Some great tips here achieving the bokeh effect with your own photography – tips for DLSR and pocket camera users!
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Bokeh (pronounced: “boke-aay” or “boke-uh”- I prefer the latter) is the out of focus or blurry areas of a photograph. Wikipedia has a much more detailed description of the definition of bokeh that’s worth a read. On Flickr I find most people use the term to specifically describe out of focus highlights in a photo. For the purposes of this how-to we’ll focus (pun intended) on out of focus highlight bokeh.
The secret to shooting bokeh lies in its definition: out of focus highlights. You need three things to shoot bokeh: pin point highlights, a large aperture and a short focal distance. When I say pin point highlights I mean small light sources. Trying to shoot a large area of light like a window or fluorescent light does not typically produce the type of bokeh “balls” that we are looking for here. Small lights like Christmas twinkle lights are an obvious source, but any light source that is far enough away will become infinitely small and can produce bokeh.
Next, we need a large aperture. For the novice, the aperture is the opening in the lens that controls the amount of light that makes it through the lens and shutter to the film/sensor. The smaller the f number (or f-stop) the larger the opening. This is usually expressed as f/5.6, f/4, f/2.8, f/1.4, etc.
That is not to say that one can not get great bokeh using lenses with a smaller maximum aperture like the typical kit lenses sold with most entry level DSLRs. The trick is to make sure you are using the largest aperture possible (smallest f number). To do this I recommend switching your camera into Aperture Priority mode (typically labeled “A” or “Av” on the program mode dial) and dialing in the smallest f number possible. With most kit lenses this will be f/3.5.
The other reason that you want the largest possible aperture your lens is capable of is to ensure that your bokeh is round and not faceted. You see, most lenses use 5-7 straight aperture blades to create the variable opening in the lens. Bokeh takes on the shape and size of the lens opening so smaller apertures will produce smaller, faceted and generally less pleasing bokeh. There are exceptions to this rule as most high end lenses use curved aperture blades that keep the aperture opening round at all f stops. However, if you’re shooting with a $1,500 Canon L series lens I trust you already know how to shoot bokeh!
The last component to getting good bokeh shots is the focus distance used. I have found that the shorter the focus distance to the foreground subject, the better the background bokeh I will get. The idea is to get as much distance between the subject and the bokeh producing highlights. Also, the closer you are focused to the camera the shorter the depth of field (DOF) will be. This ensures those lights way off in the background will be nice and blurred out.
The focal length of the lens is also a consideration. Depth of field is basically a function of focal length, distance to subject and aperture. At a given aperture and distance longer focal lengths result in shorter DOF. A short DOF is what we need to effectively blur the background highlights to produce bokeh. Getting close to the foreground subject and zooming to the longest setting on your lens will likely put you where you need to be to capture killer bokeh.