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Understanding Bokeh

Understanding Bokeh

bokeh


If you’re just beginning to find a passion for photography, you may be wondering “what is this Bokeh I keep hearing about?”.  Professionals, content creators, and hobbyists surely know all about the beautiful effects and applications that bokeh photography has to offer. 

At first glance, It is plain to see that there is something special about the blurry aesthetics of bokeh that beautifies the photograph while highlighting the subject in a magnificent way. 

With new innovative optical technology in modern cameras and lenses, bokeh photography has never been an easier concept to achieve.  Until now, achieving perfect bokeh photography required skill, and now that we have the tools that help streamline this style of photography, the concept has really exploded in popularity across many sectors or categories of the photography world.

What is Bokeh?

The word Bokeh is rooted from the Japanese word “boke” and plainly translates to “blur” or “haze”.  Bokeh photography first gained traction in the late 90’s as camera technology began to advance.  Photographers realized they can create a beautiful blurry effect in the out-of-focus areas of the frame. 

The reason bokeh is so popular is the way it creates a blurred effect generally by the way the lens renders out of focus points of light.  This is most commonly achieved by shooting through a shallow depth of field which creates an out of focus area.  The out of focus area of your composition will appear outside the boundaries of a ring or circle like effect, separating the foreground from the background from each point of light that is reflected by the camera’s aperture.  When done correctly, these bokeh effects will add a blurry aesthetic to the background of your image around an in-focus foreground and subject.

Bokeh is most notable in closeups or small background highlights, but not limited to these small highlights of your compositions background.  The bokeh effect can be anywhere outside the camera’s shallow depth of field.  Shooting with a large depth of field brings your whole composition, meaning the foreground and background, in deep focus and is the opposite of bokeh.

It used to take great skill and understanding of your camera and lens functions to successfully achieve a visually appealing bokeh effect.  However, with the new user friendly operation and automated functions of modern cameras and lenses, achieving this is a much easier task.  Many lenses are designed specifically for bokeh and will easily create an attractive blurred effect to the image, albeit some lenses will create a blur effect that perhaps is not so pleasing to the eye (subjectively of course).

Bokeh & Lenses

When it comes to your lens’s bokeh ability, every lens is different.  Even with similar lenses, you will often be able to identify the difference in bokeh effect between them and have your own preference of which one you like better.  Bokeh simply means “blur” so some you may find appealing while others you do not. 

Specific styles of photography such as product, wildlife, and astrophotography, which would benefit greatly from background bokeh, require macro and telephoto lenses.  Therefore, being able to produce a high quality, attractive bokeh would be crucial when choosing these types of lenses.  A pleasing bokeh is also important when shooting portraits in a shallow depth of field since you would want your subject to be in-focus and pop over a blurry bokeh background.

Depending on the lens, the blur can appear differently based on a few factors.  First, there is something called spherical aberration, which is found in spherical optical systems such as lenses and curved mirrors.  Essentially, this is when light hits the lens’s surface, but off centered or angled.  That light reflects and retracts differently depending on the lens’s ability to correct for the spherical aberration.  This creates a deviation in the light that reaches the lens and is known to “degrade” the quality of an image.  However, this effect can also be very attractive and when performed correctly, with the right lens, you have a beautifully blurred bokeh.  The way your lens handles the spheric aberration will reflect by producing slightly illuminated, smooth looking, blur circles on things in the background across the borders, or these blurry points can bleed into other parts of your frame if using a lens that is not good for bokeh.

The design of the aperture and the way it handles the spherical aberration will determine the result of the bokeh.  The spherical aberration determines the quality and placement of the blur effects while the shape of the blur will reflect the components of the aperture.  One of the main components of the aperture is the blades that are used to reduce or expand the “eye” of your shot.  Imagine you have something on your eyelids.  You may not be able to see it, but there is a good chance that it will affect your line of sight and clarity in vision.  The same thing applies to the aperture and is one of the major influences on the quality of bokeh you get from you lens.  Different lenses will use different shapes and number of blades.  A good bokeh lens will produce soft, smooth, blurry circles, vs a bad lens for bokeh which will produce a harsher blurry effect and the circles can look more like angled shapes such as a pentagon or polygon with corners (depending on the shape and number of blades).

Shooting Bokeh Photography

Incorporating that beautiful bokeh blur into your photography is very rewarding.  Successfully achieving bokeh can be achieved on most modern cameras and select drones.  However, it is the lens that makes bokeh possible.  Bokeh has gone mainstream, so it’s easier than ever to find amazing lenses that are great for bokeh from top brands like Nikon.  You should look for lenses with more aperture blades which will probably be marketed as being good for bokeh photography.  Many lenses also will have a defocus control feature which will further put the control of bokeh in the palm of your hands.  If you’re just beginning your journey into photography, you may enjoy a combo package like this Canon full frame mirrorless which includes an RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 STM lens kit.

Bokeh is an amazing style of photography that adds tons of character to your images.  Photography of portrait, wildlife, action, and content creators can find great benefits from bokeh as it highlights their subjects so eloquently within a visually pleasing composition.

Tips for Creating Bokeh

  • Make your aperture as large as possible (lowest f-stop) – This will create a shallow depth of field which is the foundation setting to achieving gorgeous bokeh blurs across your images background.
  • Use the right lens – As discussed, the lens is everything when it comes to bokeh. Choose wisely by checking the specs of the lens.  Ensure that it meets the criteria that makes a lens good for bokeh.  Prime and telephoto lenses usually are better for bokeh than wide angle zoom lenses.  How many blades does the aperture have?  Does it have any form of additional defocus control?  Lenses with quicker lens speeds generally can produce a smoother bokeh as well.
  • Shooting – Focus on your subject as close as you can while keeping your subject in focus. It helps if there is nothing directly behind your subject by several feet, this can confuse the lens’s focus.  Refrain shooting from above or below the subject, keeping your lens level.  Shooting over a busier background is essential as you’re not going to bokeh a plain background.
  • If you’re not happy with the results, try different lenses, go slow, never quit, and make it fun. You will be a master in bokeh before you know it.  Bokeh photography usually goes from bad to great with not much in between.  You may have a couple shots you don’t like and then all that follow will be stunning.

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