Bokeh refers to a soft out-of-focus background that you get when shooting a subject. It comes from the Japanese word boke, which means ‘blur’.
The key to achieving good bokeh is using a fast lens at its widest aperture. If you’re interested in creating ‘bokeh’ in-camera, keep reading.
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What is Bokeh?
“In photography, bokeh is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out of focus parts of an image produced by a lens. Bokeh has been defined as “the way the lens renders out of focus points of light”.
To make a custom shaped bokeh, you are going to change “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light”.
In other words, the aperture shape. To help you understand this technique, let’s study how bokeh is formed.
I recommend that you get a better understanding of the physics of bokeh, as it can help you to come up with new ideas.
How is Bokeh Formed?
When you use manual focus mode and start turning the focus ring to out of focus, the subject will become blurrier. When the subject is a point of light, the result is what we call “bokeh”.
Above, the image shows the simple physics refraction model of how being out of focus makes an image become blurry.
Light passes through the lens and then converges on to the camera sensor. If the point of convergence can hit on the sensor, the image is sharp.
On the other hand, when the subject is placed too far away or too close, making the point of convergence fail to hit the sensor, images become blurry.
Why Is Aperture Important for Bokeh?
Bokeh is almost entirely down to the lens you use. A bokeh lens, if you will.
It is the lens design that determines blur, and the aesthetic quality of this blur. Portrait mode won’t help you here, and there’s no such thing as bokeh mode.
By manipulating aperture, you get a focal distance and a focal point.
That’s why the widest aperture of your lens is important. Aperture ranges from f/2.8 at its widest, all the way up to f/22 at its deepest.
If we use an aperture of f/2.8, we get a very shallow depth of field. The depth of field is how much of our scene or subject is in focus. F/22 would be the opposite, placing everything in focus.
The wider the aperture, the more background blur will appear in your image.
Why Is Distance Important for Bokeh?
Aperture is the most important area when it comes to bokeh, followed by depth of field or how much of your scene is in focus. Distance is yet another important area in blurring parts of your photograph.
The distance relates to the camera and the subject as opposed to the subject and the background.
You can achieve a large amount of great bokeh blur in a photograph using f/2.8, even if you are far from your subject. This is because the focal distance is very small.
On the flip side, if you place yourself very close to a subject while using a medium aperture, such as f/8, the background will come out blurred.
This is due to the background being much farther away from the subject than the camera is.
This is a great tip to know if your lens only drops down to f/5.6, as many zoom lenses do.
Distance Vs. Aperture
There is a way around fixing the photo above, and this is where it pays to have a better quality lens.
By stopping down your lens to a narrow aperture, the creamy bokeh characteristics become much more appealing.
You can work out more of the shape, without risking bad bokeh.
Here, we used an aperture of f/8. Finding a bokeh which suits your photo is all about finding a balance between aperture an distance.
Why Is Lens Quality Important for Bokeh?
The quality of your lens will always affect the quality of your aperture. This is purely because of the number of aperture blades that are used to produce an aperture.
Higher quality lenses have more blades, so they can better reproduce a circle aperture shape.
For example, my Canon L lenses each have 8 blades, whereas my kit lens and 50mm f/1.8 only have 5.
Here’s what this bladed aperture looks like inside a lens.
It’s worth noting that the narrower the aperture becomes, the less obvious this comparison becomes.
Why Is Lighting Important for Pleasing Bokeh?
Of course, one of the most important parts of producing great bokeh is how your photo is lit.
If you’re in controlled conditions where you can adjust your light and want to experiment, then you may find that opening your aperture wide works best.
Remember, this is going to have the smoothest results, and produce the largest bokeh.
Or perhaps the light is breaking through some leaves of a tree in the background, and you want to capture this with a smooth bokeh blur.
The light source doesn’t have to come from behind the subject like in the photo above, it can just be incidental light creeping through a well-lit scene, like below.
It’s your job to spot it, and use it to your advantage.
How to Create the Bokeh Effect in 4 Easy Steps
4. Find Your Image
First of all, you need to find where you are going to take the image. What you need to be aware of is light, the size of the area, and what the background is going to look like.
Here, we found a field for the bokeh experiment.
3. Find Your Subject
We wanted to keep the theme as natural as possible, so we went with a leaf.
Mixed with the field, it will provide a nice contrast in terms of shape and complimentary colors.
2. Set Your Camera to Aperture Priority
Setting your camera to Aperture Priority will make it easier to change just the aperture. If the area is well lit, choose ISO 100.
At the height of the day, an f/2.8 at ISO 100 will give you around 1/1000 of a second, if not more.
The benefit of aperture priority is if you feel f/2.8 is too shallow, and want to use f/8, then the camera will work out the corresponding shift for you.
As you move the aperture up 3 stops, the shutter speed will drop by the equal amount.
Take the picture. As you can see, the camera is close to the subject, and the distance from the subject to the horizon is much farther. This accentuates the blur, creating more of the bokeh effect.
The image and bokeh effect are enhanced by the dew on the blades of grass. It allows the light to become more prominent.
And that’s it. You can take beautiful bokeh photographs in-camera using a wide aperture. It is that simple. You are only held back by your imagination.
But there are a few circumstances where your bokeh might not go as envisioned. Let’s visit a few common problems.
My Bokeh Background Is not as Blurry as I Had Hoped
- Set the lens to the widest aperture possible (smallest number).
- Bring the camera closer to the subject.
- Close that gap and re-shoot.
You should find it much better for bokeh effect. If not, get closer to the subject in capturing that shallow depth-of-field.
My Images Are Too Dark
If you are using aperture priority, your settings should change according to your appointed f/stop. If you still have problems, increase your ISO from 100 to 200, and that should fix things.
Here, you are putting one stop of light into the image, giving your f/stop and shutter speed more room to play with.
You may find that some background lights will disappear and magically reappear within your photographs. Don’t be alarmed, it hasn’t really got much to do with you.
Electrical lights such as Christmas fairy lights may not show up on your photograph at all. This is due to the fact that the lights aren’t exactly constant. They strobe.
They disappear in your image because your image isn’t synced with them. Try using a shutter speed slower than 1/60th of a second.
More Bokeh Examples…
This is one of my favourite photos of my model Keira, with a local pier in the background. This is a really simple example of bokeh, as the lighting is minimal.
I had a fill light coming from a beauty dish to the right in this photo. My exposure set to f/1.4 for the bokeh and the shutter speed set to 1/6 to expose for the background. The aperture was very wide, and the lights were very far away.
As they were also very small, so that’s why they’re not overpowering the photos. The reflections on the left side of the photo contain multiple rings of light, which has turned this small use of bokeh much more interesting background.
Remember, there’s more to the photo than just the subject. This is why I hate to see photos being taken on a backdrop. Just stop being lazy and try harder.
The idea of this next photo was to have the background as an out-of-focus area and very blurry bokeh. To do so, I widened the aperture as wide as it would go.
I kept the M&Ms in the background quite close so you could still make some detail in the changes of color.
The round shape of the sweets lends itself quite nicely to the shape of the bokeh, with a small amount of overlap changing the color in places.
Notice how the blue and red have merged in places to turn purple.
This final photo is here for a completely different reason, and that’s because it was shot during the golden hour.
This is when the sun is very low in the sky, so there are more shadows that you can work with.
This constant change between light and dark produced some nice contrast for the lighter parts of the photo to shine through with the bokeh.
I often find that working with lights at night produces the coolest bokeh effects. I would suggest going out in during the golden hour, and working into the evening to capture bokeh lights in the distance.
This works really well in a city where there’s lots of cars and shop/street lights. Get out there and try creating a bokeh background for yourself.
Or, if you are feeling up for a little DIY, you can make your own bokeh filters very cheaply. All the information is in this article.
Before you go, check out this cool video on creating in-camera bokeh.