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Unlocking the secrets of Natural Bokeh

Mountain grass with bokeh (c) 2016 AMG

It’s hard not to love those high-end photographs where the subject is set against a blured background. The technique is called bokeh (BO’-keh), derived from a japanese word for ‘blur’ or ‘haze’.

Portrait and macro pro photographers use bokeh all the time to enhance their images, but others can stumble on it unawares, as I did with my first DSLR, a Nikon D70 and the stock 70-200MM telephoto it came with.

With some planning and insight, you can take steps to bring bokeh into your photography.

Here are some things to try:

  • Use a telephoto lens, and use the fastest lens you can get – a wide maximum aperature (aka a small “f-stop”, like f/2 or f/2.8)
  • Keep your lens open wide (e.g. f/2, or f/2.8) when shooting, to let lots of light in; do this using “Manual” (M) or using “Aperature Priority” (A) setting
  • Choose a background that is as far away from your subject as possible; often we ignore our background choices, but for good bokeh, it’s critical
  • Choose a breakgroun that’s mostly solid, and that contrasts with your subject
  • Get reasonably close to your subject, but far enough away that you can still zoom in
  • If you can’t move the subject, move yourself (e.g., the angle that you’re shooting, relative to the subject)
  • Zoom in as much as possible (e.g., focal length > 100mm)
  • Don’t mind that all these adjustments have you moving in zig-zags; with practice, you’ll know where you, the subject and the background need to be relative to each other
  • Beware of ‘noisy’ or ‘bad’ bokeh – if your blurred background remains cluttered, it can fight with your subject rather than framing it; with nature’s leaves and branches, we face this challenge all the time
  • For added interest, try to get points of light or ‘specular’ reflections in your background; these will become soft, pleasing “bokeh balls” that can make your bokeh even more eye-catching

That’s a lot of factors, for certain. You don’t need to use every tip every time. But the more factors in play, the more bokeh you’ll see in your images.

Marcescence of Beech, showing bokeh in nature (c) 2020 AMG

What you are doing with the above steps is making your depth of field more shallow – literally, limiting what will be in focus – which is ideally just your subject.

This is the opposite of what smartphones and wide-angle lenses typically do, which puts as much into focus as possible.

You can use “Portrait” (P) mode if you have it to de-focus around your subject in real-time. Sure it’s a short-cut, but it’s a way to get there, especially if your lens choices and setup time are limiting.

My bokeh is often set in nature, so my subjects might be grass, leaves, flowers or birds. Ideal backgrounds for me? Generally it would be woods, fields, or mountains. Open water, beaches and flowing streams always afford some interesting options. I like to explore layers in my nature shots, experimenting with what’s in focus. Bokeh helps me separate those layers, when I’m able to keep the background simple.

In short, seek to isolate your subject as much as possible.

Of course, beautiful bokeh is in the eye of the beholder. Try different permutations based on the steps above, to see what you come up with. Find the steps that work best for you. Great photography is a journey. I’d love to hear where you are taking your bokeh.

Autumn grass, with bokeh balls (specs of sunlight) near Pittsboro NC (c) 2016 AMG

Red maple w/ bokeh (c) 2020

Among branches (c) 2020