The main difference between the camera and the your eye is focus. Your eye has a nearly unlimited depth of field, whereas a camera does not. It makes it practically impossible for a camera lens to truly capture what can be seen with the human eye. Instead of fighting this limitation, many photographers choose to embrace it, making a feature of the out-of-focus parts of a photograph.
This technique is known as “bokeh” photography, and the word is used to describe images that have a sharply focused object surrounded by a blurry or fuzzy background. You can get good bokeh (that is aesthetically pleasing and enhances the image), or bad (which is unpleasant or distracting).
When done properly, bokeh looks great, and is often used in stock photography images to really bring a subject to life.
So for budding enthusiasts, here are 6 tips to help you improve your bokeh photography.
1. Know what you’re trying to achieve
The word “bokeh” is Japanese, and literally translates as “blur” or “haze.” It’s for this reason that many photographers confuse its meaning and think that it applies to any blurred lights or shapes within the image, when it more accurately describes the quality of the blurred area that falls outside the depth-of-field.
Photo of flowers in the garden by Shutterstock
2. Use a large aperture
Good bokeh is created by using a large aperture, which lets in lots of light and decreases the camera’s depth of field. This in turn creates the out-of-focus background effect we’re looking for. Set your camera to Aperture Priority mode and select a low f-number. You can use anything from f/1.8 up to f/4, but remember, the lower the better.
3. Compose your shot (and get close!)
Leave plenty of distance between yourself and the light source, and make sure that you have manual focus selected on your camera. To ensure that you get good bokeh, you want to get as near to your subject as possible. Don’t be afraid to get up close and personal. In addition to this, try and make sure that the background is far away.
4. Use your zoom
As well as getting up close to your subject, extending your lens to the longest focal length also helps create beautiful, creamy bokeh. Quality is important here, as when using cheaper zoom lenses the image quality can drop off significantly at the highest zoom range.
5. Light up your background
Well lit backgrounds give great bokeh. By using small, glowing light sources like Christmas, traffic and street lights, you can create beautiful, soft circular patterns that will really enhance your foreground image. If you use a consistently lit background you’ll just get a general blur that is much easier to achieve, but far less impressive.
Photo of blurred headlights by Shutterstock
Once you’ve got to grips with the basics, play around with things like silhouette to create even more distinction. Light up your foreground object to cast a dark shadow between it and your background – the strong black contrasts fantastically with the soft, bokeh highlights.
Photo of a masquerade bokeh by Shutterstock
You can even use bokeh in cinematography, so you really have plenty of opportunity to get creative.
Remember, bokeh shouldn’t be used in attempt to make an uninteresting image interesting. Don’t get complacent. Bokeh should be used as a tool to complement what’s already a striking image. Make it your priority to find interesting subject matters that are begging to be photographed, and above all, have fun with it.
About the author: Luke Clum is a Seattle based designer and photographer who enjoys spending his free time climbing in the mountains and experimenting with web design. You can find him on Twitter @lukeclum
Great article, thank you! I like the idea of lighting up your background… Might try digging out some Christmas lights and giving it a shot!