white christmas light background-how to | southwestern, pa photographer

I’ve never been GREAT at these “how-to’s” but I’m going to give it a whirl…this one is simple, I promise!

I’ve always disliked the “fake” backgrounds. They weren’t fooling anyone, that scene of the chimney with santa peeking in the window screams “box store photography studio”. Is there anything wrong with it? Not at all…it’s just NOT my style. When my old supervisor called me to do her daughters Christmas pictures I thought…ohh crap, I have a small studio so I don’t have the room for a ton of props for itty bitties (which is partly why I shoot engagements, boudoir, etc.) they don’t require a tremendous amount of props. My brain starting cranking and I got to thinking…….every year we travel to this place called “Overly’s Country Christmas” (check out the link..it’s so pretty there!)…it’s like a gorgeous Christmas village with all the bells and whistles and TONS and TONS of lights! In the entrance there is a tunnel of lights you have to walk thru and I always LOOOOVED getting our photos there. It was something so simple and yet so glamourous and  timeless about it and so that’s where I got inspired!

I went to the store yesterday evening and purchased $34 (and some change) worth of white lights to mimic what I had in my mind. Greg stayed up with me and we strung the lights around a backdrop stand. AT the bottom we zip tied a rod (from an old door frame) to the bottom to both increase stability but also to have something else to string the lights around at the bottom. As you can see from the photos of the pull-backs, my walls are white and I have a hardwood floor. The strings of lights actually are green and you can see the plugs in the background. To most people’s eyes, it looks ‘re-donk-ulous’….but it’s only the final product that matters..right! I could have used colored lights and I’m sure THAT would look awesome too…but I’m a sucker for white twinkle lights and they’re more “simple” which is what I like to go for! 🙂 If you really want to get creative, you could hang bulbs, etc to add a little pizzazz! 🙂


So you’re wondering how I got the lights to blur and have awesome bokah….well it’s very simple. I shot wide open at around f/1.4-f/2.0 and it created this awesome effect. Since I didn’t want to use studio lights because I wouldn’t have been able to shoot so wide open (and because they were packed away and I was too lazy to get them out-so instead, I used video lights! YES…video lights! They aren’t anything fancy AT ALL…I picked them up at B&H for around $100 each. (Dot Line DL-DV60 Video & DSLR LED Light Kit)

I  know what you’re thinking…why didn’t I use my flashes / strobes…well, it was just a personal preference, I just wanted the consistent light so that if they got rambunctious I didn’t have to worry too much about them. I simply put one video light into a soft-box and the other sat off to the side. I flipped them on and moved them forward or back depending on where they were sitting, etc. Generally, I placed the kiddos about 4 feet from the twinkle lights, custom white balanced and shot away using my 50mm lens.

If I happened to get any of the plugs in the background (where the two sets of lights connected) I just cloned them out in Photoshop!

I’ve always done things a little unconventional. From my days of working at the newspaper, sometimes you didn’t have time to do these huge glamourous set ups, you had to show up and make it work (whatever “it” was) so I’m use to working on the fly……I’ve said it before-it’s how my brain works!


I hope that made some kind of sense! LOL


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  • November 28, 2011 - 3:55 pm

    Darby - Jen, these look amazing and I’ve been wondering what on earth i can do with the massive bin of small white lights in my basement, i think some bribes for my kiddos to sit still is in order this week! 🙂

  • November 28, 2011 - 3:55 pm

    Emily H - Awesome! Thanks for sharing!!!! 🙂

  • November 28, 2011 - 4:02 pm

    Kit - That is so AWESOME! I would have never thought of doing something like that! I’m soo glad your mind works like it does!

  • November 28, 2011 - 4:05 pm

    lori - You are so creative. Love the pics. Thanks for sharing.

  • November 28, 2011 - 4:13 pm

    Jeremy - Great idea. Love it!

  • November 28, 2011 - 4:24 pm

    Nori R - You would have made an excellent model-maker. Making something fascinating and recognizable out of pieces and parts is key. That was one of my first jobs out of high school, and it still affects how my mind works too. This is fabulously creative and so lovely!!!

  • November 28, 2011 - 4:28 pm

    Tara - thanks for the behind-the-scenes information! It worked out well – and yes, the first thing a wondered was, “What about those plugs?” Ah, Photoshop!

  • November 28, 2011 - 4:36 pm

    Jacqueline M - Thanks so much! Is there any way you can suggest to get a similar effect if you don’t own a backdrop stand?

  • November 28, 2011 - 5:06 pm

    Jayne - Wow!! I love this! Thank you so much for sharing!

  • November 28, 2011 - 5:16 pm

    Carly - Thanks Jen – the pics look fantastic.

    On the video light – that’s just continuous lighting, right? If so, my only problem is not having strands of Christmas lights.

    Thanks again for the peek into your idea. 🙂

  • November 28, 2011 - 5:42 pm

    Belinda - OMG. That was an awesome idea Jen! And like you said, it really is all about the end product, it’s ok if the setup looks a little ghetto. =) thanks for sharing!

  • November 28, 2011 - 8:34 pm

    Lynn - Jacqueline M, a few years ago I needed to make a room smaller in order to teach a toddler music class. I took some 2 x 4s and made 2 standards (for want of a better word), then put a metal loop doohicky on top, then a couple of the metal tube like structures that they use for the top of wire fencing that I put through the loop doohicky deal. Then I pinned muslin on it and voila! A divider/backdrop! I don’t know how better to tell you–I was making things up on the fly! Anyway, unlike a backdrop stand (which I now own), they don’t telescope, so you have to make them the height you want and keep it that way, and they don’t store well AT ALL. BUT if you need something, and you have the storage, it’s fairly cheap and would work for this light idea. Or you could save yourself the agravation and just go to Cowboy Studios or somewhere and get a backdrop stand. LOL! I am TOTALLY not a handyman, but it worked well for what I needed, and might do for your purposes. Look me up on FB (Lynn Palmer Rutz) if you are interested and I can maybe get my ahead around better instructions. Jen, see! Your how-to is just fine! LOL!!

  • November 29, 2011 - 10:06 am

    henrymaxm - Love the background, very creative!

  • November 30, 2011 - 2:48 am

    Perry Lentine - Very creative idea! I love it!!!

  • December 5, 2011 - 1:13 pm

    Advent Workshop & Christmas! | Nothing Fades Photography Blog - […] Next year, fingers crossed, I’m planning on doing super fun Christmas portraits in front of a Jen McKen inspired wall of lights for any family who’d like them! But, this year I just grabbed some snapshots of different […]

  • December 8, 2011 - 3:07 pm

    Jillian - Hey, Jen. I’ve been looking into video lights but just some starter ones, so nothing too expensive, these fit the bill pretty well… do you use these often? Can you estimate how much battery life you get in one charge?

  • December 20, 2011 - 10:34 pm

    Kimiko - That was simply ingenious, I love the idea and it would work so well for pictures that weren’t even holiday related;)

  • October 22, 2012 - 11:20 am

    Monica Salazar - Love this idea! Thank you for sharing with us. I’ll have to test this out with my daughters.

  • November 5, 2012 - 10:03 pm

    Karen Era Domoney - thanks for the ideas1.

  • November 5, 2012 - 10:25 pm

    Louis Vũ - love it!!!!

  • November 26, 2012 - 11:41 am

    Carrie Strang - This is really awesome. What setting did you use? I see that you shot open from about f1.4/f2.0 but what setting?

  • November 30, 2012 - 4:32 pm

    Susie Centeno-Cannon - Wonderful! Thanks for the tips. I like down to earth DIY things myself, and not the stuffy attitude that one must have the most expensive equipment. I can’t afford it anyway! My husband and I made a softbox from cardboard and duct tape that works like a charm!

  • December 2, 2012 - 10:44 pm

    Gitasmum - Yep. Need to try this….like this year! Thank you for sharing your tips and tricks! You are AWESOME!

  • December 13, 2012 - 6:45 pm

    Nkechi 'Chibueze' - Amazing Idea! I think I am going to use that this year!

  • August 31, 2013 - 3:29 am

    Mandy Mavero Bokash - Great thinking the pictures are great.