If you’ve read my article on bokeh, then you’ll be well aware of exactly what it is, but for those who haven’t, I’ll give you a little run down.
Simply put, it’s the aesthetic quality of out-of-focus areas of a photograph. It relates to how nice the background blur looks when out-of-focus. Knowing that, you can start to see the uses for it.
Beautiful bokeh can be used as either the subject, or the background, but usually the latter. I like to use it as a way of making the backgrounds more interesting, and to do so, there are a few things you need to consider.
Firstly, the aperture decides the shape and some of the size of your bokeh. Smoother bokeh’s are much nicer to look at and there are two ways to achieve the smoothest possible bokeh. Firstly, if you open up your aperture to the widest it will go, ie. 1.8, then the aperture blades will not be obstructing any light, and the aperture will be smooth all the way around. The second option is to use good quality lens. I would recommend opting for a better quality lens rather than widening the aperture all the way, and you’ll see why further down the page.
The quality of your lens will always effect the quality of your aperture, purely because of the number of blades that are used to produce an aperture. Higher quality lens have more blades, so they can better reproduce a circle 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 these blades look like inside a lens. It’s worth noting that the narrow the aperture becomes, the less obvious this comparison becomes.
And here’s a comparison between the two lenses.
Distance from Subject
The further away you are from the light source, the wider the bokeh is going to be, especially at the widest apertures, which produce the largest bokeh. Have a look at this photo below, taken from my aperture tutorial; this photo was shot at f/2, just slightly narrower than my lens’ widest aperture. The bokeh effect that you may be used to has all but disappeared because the light source is so far away, and the aperture is so wide.
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 bokeh effect becomes much more appealing, as you can work out more of the shape, without losing too much of the effect. This is the same photo as above, only adjusted to f/8 to narrow the aperture, to account for the distance involved.
As you can see, the detail is much finer. Finding a bokeh which suits your photo is all about finding a balance between aperture an distance.
Of course, one of the most important parts of producing beautiful 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 up all the way 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 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. Photo below was shot on a 50mm lens at f/1.8.
Lets have a look at a few more 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, but set my exposure to f/1.4 for the bokeh and the shutter speed set to 1/6 to expose for the background too. The aperture was very wide, and the lights were very far away, but they were also very small, so that’s why they’re not overpowering the photos. The reflections on the left side of the photo contains 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 – stop being lazy and try harder.
The idea of this next photo was to have the background out of focus and very blurry, so to do so, I widened the aperture as wide as it would go, but I kept the M&M’s in the background quite close so your could still make some detail in the changes of colour. The round shape of the sweets lends itself quite nicely to the shape of the bokeh, with a small amount of overlap changing the colour 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, which is the hour before the sun comes down, or the hour after it’s come up. It means that the sun is very low in the sky, so there’s much 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 effects, so I would suggest going out in during the golden hour, and working into the evening to capture 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 it for yourself.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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