Bokeh – what is it and how do you achieve it in a photograph!!
I will try and explain this infamous photography term in simple English. Firstly this post refers to using a DSLR or a mirrorless camera and not a mobile phone.
The term Bokeh comes from the Japanese word ‘boke’ meaning ‘blur’ or ‘haze’ and in theory is pronounced BOH-kay, as in a bouquet of flowers.
In simple terms it refers to the out of focus area in a photograph, this is usually behind your subject point, but can also appear in the front depending on the point you have focussed on. However, in todays world of modern photography, bokeh is more likely to be referred to as the artistic properties of the out of focus areas, and how these are depicted in images in a smooth, circular way with areas of contrast and highlights blending gently together.
Note: the term Bokeh has nothing to do with the blur caused by subject or camera movement.
Why lens quality effects the Bokeh in your image
The quality of the lens does affect how the bokeh is rendered in the photo, and some scenes will lend themselves to producing smooth, creamy bokeh even with not-so-great lenses, while other scenes — such as those with harsh lighting or lots of specular highlights — present a much greater challenge. It is in situations like these where the quality of the lens will have a more noticeable impact on the quality of the bokeh.
Techie note: a lens opens and closes using blades that are arranged to form a circular shape, this controls the size of the aperture and how much light enters the lens. A lens with more blades, especially curved blades rather than straight, usually results in a rounder, smoother bokeh effect and helps to make the gently blurred out of focus light points look more visually appealing.
More often than not the best lenses for creating bokeh are high quality prime and telephoto lenses which come with the ability to set the aperture (f-stop) wide e.g. f1.2, f1.8, f2.8, which are not usually the kit lenses that come with a DSLR.
A little note about aperture (f-stop): At this point I would just like to point out that in photography many things seem to work in the opposite way to which you think they should, so when you see a reference to the f-stop or aperture setting the smaller the number (e.g. f1.8 or f2.8) the larger (wider) the opening in the lens and the larger the number (e.g. f16 or f22) the smaller (narrower) the opening of the lens. Many purists will tell you that when trying to create the Bokeh effect in your image you should try and use an aperture of f2.8 or less, however these lenses are likely to be more expensive and as you will see in examples below the effect can be achieved using an f-stop of f2.8, f5, f6.4 and even F13, click on the images to se a larger version!
Canon 100mm macro lens at f2.8
Fuji 55-200mm telephoto lens at f5The blossom image has the round orbs of light which is what many people refer to as a bokeh effect, it is achieved by back lighting – the sun shining through the trees towards the camera.
Fuji 55-200mm lens at f6.4
Fuji 55-200mm telephoto lens at f13The image of the grass is taken using an f-stop of f13 and you still get blurring in the back and front of the image, however you will notice that the round orbs of light are not so round, they have more straight edges creating the circle of light than images taken with a wide aperture e.g. f2.8, but as in art, things are subjective and many people would not mind this effect.
Please carry on reading for more information about aperture and lenses used when creating a Bokeh effect.
The lens, of course, isn’t the only thing that plays a role in creating Bokeh. Here are some tips that will help you achieve the “best” possible Bokeh in your shots:
Use a large aperture. Try and use the largest (widest) aperture (smallest f-number) available on your lens. As I explained above a large aperture (small f-stop number) decreases the depth of field, the area in your photograph that will be in focus, everything surrounding this focal point will be blurred, in front and behind, thus creating Bokeh.
A word of warning – because using a wide aperture (small f-stop number) decreases the area that is sharp, you have to be certain that the camera is focussing on the point you want to be sharp, otherwise the wrong part of your image can be easily blurred!
What is a fast lens: Lenses that have the ability to set a wide aperture (e.g f1.8) are referred to as fast lenses and some say this is the key to creating a beautiful Bokeh background. The larger the maximum aperture, the faster the lens is considered to be (f/1.8 is faster than f/4), the more light you can let in, the more you can decrease depth of field, the more likely your image is to exhibit that creamy, smooth, out of focus areas.
Use aperture or manual mode: You will need to set your camera to “Aperture Priority,” so that you can set the f-stop yourself, this will then automatically set the shutter speed, or use “Manual mode” to set the aperture and shutter speed yourself, this will help you to gain best results. It can be difficult to achieve a Bokeh effect with the camera set to automatic, but if you camera has portrait option you may find this will also give you a Bokeh effect in your background, but my advice would be to turn off automatic settings and get to use your camera in aperture or manual modes.
Use a telephoto lens: Zoom lenses are often criticised for not having the image quality of prime lenses (though there are some notable exceptions), but if you have a zoom lens, use it to your advantage. Zooming in on your subject will separate it from the rest of the scene and, depending on your lens, should leave you with beautiful Bokeh.
Create space between your subject and environment: Try and leave as much space as possible between the subject and the background which helps you to create a shallow depth of field (the area in focus). This also helps where your lens does not have the ability to open up as wide as more expensive lenses e.g. the widest f-stop is f5.6 or f6.4.
Move in: The closer you get to your subject, the softer/blurrier the background will be. Be aware though that every lens has a minimum focusing distance (MFD); this is simply a measure of how close you can get to your subject and still have it in focus. Getting as close as possible to your subject is more commonly associated with macro lenses but any lens can be used this way, but will be more likely to have a less dramatic effect than a macro lens, and is probably not advisable for most portrait work.
Look for lights in the distance to play with lighting: When you’re experimenting, try and pick up lighted highlights in the background (such as street lamps or christmas lights) and watch as the they turn into large soft blurry discs of colour. These are key indicators that your Bokeh is working its magic. If you need, you can manually backlight or find side lighting in images to create and capture these lights. Looking for sunlight though the trees and bushes can also help you achieve the round circular orbs of light that are synonymous with the Bokeh effect. This can also help you to blur out ugly backgrounds you find in some situations.
More examples of a Bokeh effect
Fuji 55-200mm telephoto lens at f10
Fuji 18-135mm telephoto lens at f5.6
Canon 5D MKII 100mm macro lens
Canon 5D MKII 24-105mm telephoto
lens at f4
Canon 5D MKII 50mm prime
lens at f2
Fuji 60mm macro
lens at f2.4
Well I hope I have shed a little more light on the term Bokeh and you feel inspired to get out there and experiment with your camera – get in touch if you have any questions.