Making the Shot – Christmas Tree Baby


This is hands down my favorite picture I’ve ever taken.  I’ve gotten quite a few positive remarks, so I’m sharing the details of how I got this shot in case you would like try something similar!

I took this picture with my Canon Rebel T3i, a pretty basic consumer DSLR.  I took this with a nicer 70-200mm f4 lens, but the same could easily be done with the f50mm f1.8 lens (~$125).  If you’ve got a Canon Rebel I would absolutely recommend this lens, its the best value lens out there and will allow you to dramatically expand your creative abilities with your shots.  If you are a Nikon shooter there is also a Nikon 50mm f1.8 lens that is about the same price, and while I have not used it I believe that it is equally a must own lens!

For my birthday this year (Halloween, or as I like to say HalloWayne) I got an external flash.  This is the big flash that you see mounted on top of DSLR cameras.  The flash can also be removed for more possibilities to control the light of your shot.  For Christmas I expanded my collection with getting a flash umbrella and stand.  With these few accessories one can really control the light of their shot, which is what Photography is all about, capturing light!  Here’s a quick picture of the setup!


There are several factors control how in focus the lights of the tree are.  The biggest ones are the f-stop setting of the lens, the distance between the camera and object in focus combined with how much further the tree is past the focus point.  For this shot I tried to get the camera as far away as possible without having to open the front door and go outside!

If you are using a fixed focal length lens like the 50mm, the desired composition or framing of your shot will also dictate where you place your camera, your subject, and your background.  If you have a tree as your background, you likely won’t want to move it as in my case.

Camera Settings

To get the camera settings correctly, first I put my camera in Manual mode.  Any shot where the light isn’t going to be changing and where you want full control should be shot in manual.  Once in manual I adjusted my settings without the flash firing until I got the background exposed how I wanted.

Since I wanted the maximum blur, or out of focus of the background I set my lens on its lowest aperature f-stop setting (f4).  This also results in nice round out of focus lights.  Depending on your lens and how many aperature blades it has, you may not see perfect circles at higher f-stop settings.  For example, if you are using the 50mm f1.8 lens at f4, you won’t get perfect circles, but get pentagons from the 5 blade aperture.

With the aperture set at f4 I went on to set my ISO, I selected ISO 400 for this shot and a shutter speed of 1/100th.  This ISO isn’t too high to make the picture grainy, and the shutter speed is fast enough to prevent motion blur from the subject moving, or from the camera shaking.  Since the camera was on a tripod for most of the shots the movement of the camera would have been minimal.

Flash Settings

With the background setting properly set it was time to adjust the flash settings.  I put my flash on manual and just took some pictures using trial and error to increase and decrease the flash power.  Since my actual subject would have been uncooperative with the test shots I used a stuffed animal.  As I later found stuffed animals and babies reflect light differently so some “game time” adjustments had to be made, but the settings were very close.


My test subject!  As you can see anything that’s not in the frame of the picture is ok, such as laundry baskets, etc.  Here I just used two couch cushions, a Boppy pillow, and some blankets to create a nice “posing” seat for Nora.

The Shot

Next step is to bring the baby down, leave her covered in a blanket and remove for the pictures, try to keep her calm and sleepy, and fine tune the flash power as needed.


I try to always shoot in RAW unless I’m trying to get a lot of photos in succession (RAW slows the camera burst rate down a bit).  RAW gives you a bit more control after you take the shot to make some adjustments in your digital darkroom.  A few minor tweaks later and here is the finished result!


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