How To Shoot Bokeh

Posted on September 21, 2012

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Author: Robert S. Donovan

It seems that many people out there are struggling to get good bokeh shots. The good news is that shooting bokeh is one of the easiest photographic techniques to learn. Unfortunately, it is also one of the hardest to master. Here I will attempt to get you started with the basics. You’ll have to do the mastery part on your own.

Kara Carlson

Image by sara kiesling

Bokeh (pronounced: “boke-aay” or “boke-uh) is the out of focus or blurry areas of a photograph. Wikipedia has a much more detailed description of the definition of bokeh that’s worth a read. On Flickr I find most people use the term to specifically describe out of focus highlights in a photo. For the purposes of this how-to we’ll focus (pun intended) on out of focus highlight bokeh.

OMG! I missed the sledge of 2008 because of my mission! What was the present from your Santa Claus?

Image by moaan

The secret to shooting bokeh lies in its definition: out of focus highlights. You need three things to shoot bokeh: pin point highlights, a large aperture and a short focal distance. When I say pin point highlights I mean small light sources. Trying to shoot a large area of light like a window or fluorescent light does not typically produce the type of bokeh “balls” that we are looking for here. Small lights like Christmas twinkle lights are an obvious source, but any light source that is far enough away will become infinitely small and can produce bokeh.

Red 1989

Image by NyYankee

Next, we need a large aperture. For the novice, the aperture is the opening in the lens that controls the amount of light that makes it through the lens and shutter to the film/sensor. The smaller the f number (or f-stop) the larger the opening. This is usually expressed as f/5.6, f/4, f/2.8, f/1.4, etc. Read more about aperture here.  Typically the larger the aperture the larger the bokeh. Fast lenses below f/2.8 are ideal for shooting bokeh.

Golden Bokeh for Dinner

Image by Kevin Farris

That is not to say that one can not get great bokeh using lenses with a smaller maximum aperture like the typical kit lenses sold with most entry level DSLRs. The trick is to make sure you are using the largest aperture possible (smallest f number). To do this I recommend switching your camera into Aperture Priority mode (typically labeled “A” or “Av” on the program mode dial) and dialing in the smallest f number possible.

Image by Robert S. Donovan (using kit lens at f/3.5)

The other reason that you want the largest possible aperture your lens is capable of is to ensure that your bokeh is round and not faceted. You see, most lenses use 5-7 straight aperture blades to create the variable opening in the lens. Bokeh takes on the shape and size of the lens opening so smaller apertures will produce smaller, faceted and generally less pleasing bokeh. There are exceptions to this rule as most high end lenses use curved aperture blades that keep the aperture opening round at all f stops.

Extreme Vine

Image by Curlylocks

The last component to getting good bokeh shots is the focus distance used. I have found that the shorter the focus distance to the foreground subject, the better the background bokeh I will get. The idea is to get as much distance between the subject and the bokeh producing highlights. Also, the closer you are focused to the camera the shorter the depth of field (DOF) will be. This ensures those lights way off in the background will be nice and blurred out.

The focal length of the lens is also a consideration. Depth of field is basically a function of focal length, distance to subject and aperture. At a given aperture and distance longer focal lengths result in shorter DOF. A short DOF is what we need to effectively blur the background highlights to produce bokeh. Getting close to the foreground subject and zooming to the longest setting on your lens will likely put you where you need to be to capture killer bokeh.

odd situtation

Image by Mauricio Alas

TUTORIAL:

Now let’s get on to the part where you actually go do it!

  1. Set your camera to Aperture Priority mode (A or Av on the program dial).
  2. Select the smallest possible aperture (f) number for your lens (should be ≤f/4).
  3. Switch your camera to manual focus and manually adjust the focus to the closest setting.
  4. Zoom your lens to somewhere around 50mm.
  5. Find some nice points of light at a distance of 10′ or greater from the camera (your Christmas tree is the perfect subject this time of year).
  6. Fire away!

If you get a shutter speed that’s too slow (ie: less than 1/30 second), try bumping the ISO up to 400 or more. If you do the Christmas tree thing what you should get is something like this:

Depending on how dark the background is (darker usually = better) you might have to dial in some exposure compensation to get your bokeh to really pop. Next, try putting a subject of some sort in front of the camera at the minimum focus distance (or there about) with the bokeh highlights in the background. It’ll take a little playing around with subject matter and lighting (both foreground and background) but in no time you should be shooting bokeh like a pro!

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