How To Make Beautiful Custom Bokeh Shapes :: Digital Photo Secrets

How To Make Beautiful Custom Bokeh Shapes

by David Peterson 6 comments

Christmas time is upon us, and I know a lot of you are looking for some fun ways to make your holiday photos more interesting. Well, what better time to introduce you to bokehs than right now? Chances are you’ve got a lot of Christmas lights around the house, and they’re just dying to make a star appearance in your holiday images. Here’s a little tutorial on making custom bokeh shapes using your digital SLR and the Christmas lights in your house.

What is a bokeh?

Have you ever seen those gorgeous holiday images with balls of light everywhere? Those out-of-focus lights are what is known as bokeh. The actual term “bokeh” has Japanese origins, and it was adopted by the west to describe this peculiar yet beautiful photography phenomenon.

Bokehs happen whenever you shoot bright lights using a lens with a very wide aperture. How wide are we talking? Well, you’ll really start to notice them once you use apertures in the F1.4 to F1.8 range. The aperture makes the light so out-of-focus that it get splashed across the frame, making these circular shapes.

I don’t like to say it, but a lot of cameras (especially point-and-shoot models) don’t have apertures that get anywhere near this F-number. Even if you do own a digital SLR with a basic kit lens, you can’t create images like this. Your best bet is to purchase a fixed focal length lens that can get you an aperture of at least F1.8. A “normal” 50 mm lens at this focal length won’t set you back that much, and you’ll use it for a bunch of other images. It’s the best starter lens when you’re looking to add something new to your kit.

To get the bokeh effect, set your aperture to F1.8, find some lights in the foreground or background, and take a picture. Your camera can help you out if you’re not too familiar with manual photography. Just pick aperture priority mode on the top dial, and then go to F1.8. Your camera will pick the right shutter speed for you, and you’ll get this lovely bokeh effect.

I’ve got two more things to say about bokehs. First, if the lights are in the area of the photo that’s in focus, they’ll just look like normal lights. To make a bokeh, the lights need to be out of focus, and that means they need to either be in the foreground or the background of the shot.

Secondly, you’ll eventually want to learn the art of manual photography. Cameras are okay at picking the right shutter speeds, but you can get a lot more color when you pick the shutter speed yourself. Just try a bunch of different shutter speeds, and if your subject isn’t lit correctly, adjust the shutter speed up or down to add or subtract more light from the shot.

How To Make A Custom Bokeh Shape

Once you’ve mastered the art of making normal bokeh shapes, you can take it to the next level by making your own custom bokehs. To do that, you’ll take some black construction paper (think elementary school), cut out the shape you want, and cover your lens with it. Before I get started with this, I like to wrap the construction paper around my lens to shape it into a cylinder. Those of you who are more craft-minded probably have a better solution, but this is quick and easy, and it works for me.

You’ll end up with something like this:

An example of a bokeh mask you can place in front of your lens.
This one will create a heart shaped bokeh.
Photo By Gopal Vijayaraghavan

Shooting with a custom bokeh mask is no different than shooting normal bokeh light photos. You’ll be using nearly the same aperture and shutter speed settings as before, but the only difference is the resulting bokeh. It will be some slight variation of the shape you’ve cutout.

A wonderful example of the heart shaped bokeh.
The possibilties are endless here.
Photo By Jessica Tam

There are all kinds of ideas worth pursuing here. We’ve really just begun. With that said, I’d love to see some of your custom bokeh photos. Show me what your Christmas tree looks like with your own creative shape (my favorite is the bat signal). Upload to the special Bokeh section of the gallery.

Happy holidays!

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  1. Dave says:

    Some people should sound so "Crabby" & just appreciate the labor. Thanks, Dave. I did have one question though. When making a custom bokeh (we'll need to get it listed as official so some people don't get their panties in a wad) does the shape of the custom bokeh cause the refraction of the lens to change & thus change all the lights in a single shot?

  2. Jim Crabtree says:

    Oh and yes the Japanese do have a word boke. Also I believe the strictest definition would best be described as "nothingness". And they also started using the term to describe the look of limited depth of field areas both in front of and behind a subject in an image for the same reasons as writers did starting in the 90's. It was initially to describe the "feel of the look" of the area of circles of confusion created by any spectral highlights present in the image area.

    Lets just call photography terms what they are called traditionally and remove the confusion in a field already cluttered with miss information.

    What happened to actually learning the science of photography.

  3. Jim Crabtree says:

    Thats correct Kurt Snyder.
    The term has no basis or technical photographic relevance what so ever.
    It is a term "made up" by a writer in a magazine to describe a lens characteristic that already had a proper description and proper terminology.

    Just like the incorrect usage of the improper term "prime lenses".

    NEW WAVE so called camera and photography experts would do well in learning the history of photography and the science of camera handling and terminology and discussing that. These folks should avoid giving things new names just for the sake of getting published and the hope of creating a name for themselves. It only bastardizes the industry and confused new wanna be photographers.

  4. Kurt Snyder says:

    The term comes from the Japanese word boke ( or ), which means "blur" or "haze", or boke-aji (), the "blur quality". The Japanese term boke is also used in the sense of a mental haze or senility.[9] The term bokashi () is related, meaning intentional blurring or gradation.

    The English spelling bokeh was popularized in 1997 in Photo Techniques magazine, when Mike Johnston, the editor at the time, commissioned three papers on the topic for the March/April 1997 issue; he altered the spelling to suggest the correct pronunciation to English speakers, saying "it is properly pronounced with bo as in bone and ke as in Kenneth, with equal stress on either syllable".[4] The spellings bokeh and boke have both been in use at least since 1996, when Merklinger had suggested "or Bokeh if you prefer."[10] The term bokeh has appeared in photography books at least since 1998.[5] It is sometimes pronounced /bok/ (boke-uh).[2]
    The anbove is an excerpt from From Wikipedia.

  5. Kurt Snyder says:

    You mentioned shooting at diferent shutter speeds to increase or decrease the amount of color in your images. I am assuming you mean to do so when you have selected a particular aperture while in full manual mode. Otherwise, if in shutter priority or program modes, wouldn't the camera automatically vary the aperture with each shutter speed change resulting in the same amount of exposure and color level?

  6. Jim Crabtree says:

    The term bokeh is yet another bastardization of terms used present day for existing terms in fundamental photography.
    Bokeh is actually the "circles of confusion" created by the lens as it interacts with the spectral highlights in an image. This area can be in the background or foreground but is usually noticed in the background. This "bokeh" is actually a term used to try to explain the areas in an image that is not in focus do to the limits of the depth of focus.

    Better than trying to explain or describe a term that in non fundamental would be a discussion on lenses and how they create sharpness or limited focus and the science of depth of field.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.