DIY Photography Tips

DIY Christmas Light Portraits

And Fairy Light Beauty Shot Ideas

When my wife made her annual pilgrimage to the Christmas in July sales, it got me to thinking about Christmas lights and wondering what kind of DIY Christmas light portraits and beauty shots I could do with some cheap LED lights.

You know that when it comes to lighting portraits and modeling shots, I love my Photoflex Modifiers, my LumoPro Speedlights, and my Paul C. Buff Digibees. And you also know that I love a great DIY piece of gear if it’s gonna save me money and not slow me down.

So indeed, when my wife mentioned Christmas in July, the lightbulb went on. I decided to go and pull out the Christmas lights and see what kinds of DIY Christmas light portraits I could come up with using some low-tech Christmas lighting.

I found four different sets of LED lights that I had stored away for the holidays:

  • White mini tree lights
  • Colored mini tree lights
  • Colored LEDs in plastic casings designed to look like old school Christmas tree bulbs
  • White flexible LED strip that my wife and I bought at Walmart a while back but never made use of
  • Now comes the problem solving phase.  With the lovely Monae in my studio, I began to look for ways to create DIY Christmas light portraits.

    Mini white and large colored LEDs on purple background

    First of DIY Christmas Light portraits Monae with purple background and blurred colored lights behind her

    The first idea I came up with for these DIY Christmas light portraits was to use the mini white LEDs as my main light source. I hung them from a mini boom arm in front of Monae, which created a kind of ring light effect. I set up a background stand between Monae and the background and draped the larger LED lights from the stand.

    Second of DIY Christmas Light portraits model Monae with boom arm holding white christmas lights in front of her and color bulbs behind her with purple background

    I went with a purple background and an 85mm lens on my Nikon D810. Some of you are going to ask why I didn’t use my go to portrait lens, the 100mm Tokina. I went with the shorter lens because I knew I was going to have to play with the lights and I wanted to be able to reach them without walking away from the camera. I also used a tripod for the shot, in part because of low light levels but also because I knew that I would have to adjust the lights and test frequently

    This first setup was shot at ISO 400 which is not a big deal with most of today’s cameras and certainly not my Nikon D810. The tripod allowed me to go with a slower shutter speed of 1/20th of a second and an aperture of f/2.0

    Black and white with white LEDs and a Desk Lamp

    Third of DIY Christmas Light portraits image for DIY Christmas light portrait in black and white with Monae

    In my next setup I added a simple desk clip lamp to the background stand to use it as a hairlight. The lamp has a typical 25 watt equivalent bulb that adds a little highlight to the shoulders.

    Behind the scenes shot of DIY Christmas light portraits model Monae with boom arm holding white Christmas lights in front of her and color bulbs behind her with desk lamp above her aimed down on same frame with purple background

    Then I took the desk lamp and placed it on camera right above Monae and adjusted the camera position to include a few of the white LEDs in the foreground. Since the desk lamp is more of a direct light source, I decided that black and white would look more interesting. I was able to shoot this DIY Christmas Light Portrait at 1/50th of a second at f/2.8 – still on a tripod and still at ISO 400.

    LED flex around the model’s neck

    fourth of DIY Christmas light portraits with LED lights around Monae's neck in black and white

    Remember, I like to work my shot so I kept exploring possibilities and looking for new ways to create DIY Christmas light portraits. In this shot, I pushed the hair back behind Monae’s shoulders and wrapped the LED flex light around her neck. I decided to stay with the black and white theme on this arrangement.

     Colored LEDs, white LEDs, and flex light on orange background

    Fifth of DIY Christmas light portraits with Monae with light around neck, colored christmas lights and orange background

    For the next of my DIY Christmas light portraits, I added the small colored LEDs in the background. I went back to shooting in color and also switched to an orange background to mix things up.

    Just to make things a little more challenging, I decided to keep the flex light wrapped around her neck, but also use it as my main light source. I have the remaining length of light clamped to a light stand. In each of these variations, I have Monae turned slightly towards the flexible LED to give me a nicely shaped key light on her face. You can check out more behind the scenes shots and variations in this setup in the video at the top of the page, or you can click here.

    LED flex and desk lamp on black and orange background

    sixth of DIY Christmas Light portraits Monae with light on neck and Christmas lights in background on black

    Next I placed the desk lamp back directly in front of her and above her head aimed down. Normally, this would have created very harsh shadows under her chin; but the LED light softens them.  For this shot, I switched to a black background behind the Christmas lights. My exposure now is still at ISO400, but I am at 1/30th second at f/4.

    Then I did this version without the Christmas lights in the background:

    Monae with LED light around neck and black background, no Christmas lights

    Then I added the orange background back to the shot and experimented some more for these last few shots. I was still on a tripod and still at ISO400

    Monae with LED light around neck and orange background, no Christmas lights in background

    In Conclusion

    The moral here: experiment, learn to see light. Remember that there are no rules. Auto exposure doesn’t work in these situations. Work your shot and build your visual database.

    And before I forget – I know somebody will ask – the LED lights were not high CRI. They are cheap Christmas lights. I have no idea what the CRI was and for shots like this it simply doesn’t matter. I did do a custom white balance for each of the shots. My preferred method is an ExpoDisc – but you could achieve a great result using a simple gray card and for that matter – auto white balance might have added some interesting color options.

    I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman

    Watch the VIDEO

    Curious about the gear I use?

    Joe Edelman

    Joe Edelman is an award winning Photographer, Author, and "No Bull" Photo Educator.  Follow this link to learn more about Joe or view his portfolio. Please be sure to connect on the social media platforms below.
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