Bokeh effects have become very popular in the photography industry recently. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, you are probably wondering ‘what is a bokeh background?’ Well, bokeh is the visual appeal that comes from rendering the blur produced in the parts of the photo that are out of focus. Bokeh comes from the Japanese boke, which can be translated to ‘blur’ or ‘haze’, or boke-aji meaning ‘a flavour of blur’ i.e. the quality of the blur.
The term became popularised in 1997 in Photo Techniques magazine by Mike Johnston, who commissioned three papers on the topic. We’re glad he did, as the bokeh effect is very creative to work with – and aesthetically pleasing to look at. If you’re wondering how to create a bokeh background, you’ve come to the right place. In this article we will look at:
- Understanding bokeh in photos
- How to shoot bokeh photography
- Bokeh photography ideas
Understanding bokeh in photos
To achieve a bokeh effect, you will need a wide aperture, to create a shallow depth of field. However, bokeh is not exclusively about the shallow depth of field – different lens designs can make the bokeh have different patterns with varying shapes and sizes. You can achieve different bokeh effects when you have varied aperture shapes and lens aberrations, such as dots and swirls.
The bokeh is affected by the lens’ diaphragm blades (this is determined by aperture). Circular diaphragm blades create round highlights; more angular, hexagonal-type blades will create distorted, angular shapes in the highlights. There is a consensus that the former is ‘good bokeh’ and the latter is ‘bad bokeh’, but of course, photography is subjective.
How to shoot bokeh photography
There are a variety of bokeh background techniques to try.
It’s all in the lens
The reason some photographers struggle with achieving the bokeh effect is that they are not using the right lens. You need to get your aperture open as wide as possible, so you ideally want to use a lens with an aperture of at least f/2.8. Typical entry-level lens kits often only open as much as f/4.5 or f/3.5. This might not seem much of a difference, but without those few f-stops you can’t open the aperture enough to create that beautiful bokeh blur. So, which lens to use?
Some photographers use macro lenses as they are optimal for creating an extremely shallow depth of field, for the perfect hazy quality.
Many photographers also utilise long telephoto lenses to achieve a bokeh effect as they also are great for producing a shallow depth of field. Medium telephoto lenses such as 85–150mm on 35 mm format can be recommended. You should then use a low f-stop to zoom in further and create even more blur. Remember that the longer the focal length, the more extreme the bokeh.
You can also use a prime lens or a ‘fast lens’. These lenses are described as ‘faster’, which simply means they have a larger maximum aperture compared to other lenses, which allows you to shoot with faster shutter speeds. Prime lenses have fixed focal lengths, which may be an inconvenience if you want to create more blur, but they typically come with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 to f/1.2 which is ideal for creating bokeh.
If you’re a beginner who doesn’t want to invest in a macro lens or a telephoto lens, you’ll have to opt for the ‘nifty fifty’ lens, which gets its name for being inexpensive, widely available and versatile, making it the perfect option for photographers on a budget. Best of all, a 50mm lens can open up to f/1.8 or f/1.4.
Shoot in Aperture Priority Mode
Because the exposure triangle principle is the aperture, it makes sense to shoot in Aperture Priority (AV) mode. You can use manual settings, but it will take a lot of time and effort to create the right exposure. So instead, use Aperture Priority – this useful setting allows you to choose the aperture and the camera then automatically chooses the right shutter speed for you.
Bokeh photography ideas
Choose an interesting background
Plain backgrounds don’t do much for bokeh. Without an interesting background with a mix of colours and lights, you will just have a blurry background without any exciting stimulus to draw in the viewer’s eye. Consider a cityscape with an array of urban lights to form interesting patterns from bokeh. Or perhaps a Christmas tree, with its fairy lights in a rainbow of colours.
Try spicing up your portrait photography, by incorporating a bokeh background to set your subject against. To make sure you achieve the effect properly, there needs to be a minimum distance of several metres between your subject and the background.
Photograph a body of water
When it comes to bokeh, we tend to think of artificial light sources. These are fool-proof subjects for bokeh images, but photographing a body of water is a unique and interesting subject for bokeh. A river, lake, or sea, will reflect the light and these reflections and textures are great for bokeh.
No matter what technique you go for, the main thing to remember is to use an aperture as wide as possible. Bokeh is an experimental form of photography, so have fun trying out different techniques and modifying your approach until you have an outcome that fits your style.
We hope you enjoyed reading about achieving bokeh.
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