The Secrets of Natural Bokeh
Everyone loves photos with a blurred background. The technique, called bokeh (BO’-keh), is derived from the Japanese word for ‘blur’ or ‘haze’.
Pros use it to enhance and focus their images.
But with some planning and insight, anyone can bring more bokeh into their photography.
Here are some things to try:
- Choose a telephoto, the fastest you have (e.g. f/2, f/2.8)
- Let in plenty of light, by shooting with your lens open wide (e.g., f/2, f/2.8); this is easiest to control using “Manual” (M) or “Aperture Priority” (A)
- Choose a background that’s more solid than not, and far away from your subject
- Get reasonably close to your subject, but far enough away that you can still zoom in/out to compose your shot. If you can’t move the subject, move yourself (e.g., change shoot positions, angles)
- Zoom in as much as possible (e.g., focal length > 100mm)
- These adjustments will have you moving in zig-zags at first; eventually you’ll know where to be
- Beware of ‘noisy’ or ‘bad’ bokeh – if your blurred background is cluttered, it can fight with your subject instead of framing it, which is definitely an issue with nature’s leaves and branches
- Watch for ways to catch points of light or ‘specular’ reflections in your background, which turn into eye-catching “bokeh balls”
That’s a lot of factors. You don’t need to use them all. But the more of these techniques you know about, the more ways you’ll have to produce bokeh when you shoot.
What’s happening here? The above steps make your depth of field more shallow, literally, limiting what will be in focus. Ideally, for the best bokeh, this will only be your subject. This is precisely the opposite of what smartphones and wide-angle lenses do, which put as much into focus as possible.
In a pinch, you can use “Portrait” (P) mode to ask the camera or smartphone to help you de-focus around your subject in real-time. It’s a short-cut, but it’s a useful one.
My bokeh is often set in nature, so my subjects might be grass, leaves, flowers or birds. Ideal backgrounds? Often woods, fields, mountains, or open sky. Running water and beaches offer some nice options. I like to explore layers in my wooded or mountain shots, experimenting with what’s in focus. Bokeh can help me separate those layers.
In the end, it’s all about trying to isolate your subject.
Of course, in the end, good bokeh is in the eye of the beholder. Experiment with different combinations of these techniques, to see what works best for you .. and let me know where you take your bokeh!