Another Look: Have an Abstract Christmas

Most articles for beginning photographers are about how to create technically perfect photographs. They teach correct exposure, the very highest contrast, precise white balance, and so on. But several special things about Christmas make it a great time to create and make use of pictures that are remarkable and unusual, not “technical.” Although… today we will be devoting great care to one technicality: correct focus. We’ll be careful to ignore it.

Normally we’re always trying to get people to see the main topics of our photos as soon as possible and to get those topics as sharp as possible. But what if you make the whole photo blurry on purpose? And here I don’t mean mild blurring, which can also be interesting even when it starts out as a mistake. No, I mean a dramatic “mistake,” but one that’s entirely on purpose. For example when you shoot with a telephoto lens, and instead of focusing on the subject ten meters away, you focus just one meter away.

A blurred street decorated with Christmas lights. At that hour (a quarter past five) without those lights, the street would have been completely dark. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF Canon EF 70–200 mm f/2.8L II IS USM, 1/80 s, f/2.8, ISO 1600, focus 75 mm. Photo: Vít Kovalčík

A blurred street decorated with Christmas lights. At that hour (a quarter past five) without those lights, the street would have been completely dark. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF Canon EF 70–200 mm f/2.8L II IS USM, 1/80 s, f/2.8, ISO 1600, focus 75 mm. Photo: Vít Kovalčík

In many cases, bad focus leads to unusable photos. But right around Christmas, the world’s cities are simply drowning in colored lights that, when blurred just right, make way for a characteristic and elegant bokeh (that is, unfocused region). And in many areas it’s dark as early as four or five o’clock, so you don’t need to wait until deep into the evening—you can already get started picture-hunting in the late afternoon.

Store decorations, December 23rd, 2011. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF Canon EF 70–200 mm f/2.8L II IS USM, 1/40 s, f/2.8, ISO 400, focus 200 mm. Photo: Vít Kovalčík

Store decorations, December 23rd, 2011. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF Canon EF 70–200 mm f/2.8L II IS USM, 1/40 s, f/2.8, ISO 400, focus 200 mm. Photo: Vít Kovalčík

Creating blurred pictures is very easy, and once you try it, you’ll start looking around for all sorts of unusual lighting sources. Usually the goal is to maintain the lowest possible f-number. There are three reasons for this: it keeps the lights as blurred as possible and as circular as possible (at higher f-numbers they become n-polygons), and as much light as possible falls on the camera sensor. This is good, because most decorative lights are not really very bright. Even with a minimal f-number, you’ll be using ISOs as high as 1600 or 3200.

Of course that last problem can be remedied with a tripod, but where’s the fun in that? And anyway, setting up a tripod on a busy downtown street on this crowded shopping season might not be the best idea. (You’ll already be getting enough funny looks for the fact that you’re standing there seemingly pointing a telephoto lens into thin air.)

An outdoor Christmas tree, from a distance. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF Canon EF 70–200 mm f/2.8L II IS USM, 1/13 s, f/2.8, ISO 800, focus 125 mm. Photo: Vít Kovalčík

An outdoor Christmas tree, from a distance. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF Canon EF 70–200 mm f/2.8L II IS USM, 1/13 s, f/2.8, ISO 800, focus 125 mm. Photo: Vít Kovalčík

For added variety, you can take the picture “through” some object, bringing a less-abstract element to the picture:

A view through the branches of a Christmas tree. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF Canon EF 70–200 mm f/2.8L II IS USM, 1/50 s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, focus 168 mm. Photo: Vít Kovalčík

A view through the branches of a Christmas tree. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF Canon EF 70–200 mm f/2.8L II IS USM, 1/50 s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, focus 168 mm. Photo: Vít Kovalčík

Another way to bring order to abstraction is through the use of motion. A random twist of the camera is a good enough start for experimentation. But if you want something more specific, try a long exposure, holding the camera in place, and zooming in during the shot. The result looks like a hyperspace jump:

Zooming in during the shot. Several exposures were needed, because without a tripod, it’s not easy to hold the camera still while changing focus. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF Canon EF 70–200 mm f/2.8L II IS USM, 0.3 s, f/4.0, ISO 100, focus 110 mm. Photo: Vít Kovalčík

Zooming in during the shot. Several exposures were needed, because without a tripod, it’s not easy to hold the camera still while changing focus. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF Canon EF 70–200 mm f/2.8L II IS USM, 0.3 s, f/4.0, ISO 100, focus 110 mm. Photo: Vít Kovalčík

Instead of zooming, you can also try just capturing the motion in the objects around you, like this carousel:

A carousel in action. Note the very high f-number and the long exposure. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF Canon EF 70–200 mm f/2.8L II IS USM, 1.3 s, f/16, ISO 100, focus 136 mm. Photo: Vít Kovalčík

A carousel in action. Note the very high f-number and the long exposure. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF Canon EF 70–200 mm f/2.8L II IS USM, 1.3 s, f/16, ISO 100, focus 136 mm. Photo: Vít Kovalčík

This isn’t a full list of the possibilities out there—just a few tips for getting into the right photographic mood. If they’ve worked and you’re worked up, then get out there and take the kind of unique pictures that this special season has to offer. Take them soon enough, and you’ll be in time to use them in custom seasons’ greetings for your relatives and friends.

Last updated 29. November 2013

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Author: Vit Kovalcik

I’ve been a freelancer since early 2012; photography is my living. I acquired my photography experience, both inside and outside the studio, during the previous years—when I was working all day and taking pictures every evening and weekend. I don’t have just one clearly defined topic; I like photographing people, but also cityscapes and landscapes.

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