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Bokeh Tips: A Complete Tutorial For Achieving Brilliant Bokeh!

By Simon Davies

 

Here are some quick bokeh tips to help you have fun playing around with this fantastic effect. It's such a great way to bring character to your shots, with beautiful, colourful background shapes and intimate focus on the foreground subject.

But first, if you're new to photography, or just new to the term 'bokeh', you will of course be wondering...What on earth is it!?...How am I supposed to say it?...and what's it got to do with photography?

Well fear not, because before we go any further, here are some simple answers to those questions...

 

Bokeh Explained

bokeh tips
Image by Kevin Dooley

What is it?

Bokeh is derived from the Japanese word 'boke', which simply means 'blur' or 'haze'. It has been used commonly in the photographic world since the 90's, referring to the out of focus area in an image - the blur - and the aesthetic quality of that blur.

How do I say it?

How's it pronounced? Well, it sounds very similar to 'bouquet', but with equal emphasis on both syllables: 'bo-kay'.

What's it got to do with photography?

Now for the fun part! Don't be put off by the idea of images been blurry or out of focus - it's only only in certain areas. The idea is to use a shallow depth of field to create selective focus points, whilst throwing the background out of focus.

But there's much more to de-focused areas than just smudgy, blurry, empty space! This blur - or bokeh - can be a wonderful part of the image in its own right! We can turn points of light in the background into soft, almost ethereal orbs that beautifully offset the main focal point. This works especially well with portrait photos.

Now let's see how it's done...

 

1. Using a fast lens

The first of my bokeh tips is to use a 'fast' lens. The term 'fast' is used to describe lenses with a large maximum aperture (small f/number), because that has the knock-on effect of enabling faster shutter speeds in any light. The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field - resulting in better bokeh.

So, if you have a collection of lenses to choose from, go for the one with the lowest f/value, or at least select the largest aperture setting on the one that you are using.

bokeh
Image by ronipothead

Prime lenses (lenses with a fixed focal length) are especially effective for creating pleasing bokeh - 50mm being a really popular choice. But zoom lenses can work well too.

In fact, there some brilliant little fixed lens compacts being produced these days with very wide apertures. As for macro lenses, by their nature they create an extremely shallow depth of field, producing extreme blur in the out of focus parts of the scene.

 

2. Camera Settings

Controlling the aperture is the key to creating great bokeh. So, in terms of camera settings, it's all pretty simple really. You'll need to select either Manual or Aperture Priority Mode (AP mode allows you to choose the aperture width, whilst the camera then sets the shutter speed automatically for a correct exposure).

Next, make sure auto-focus is turned off. Manul focusing is definitely a must for creating great bokeh, so it's one of my top bokeh tips!

 

3. What to shoot?

Bokeh is an effect that can work well with a range of subjects. It creates intense focus on the foreground by, in effect, turning the background into abstract shapes. So experiment, and try it out with portraits, still lifes, animal/wildlife shots etc.

My recommendation for getting started is simply to have a look around your home for potential subjects. Set yourself up in the kitchen, perhaps, where there's lots of coffee on hand if you need a pick-me-up!

Give this exercise a go:

  1. Choose 3 items and line them up on a table in a diagonal line.
  2. Position them all within the viewfinder, and set the aperture to its widest setting.
  3. Manually focus to the nearest distance your camera will allow, then move right up to 'infintiy'. You'll see the plane of focus moving as you turn the ring, with each item falling in and out of focus. The out of focus parts can be described as bokeh.
bokeh
Image by Shermee

This exercise also shows you that bokeh is not only created by aperture size - but also 'focal distance'. Focal distance is the distance between you and your subject. The larger the focal distance - the greater the depth of field and vice versa.

So, because bokeh only appears when something is really out of focus, it often works best on shots where there is a very small focal distance (this is another one of the key bokeh tips to remember).

So it's something that portrait photographers absolutely love! Bokeh serves to isolate the subject from the world around them, whilst also producing a really cool background.

 

4. Different kinds of bokeh

Earlier I mentioned that bokeh is both 'blur' and the quality of that blur. Not all out of focus areas are bokeh. It's only when points of light in the background form into nice round shapes that they become bokeh.

But these 'round shapes' actually differ from lens to lens. Some lenses can create very smooth and circular bokeh, whilst others render out of focus light into quite hard-edged and angular shapes - often hexagonal.

So what produces this? Well, it's the shape of the aperture within the lens, which forces the out of focus light into its own shape. But guess what? This is something we can actually manipulate to our advantage with a little bit of DIY...

 

5. Shaping light with bokeh filters

bokeh tips
Image by Suez92

By creating your own custom bokeh filter you can precisely shape the out of focus light in your images.

What you'll need:

Now, cut a circle about the same size as the filter thread of your lens, with two tabs on each side (you could trace around your lens and then cut it out with the tabs). You should end up with what looks like a pair of glasses with only one lens in the centre!

Here is where it gets fun! Place the card on something that will protect your work surface (like a chopping board), take a craft knife and carefully cut a shape out of the centre. Keep the cutting clean, because the shape will be visible in the photos that you take with it.

Now it's time to put the filter on the lens. Place the filter over the front of the lens and bend the tabs back over the sides, so they run along the barel. Pop an elastic band over these tabs to hold the filter in place.

Now, point the camera at your chosen light source and open up the aperture to it maximum. Start clicking, and hey presto! You have now
manipulated the de-focused points of light to your desired shape!
They may be upside down or back to front first time, but this can be easily rectified by reversing the filter.

There are commercially available bokeh filters that do exactly the same thing as this. I personally love the do it yourself route, but if you're a little wary of knives or just getting it wrong (!), you'll get just the same results with bokeh filters like these.

bokeh5
Image by Phalaenopsis Aphrodite

So, now you've read through my top bokeh tips - get out there and start experimenting with these incredibly fun techniques!

The Photography Crash Course: 17 Short Lessons To Camera Mastery

Where Next?

Understanding Depth of Field

Cool Photo Effects For A Mosaic

Improve Portraits in Photoshop

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