DIY Portrait Backgrounds From Christmas Garland Make Awesome DIY Bokeh

Don’t pack up those Christmas decorations just yet! I’m gonna show you how you can make some glorious bokeh ball backgrounds from your decorations. And if you don’t celebrate Christmas – no worries – you can hit up the Dollar Store and make them from scratch for about 10 bucks.

This little DIY background is very simple, and it’s a great trick to have in your toolkit to jazz up your portrait backgrounds any time of the year. All you need is some garland and some foam board. This is the week to get that garland on clearance after Christmas!

The Build

I used three sheets of 20 in. by 30 in. foam board.  The three I used are black – but you can use white or any color for that matter.  For those of you who know my work, you’ll recognize that these are the famous Walmart Reflectors that you can get at Walmart or almost any Dollar Store.

I used some black gaffer’s tape – which should be a staple item in your studio toolkit – to tape the three boards together and then mounted them on a stand using a LumoPro reflector holder.  You could also mount them using two stands and make your own DIY Justin Clamps or design your own DIY PVC holder like the ones in this video.

Once I had the now 30 in. tall by 60 in. wide background mounted, I started adding the garland. You could use any color garland. For this example, I went with gold. I simply draped the garland in front of the board and stapled it at the top. You don’t need to go crazy glueing it in place unless you want it to be permanent.  The staples remove easily and with no mess.

Some of you are thinking this background isn’t very tall – I’m shooting horizontal so it doesn’t need to be.  If you want to shoot vertical, just turn it 90 degrees and it will work great for a vertical portrait

The Lighting

For this series of shots I went with four Godox AD200 pocket flashes.  You could easily do this with two.

Lighting diagram

I have my key light in a 30 in. Molight portable beauty dish placed above and slightly to camera left.  I am using another white Walmart reflector under my subject for some fill and to create a nice broad, soft catchlight in the bottom of her eyes.

I have my background placed about five and a half feet behind the subject with another AD200 sitting right behind the subject and aimed at the background.  To add a bit more color I am using a MagMod grip with a gel holder and red gel. Adding this red brings the background color closer to my subject’s shirt color, which makes her stand out more in the image.

Model in front of red bokeh background

I also got a little carried away and added two more Godox AD200s, one on either side behind my subject and aimed towards her head, also with MagMod gel holders and red gels. These last two lights give me the red accent on her hair.

The Gear and Depth of Field

I shot these images with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and the M.Zuiko 75mm f1.8.  You can see in the video above that the camera is about 6 feet from the subject. I shot these at ISO 200 and an aperture of f/2.8   

Yes – contrary to popular belief – you can get bokeh balls with a micro four thirds camera and you can do it even when your lens isn’t wide open.  You see there is much more to depth of field than blurry backgrounds and shooting at f/1.8 or wider. Don’t forget focal length and focal distance.

The 75mm focal length at a close distance provides me enough depth of field that I don’t need to worry about keeping my subject’s eyes in focus but also makes it shallow enough to give me the cute little ball reflections from the garland.

Work The Shot

As always, I wanted to see where I could go with this idea. So I decided to work the shot and switch to a blue gel for the rim lights and background,  but then I didn’t really like how much the red blouse stood out.

Model in front of blue bokeh background with red shirt

So I had my subject put on a simple tube top so that I had bare shoulders and also had my makeup artist put her hair in a quick updo.

Model in front of blue bokeh background with bare shoulders

Now I was feeling that it was just too much skin at the bottom, and I figured since I was working with garland… and since I also bought some blue garland at the store… why not wrap my model in it?

Model in front of blue bokeh background with garland around neck

So I tried a few variations from a single strand to several to covering all of her shoulders.

Close up of model in front of blue bokeh background with garland around neck

I hope this gives you some ideas, so please – take this idea and run with it – go create and show me what you come up with!

Don’t keep all this cool stuff to yourself – please share it with your photography friends. Remember: photography is not a competition – it’s a passion to be shared.  

Now go pick up that camera and shoot something, because your BEST shot is your NEXT shot. So keep learning, keep thinking, and keep shooting. Adios!