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Baffled by Bokeh?

Bokeh? What is it? How do you even say it? And why is everyone talking about it?

Well, bokeh, pronounced bo-kay (at least that’s how I say it!), refers to the quality of blur in your photos. And by blur, I mean something a bit different to background blur (from a shallow depth of field or small f-stop value) and a lot different to motion blur (from a slow shutter speed or fast movement). And by quality, I mean the subjective feeling that this particular blur gives and onlooker and is open to interpretation and discussion. And by everyone, I mean photographers.

The word itself comes from Japanese language and literally translates as “blur”. For photographs, the simplest way to think of it is out-of-focus light. The light can be from a variety of sources, fairy lights, candle lights, street lights, lamps in the background, natural light and even reflected light in your image. Most often, it is shown as little discs or circles in the area of your shot that is blurred. In some cases the shapes are different (for various reasons) but you’ll see a cluster of similar shapes where the light is blurred and rendered by your lens.

It’s a great way of making the out-of-focus part of your photo more interesting and more pleasing to the eye. I like to think of it as adding a little sparkle to your shot and adding a bit more of a story to your image.

Abstract image of a fortune cookie, red bracelets and out of focus fairy lights (bokeh) in the background to celebrate Chinese New Year.
Fortune Favours the Brave

In the image above, the round circles of light are the bokeh. You can get this effect in a number of ways. I used fairy lights in the distance so when I took this shot I was close to my subjects (the cookie and the bangles) and I used a wide aperture (low f-number). Since my lens has a circular aperture (curved aperture blades), the bokeh is circular. Some older lenses have straight blades and the bokeh ends up heptagonal shapes.

Some of you will have noticed that towards the front of the image, on the bangles, there’s a bit of bokeh there too. That’s from reflected light in the shot. Looking for light reflecting back to your lens in the out-of-focus area of the shot is another way to get bokeh in your image.

New leaves on a plant with lots of out-of-focus leaves which are reflecting light back to the lens and causing circular bokeh in the background
Day 2: Leaves #MeiPhotoChallenge

For some people, all bokeh is good bokeh. For others, it can be distracting. In the above image, while I was enjoying playing with the reflections on the leaves, the discs are quite sharp and bright which might not be pleasing for some people. It may appear too harsh to be considered “good bokeh” by some, but again, like with most creative things, it’s subjective and depends on the onlooker.

Bokeh comes from the lens and not the camera. This means that some lenses will give “better” bokeh than others. From my experience and the overwhelming opinion of most photographers, fixed portrait lenses (e.g. 50mm) and telephoto lenses give the best bokeh. But you don’t need to worry about that right now. You’ll still be able to get this effect from your kit lens if you remember to keep a wide aperture, or simply what I mentioned before, bokeh is out-of-focus light.

Hundreds of circles of light in different colours and different sizes
Rainbow Sparkles: In this image the bokeh is created by taking a photo of sequins and playing with the focus to get a pleasing pattern of circles as the sunlight is reflected back into the camera.

So, now you know what it is, it’s your turn to give it a try. Fear not! I’m not leaving you just yet. Here’s how to get started…

(*** For those of you using camera phones or compacts, all is not lost, you can still get bokeh shots… hang in there til the end!***)

First off, you need a large aperture (low f-number), a short focal distance and lights in the background, i.e. your subject close to the lens (in focus!) and a light source in the background (the out-of-focus area).  Remember this can be something you’ve positioned there like fairy lights of candles or it could be something that happens to be in the background like streetlights or light filtering through the trees. The large aperture and short focal distance is what gives you a nice shallow depth of field allowing you to focus your subject and blur those background lights.

A champagne glass with rose wine and a christmas tree in the background. The christmas tree is out of focus so the fairy lights show as large round circles of light (bokeh).
Christmas Drink: Christmas tree lights make bokeh a lot of fun!

When you line up your shot, it’s helpful to be on the same level as your subject. Position yourself so the light source you’re intending to be out of focus is behind it, at least 4 feet away. The further the distance between the subject and the light, the bigger the bokeh shapes will be.  In the image above, there’s at least 6 metres between the glass and the Christmas tree. In the image below, the ornament and the fairy lights are on the same chair with only ~1ft space in between.

A silhouette of a fairy ornament with coloured lights out-of-focus behind it on a dark background.
Bokeh Fairy: In this image my fairy lights aren’t far enough away from my subject. The result means I get some bokeh but you can almost make out the lights themselves.

It’s good to start this in Aperture Priority if you can. This way your camera will work out the shutter speed to get the correct exposure. Remember if you’re shooting a dark shot (like the image above), you’ll need something to rest your camera on as the shutter speed will be slow so the exposure is correct. If you’re shooting in manual, low ISO numbers are best, otherwise the noise (grain) will distract from the bokeh.

***But what if I’m using a camera phone or compact camera??***

Well, the sad truth is that the “quality” of the bokeh will be better with an SLR or mirrorless camera. This is purely because the bokeh is to do with the lens and not the camera body.

However, you can still play with this technique by following steps similar to the ones above – set your light source for the bokeh in the distance and place a subject close to your camera (5-10cm away). Focus on the subject by tapping on it on the screen (on a phone) and, provided you have something newer than an iPhone 3G or equivalent Samsung/Android phone model, you should be able to take a shot with the lights out of focus and the blur will cause bokeh. Some newer smartphones and compacts allow you to change your aperture priority or allow “selective focus” which means you’ll have more control over this effect. Remember if you move the phone, your phone will refocus and might bring the lights back into focus. The easiest way around this is to use a mini tripod and have a subject that won’t move!

Alternatively, you can get some really beautiful creative shots by putting the whole image out of focus, like this one by my cousin!

A bright image of a barn wedding with chairs and people and the fairy lights out of focus to get bright warm white circles of light across the image.
Beautiful Bokeh by my super talented cousin @amazingrachael – check her out on Instagram!

Time for you to play! I love bokeh shots so I can’t wait to see how you get on. And maybe next month I’ll show you how to do bokeh shapes!

Here are some props you might find helpful for bokeh shots:

  • Fairy lights (Christmas is a perfect time for bokeh shots!)
  • Candles (lots of them!)
  • Sequins and sunlight
  • Streetlights
  • Reflective surfaces in your shot (usually they need to be textured to get the small discs of light – a smooth surface won’t yield much bokeh!)
  • Natural light being filtered by trees etc

Once you get good at it, you can start using bokeh to help you tell your story, or even create whimsical images…

A ceramic mug with a plum blossom tree branch on it, and blue discs of light rising out of it.
Cuppa Plum Bokeh

Have fun! x

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