wasted their time.  It was a difficult learning experience for me, and I realized that I still have so much to learn.

My Moleskine that night looked something like this:

  • I need a clear idea of what I want to accomplish.  My objectives were too broad and non-descript.
  • Do more researching and testing of the ideas on a smaller scale before taking on something with so many variables.
  • Try only one new thing at a time. I wanted to do this shoot with awesome light bokeh, starry catchlights, video documentary, and tethered shooting.   …and I’ve never successfully done any one of those.
  • Keep the morale up. I got frustrated and disappointed, and it showed.  My photos weren’t as good because of it, and I felt like I let my crew down.
  • I re-watched the BTS clip from Lord of the Rings and discovered that they only used Christmas lights to give Galadriel the starry catchlights in her eyes –not to light the entire scene.  BIG difference…
  • Distance (from camera to subject to background) + focal length + aperture = size of bokeh. I need a lot of distance (maybe 150 feet from camera to background) and maybe a 300mm or 400mm telephoto lens (or 50mm 1.2) to get the size bokeh I wanted without having to take an extreme close-up.
  • The tiny Christmas lights really don’t put out enough light to be useful for lighting your subject.  I need Christmas lights with the screw-in bulbs.
  • I need to rig up a sort of Lite-Brite array of Christmas lights to create patterns for the catch lights.  I’m envisioning a large donut shaped rig to shoot through so that the subject’s eyes will have a sparkly ring to ’em.


All things considered, I’m glad we did it.  I procrastinated for far too long, and it felt good to finally make it happen.  I’m glad it didn’t go as well as I wanted it to because if it did I might still think I know what I’m doing.  The longer I go without some sort of failure the harder I fall when it does happen.

BIG thanks to: Tom and Alana Puskarich, Graham and Sara Marsden, and Jeremy Sexton.  Thanks for all the laughs and encouragement along the way!  I’m extremely grateful to have supportive and creative friends like you guys!


We did come away with a few photos worth sharing; you can find ’em here. Keep your ear to the ground for rumors of the next Christmas light shoot.  I’ll get it right yet!

Creative Lighting Without a Flash [Tutorial]

The more I study photography the more I realize the importance of lighting. It seems to me that the difference between an exceptional photographer and a decent photographer is that the former has a solid understanding of light. Light defines this visual medium.

Backlight only. White background. No direct light. Directly above. Close. -1EV

Most photographers, myself included, prefer to shoot in natural light, but the downside is that it cannot be controlled. In order to achieve complete creative control over the lighting of your scene, you need to work with other light sources. Anybody who has shopped for lighting equipment is aware that this thing you once called a “hobby” is suddenly a much bigger investment. Good equipment isn’t cheap, but resourcefulness and ingenuity are priceless.

My goal in writing this tutorial is to help you understand the effects of light, how to control it, and how to do it on a non-existent budget. Here’s a look at the tools I used to make it happen. Chances are, you already have this stuff lying around your house somewhere.

  • Lights – I purchased this lamp from IKEA. It cost six dollars. It comes with a clamp for attaching it to a desk, and it uses up to 100W bulb. I have three of them.
  • Reflector – I used a big white envelope (12″ x 12″). You could tape two pieces of printer paper together, or better yet, tape the paper to a piece of cardboard for support. You can also make a reflector out of aluminum foil and cardboard.
  • Foam Core Board – Four pieces from an office supply store (24″ x 32″) two black and two white. I think I paid $4 for them.
  • White Poster – i.e. “big white piece of paper.” I used the back side of a standard wall poster.
  • Tripod – I paid $30 for my tripod. It’s cheap, it’s not built to last, but it’s extremely convenient. (In all honesty, I used my sister’s tripod [$200ish] for this tutorial. It’s faster to work with and a bit more stable, but when it comes to the image you capture it makes absolutely no difference.)

Background Info In order to get creative we first have to know what is considered normal. Three-point lighting is pretty much standard in most visual arts, so we’ll begin our study by taking a brief look at that. It consists of three lights in relation to the subject: key (main) light, fill light, and back light.

Three-point Lighting setup.

Key Light only.  Above, left.Fill Light only.  Above, right.Back Light only.  Above, behind.

Put ’em all together and what you end up with (below left) is a well-lit shot that comes reasonably close to simulating natural light (below right).

Three-point LightingAll natural light.  Large, north-facing window to the left.

That’s the nutshell version of three-point lighting. There is much more to be said, but it falls outside the scope of this tutorial. Basically, the three lights work together to provide the feel of the scene, to reveal details, and to distinguish your subject.

Similarly, there are three main components or levels to Creative Lighting:

  1. Understanding Shadows
  2. Revealing Details
  3. Capturing Highlights and Reflections

Each one builds off the previous one, so I suggest you start with shadows and work your way down the list. If you prefer, you can view this tutorial in its entirety by following this link.

Be sure to check out the Advanced Techniques, and Lessons Learned.