Here we see bokeh that has been added in post-processing. You can tell because some of the bokeh appears to be on the same plane as the subject, who is completely in focus. You can also see that certain portions of the bokeh have been lightened or partially removed to ensure that the important parts of this photo shine through. Now there’s an atmosphere of magic and childlike wonder, where before it would simply have been a cute snapshot.
It’s understandable if the term strikes you as foreign. The word is Japanese in origin, credited to English speaker Mike Johnston for his use of it in the 1997 March/April edition of Photo Techniques magazine. In its Japanese form, “boke” roughly translates to “blur,” “haze” or “fuzziness.” Johnston added the final letter as a pronunciation clue to native English speakers like himself.
The Inner Workings of the Blur
Two main factors work in tandem to create a bokeh effect in your image: aperture and lens design. Remember that your aperture controls your depth of field. A wide aperture of f/1.4 creates an extremely shallow depth of field, while a narrow aperture of f/16 will give you an extremely wide depth of field. Is that backwards enough for you? Well strap in, there’s more.
As the age-old saying goes: a worker is only as good as his/her tools, and this definitely applies to this technique. To capture first-rate bokeh, you will need a fast lens with, ideally, an aperture of f/2.8 available. To create even more shallow depths of field (and make better blurred backgrounds), consider purchasing lenses that reach f/2, f/1.8, or f/1.4. Practice with your aperture at its widest setting; then begin to decrease the size to change the look of your bokeh. We’ll discuss the different ways your lens can affect bokeh later in this guide.
And don’t worry! There are ways to give your depth of field a little nudge if you just can’t make your widest aperture work. What you want right now is for the most important part of your image to be the only truly sharp portion of it. The way we do that is to put your subject on its own plane. So you want to be as close to your subject and have your background as far away from them as you can manage without foiling a solid composition. That might take some planning in the beginning, but over time you’ll become accustomed to scoping out the perfect bokeh sweet spot without derailing your entire shoot.
The above chart demonstrates the relationship between your aperture and the depth of field in your image. As you can see, the larger your aperture opening, the more shallow your depth of field. That’s why, when we shoot at the maximum aperture available to our lens, we call it shooting “wide open.”
If you’re a cell phone photographer, you can “change lenses” by placing other glass in front of your camera. In some cases, you can buy custom mini-lenses intended exactly for this purpose, but you can also get creative with it. For instance, you could pop a lens out of a pair of dollar store reading glasses and secure it in front of your phone camera for a homemade macro lens.
Practice Makes Perfect
Before you purchase sophisticated equipment, especially if you’re new to the technique, start with a low-budget, low-stress test shoot at home:
- Head to a light source. You could use a collection of lamps or candles, a string of Christmas lights or even something with shiny points such as aluminum foil. Any glass or metal object is fair game for experimentation at this stage!
- Choose your subject. It could be anything for this exercise; a fancy shot glass, a coffee mug, a favorite book or an available family member.
- Grab your camera, set it to Aperture Priority or Manual Mode and place it on a tripod. Try your widest aperture setting if you’re looking for the classic round, smooth balls that most people associate with bokeh.
- Place your subject in the foreground with your light source in the background. Voilà! You’re ready!
As you go along, remember that you can encourage a shallow depth of field by moving your subject further from your background and getting your camera lens closer to the focal point (or subject) in your photograph. Use this shoot as an opportunity to play with varying distances between subject and background and modify your camera settings.
You may want to start a photography notebook, where you take note of the changes you make and what settings or equipment you used. This way you can easily recreate your favorite looks in the future. You can also plan your shots with thumbnails in this notebook, so that when you come back to your work later on you have a refresher on your own thought process. A dedicated notebook is a good tool to have in your kit as you master other techniques as well.
Because there are so many different bits of equipment and processes to keep straight, a photographer may go months in between using a particular one. A notebook of your own info to refer back to will keep you from having to start again from scratch every time you want to create bokeh (or a double exposure, or any other special process).
A string of decorative lights is an inexpensive and easy hack to create natural looking bokeh. With many different shape and color varieties available, the possibilities are endless!
Some Things to Remember:
- Scattered light (like the reflection of light on raindrops), rather than one light glaring into the camera lens, should create a satisfying effect. Look for this type of light to capture, rather than just a single light source.
- For the ideal bokeh shot, a suitable background is almost as important as your subject. The lighting and colors that appear there can work with your vision or against it, so don’t forget to take these elements into consideration!
- In the same vein, consider the weather on the day of an outdoor shoot. Diffused lighting on an overcast day will yield softer, more blurred bokeh, while a brighter one could yield more distinct shapes.
- Good bokeh doesn’t depend on how the bokeh itself looks so much as how you integrate it into your composition, so don’t be afraid to experiment and have fun with it!