Whether you realize it or not, you have seen bokeh plenty of times. It is there in any photograph with a shallow depth of field. In its simplest form, bokeh is just blur. That great portrait shot you take with the blurry background? The background is called bokeh. Whether the bokeh is "good" or "bad", and if it adds to the artistry of the photo is a matter of opinion. There are several key factors in creating what many consider beautiful bokeh - those areas of pleasant, soft focus. Read on to learn about the "qualities" of bokeh, how to create it, and some creative composition techniques that utilize it.
There continues to be a debate about how to pronounce this word, but the consensus seems to be to say it like "bouquet". The image above has what I consider to be soft, subtle bokeh. Notice the out of focus points of light that (in this case) have a circular quality - that is bokeh! Bokeh can be much more pronounced and obvious, and we will look at some examples like that too.
Bokeh can be present and aesthetically pleasing in many types of photography, whether you are shooting landscapes or people. In some cases, it is just a fortunate accident of your camera settings, but you can intentionally seek this look.
The key to bokeh is a shallow depth of field. In photos with shallow depth of field, only part of the composition is sharp. The other parts are out of focus or blurry. You may choose to blur the foreground or the background or both in a composition, but your focal point will be in sharp focus. In order to achieve this look, try switching your camera to aperture priority mode (A or Av). This is kind of a semi-automatic way to shoot that allows you to control the aperture, which determines how much light gets into your camera. This is like training wheels for shooting in manual, and it's a great option!
With your camera in aperture priority mode, you will want to choose one of the largest apertures (lowest f-stop numbers) available to you. If you are shooting with your kits lens, you are somewhat limited but just use your lowest possible aperture. If you are shooting with a lens with an aperture that can go as low as f/1.4 or f/1.8, I recommend trying something a little higher, maybe f/2.8 so that you don't have such a small area of focus. I also like the look of the bokeh better.
In addition to using a large aperture (low f-stop number), you can increase the amount of background blur by positioning your subject further from their background. Try it! Even at the same aperture, you will have more background blur with a greater distance between the subject and their background. You will also notice that the closer you get to your subject, the more the background blurs.
When it comes to the aesthetic quality of bokeh, your lens matters. If you are using your kits lens or another relatively inexpensive lens, you will likely see bokeh that is more octagonal in shape. This is based on the number and shape of blades that your camera uses to control the aperture. More, round blades produce rounder bokeh and vice versa. As you may have guessed, rounder bokeh is more appealing to the masses and the result of a more expensive lens!
On an overcast day, you can still open up your aperture and take a photo with a blurred background. The background will be fairly uniformly blurred, and this may be the look you are trying to achieve. However, if you want more of the "classic" bokeh look where you actually see the soft yet distinct "blobs" (for lack of a better word) of light in the background, you need light in your composition. Many beautiful bokeh photos have some soft backlighting. The use of actual lights, like Christmas lights, in the background is also very popular for this look.
Remember, try to position your subject with the light source a ways behind them - experiment with this distance!
If you are looking to try something different and unique, you could consider a custom bokeh effect. This is a little more advanced technique. You will need to make a cutout to place over your lens in whatever shape you desire. The key factor in making your cutout is that it must be smaller than the aperture of your lens. (You are creating a smaller opening to place within the opening already created by the aperture of your lens.) Some may think this cheesy, and it definitely could get old fast but it is a fun effect. It may be worth a try for a special shoot, or if you just have more time on your hands than you know what to do with. Hearts, stars, flowers...the options are endless.
tree of stars by Flickr user hlkljgk
When you think of bokeh, those little twinkling lights in the background come to mind, but there are actually a lot of different, creative ways to set up a shallow depth of field composition with beautiful bokeh. One of those ways is to consider using bokeh in the foreground or utilizing a reflective surface to make it appear that way. Keep in mind that the bokeh will likely obscure part of the subject.
You can also set up your picture in such a way that the bokeh appear to be interacting with a foreground object. Play around with perspective and you have bokeh steam!
Whether you were familiar with the term or not, you have seen bokeh before and have likely taken pictures with nice blur. What is aesthetically pleasing is in the eye of the beholder but try for bokeh that enhances the image rather than detracts from your subject. Most people find the cheerful, round bokeh created by a good lens, shallow depth of field, and some holiday lights to be extremely appealing. If nothing else get out while the lights are out for a "classic" bokeh shot and wow your friends with your knowledge of photography terminology!
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