Bokeh. Little blurred out circles in the background of photos, bokeh is what every beginner photographer strives for when they start looking beyond their subject. But sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can never seem to get it right, and your photos don’t come out looking quite as pretty as everyone else’s photos. What are you doing wrong?
Before you put all the blame on yourself or start the comparison game, let’s take a step back and cover the basics. :)
What is bokeh?
Taken from the Japanese word “boke”, the word bokeh means “blur” or “haze”. According to the dictionary, bokeh is “the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photographic image, especially as rendered by a particular lens.” Wow, that’s a mouthful!
Long story short, bokeh is just blurry, small points of light, like Christmas lights or the sun falling through leaves of a tree, blurred in the background of your images.
How do you get it? Let me show you!
As a creative and an artist, people have always asked me what supplies I use, and normally I would say it depends more on the skill you have and the amount of time you spend practicing your craft. While practice is one of the biggest ways you can grow in photography, whether or not you get bokeh in your photos depends on what camera and lens you have. Why?
First, let’s go over some key photography terms.
What is aperture?
Aperture is the opening or hole in a lens which allows light to pass through into the camera. The opening, or aperture, of the lens can be changed, and is measured by a number called an f-stop.
What is an f-stop?
An f-stop is a fraction, and tells you how wide or how narrow that hole in the lens is. On my personal camera lens, two of many aperture numbers I have are f/4, which means 1/4, and f/22, or 1/22. Remember, the f-stop is a fraction. Just like a 1/4 cup of flour is bigger than 1/22 cup, a f/4 is wider and bigger than f/22, letting in more light.
Large aperture: f/1.4
Small aperture: f/22
So why is aperture so important to achieving bokeh?? Because aperture affects the depth-of-field.
What is depth of field?
Depth of field is how sharp or how blurry the space around your subject is. A shallow depth of field results in a very small area of the photo being in focus, therefore producing a blurred background. On the other hand, a deep focus image has everything in focus: the subject, the foreground, and the background.
Depth of field is connected to aperture in a camera. A large aperture, say f/1.4, will result in a shallow depth of field, while a smaller aperture like f/18 will give you deep focus, and you can see more of the background and foreground.
So based off this…
…a large aperature (like f/1.4 or f/1.8) = a shallow depth of field = a blurred background = bokeh!!
Now let’s look at some examples.
This photo of Isabelle and Crystal was taken with an f-stop of 5, or f/5. You can see the light poking through the trees there in the back – great bokeh potential! But when I took this photo, I wanted the viewer to be able to clearly see Crystal hiding in the grass. The aperture is smaller and the depth of field is deeper, allowing you to see the cat instead of just a little blurred ball in the background.
This second photo was taken with an f-stop of 1.8, or f/1.8, an f-stop larger than f/5! The light in the background coming through the trees is blurred, giving us the magnificent bokeh! The depth of field is a lot more shallow, and you can tell by how blurred Isabelle is. She’s right behind Willow, but you can just barely make out the details of her dress and shoes because of the large aperture and shallow depth of field.
Let’s look at a few more photos!
The background in this image of Kaya is very blurred. You don’t see any bokeh, but the grasses behind her have merged together into some wonderful fall colors. This photo has a large aperture and shallow depth of field.
This photo of Kanani has a little more of the background in focus! You’re able to pick out details from the chair, beach towel and windows behind her. This photo has a deeper depth of field and a smaller aperture.
So why does it matter what camera I have?
What type of camera you have affects what images you get. Digital single-lens reflex cameras, or DSLR’s, work with lenses that allow you to change the aperture. In contrast, most point-and-shoot cameras have a built-in lens with a fixed aperture, something it doesn’t let you change. If you’re not sure which kind you have, I encourage you to take out your camera and do some research!
Point-and-shoot cameras generally have a fixed aperture of about f/4 or f/5.6 – a lot smaller than f/1.8. Remember, the first photo we looked at had an f-stop of 5, and while there was potential for bokeh at that aperture, the background wasn’t blurred enough to get those pretty, blurry circles.
So if you really want bokeh in the background of your images, you’re going to need a camera and lens that work with a larger aperture, closer to f/2 or f/1.8.
I started out on Small Dolls in a Big World with a Canon point-and-shoot camera, and because the aperture was fixed, I was never able to achieve bokeh in my photos. When I finally switched over to the Nikon D7100 (what I currently use), it was hard at first to learn all the settings, but ultimately it was worth it because the camera and lens not only had the ability to capture bokeh, but brighter colors and more light which improved my ability to edit later on. :)
What if I don’t have a DSLR?
Nice cameras are expensive. I get it. It may not be realistic for you to purchase one at the moment, and that’s okay! Keep reading to learn about some options you may have!
#1 – Use your phone.
iPhone cameras are getting better with each passing year, and portrait mode looks pretty natural in good lighting, giving you that desired background blur. You might have noticed this as well, but lots of the photography I see nowadays is iPhone photography. It usually has a very deep depth of field, allowing you to see the subject and the super cool mural behind them as well. If you’re leaning more towards that aesthetic, simple look, wanting to recreate photos you see on Pinterest, you can definitely get away with just utilizing your phone camera.
#2 – Rent or borrow a camera
If you’d still really like an upgrade but a new camera isn’t in the budget, some websites or local camera stores give you the ability to rent cameras and lenses. If you don’t have the option to rent, ask around! Talk to your friends or their parents and see if anyone has a camera they’re willing to let you borrow. It’s all about using what you have, and what you can find around you. :)
Remember that bokeh isn’t everything!
There are so many aspects to taking a good photo – not just bokeh! There’s the framing, lighting, time of day.. the list goes on! If you don’t have a DSLR or the ability to take photos with bokeh, that’s okay. Practice training your eye to look for the light and the ways it falls across your subject. This will help you a lot more than you think!
Practice, practice, practice!
Remember, the key to getting better at photography is PRACTICE!! You’re not going to get better overnight, no matter what people on the Internet tell you or how much you read about photography. Just get out there and start shooting! Put in the time and effort, and your photos will definitely improve. :)
Well, I think that about covers it! If you have any more questions, feel free to ask me in the comments. Thanks for reading!