Last Phriday I published a photo that had all the blurred lights in the background in the shapes of Christmas Trees. If you missed it you can see it by clicking here.
Several people mentioned in their comments that they would like to know how it's done. The good news is that it is a very simple process. No software required and it will cost you only pennies in supplies to do it.
You've probably read or heard the term "bokeh". Bokeh simply means the out of focus highlights in the background of a photo, and can be produced by lights or reflections. The fact is that some cameras, or to be more precise, some lenses produce a more attractive bokeh than others. That is because the "bokeh" is produced by the shape of the aperture and better lenses have more rounded shaped apertures giving you bokeh like these:
So the process to create shapes in your bokeh is simple - just change the shape of your aperture. But, before you go tearing your camera apart to see how to change that shape, there is a better way - change it in front of the lens.
To do that simply take a piece of dark construction paper or card stock (matte black is best, but I didn't have any handy), cut out the shape you want and put it on the very front of the lens as seen here. As you can see, they do not have to be professional.
There are a few additional things you need to know to be successful, however.
1. To change the shape of the aperture the cut out must be smaller than the aperture of the lens. I do not want to discourage those of you that have "point and shoot" cameras, but DSLR owners do have a distinct advantage here, especially if you have a fast lens (one with an f-stop of 2.8 or larger). Remember the lower the number the larger the aperture. Can you do this with a point and shoot camera? Yes, if you can create a small enough cut out. Look for paper punches like the scrapbookers use.
2. You want to get the cut out as dead center as possible (I got a little sloppy on this). The smaller your largest f-stop is the more critical this point is.
3. The lights creating the bokeh must be far enough in the background to be way out of focus in order to take on the shape. Having your lens wide open, or set to the very largest aperture, also has the advantage of giving you the shortest depth of field (DOF) (If you need more info on DOF I have a tutorial that will help. It is about Macro photography, but also gives some good explanation and examples on DOF. Just click here.) The reason you want the shortest DOF is to throw the lights that are creating the bokeh as far out of focus as possible.
The point of this is pure Phun. With Valentines coming up the use of hearts is ideal, or for engagement or wedding photos. Want to add a little more Phun, add colored gels in front of the lights. If you look at the top photo you will see that the hearts in the middle, closest to the rhino's head have a very slight pink cast. All I did was put a very small piece of pink paper behind those lights - yes I said "behind" so the light reflects. Let your imagination run wild on the shape, it can be almost anything. Beside what you see here I've seen question marks, key holes, asterisks etc.
Get out your camera, experiment and try different things. If you are using a zoom lens see what happens at different zoom settings - note that as you increase your zoom length, it is likely that your f-stop will get smaller, requiring a smaller cut out.
I would absolutely love to see your results, so after you've tried some things post it and tell about your experience, or email me and send it along.
I know I don't need to tell you that you can Google "shaped bokeh" and find a lot more information and examples and even paper punches.