LESSON 20: BOKEH

Whether or not you’ve ever heard of this quirky photography term, chances are that you’ve encountered what it represents. Deriving from the Japanese word boke — which literally translates to “blur” or “haze” — bokeh refers to the way in which a lens renders light that is out of focus. You know that soft, hazy background behind the subject in a photograph? That’s bokeh. It’s the beautiful effect that turns a string of Christmas lights into glowy orbs, or that transforms the leaves of a flower into a silky green tapestry. Regardless of whether it’s used intentionally or incidentally, bokeh is an important component of fine photography.

Ready to master it? Read on.

The good news is that bokeh is not difficult to achieve. All you’ll really need is a lens with an aperture on the wider side (we’re talking f/2.8 and above). Most photographers who want to really bring the bokeh will utilize a “fast lens,” with apertures ranging from f/2 and f/1.8 to f/1.4. That said, many photographers will also resort to prime lenses to maximize speed.

Additionally, your choice in lens determines the shape and size of the bokeh. When you train your lens on a direct light and press the shutter, you’ll be able to see the specific shape of the aperture blades, which can create either a circular or hexagonal blur. Most new lenses will display a smoother, rounder shape, which will slightly change the background pattern.

When you’re ready to shoot, open your aperture to one of its widest settings. Select either manual or aperture priority mode. (Tip: beginners might want to shoot in aperture priority, which will automatically select a correct shutter speed based on the chosen f/stop and the amount of available light on the camera’s sensor.) Use a shallow depth of field and get close to your subject, as both will increase bokeh. Bear in mind that light is also important here to get a crisp focus and clear definition, so be sure that your subject is naturally backlit or provide lighting from behind or on either side.

Once you get going, try focusing on a variety of subjects — bokeh can manifest in interesting ways when you’re taking a portrait, a macro shot of a flower or bug, and even the ever-popular string-of-lights shot.

If you’d like to practice but don’t have a fast lens, you’ll need to photograph subjects at a substantial distance from their backgrounds, creating a shallower depth of field. As a result, you’ll see a bit of bokeh in your images, even if you use a narrower aperture.

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • Shoot on manual or aperture priority setting.
  • Utilize a shallow depth of field for maximum bokeh.
  • Open your aperture to its widest setting.
  • Consider using a fast lens.
  • Experiment with a variety of subjects.

Ready to move on to another photography challenge? Check out our complete collection of guides here.

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Camille Danielich
Camille is a writer, traveler, and visual storyteller from New Jersey. She has lived in the Czech Republic, Thailand and in New York. She's always looking forward to her next adventure and probably won't stop instagramming her food anytime soon. Follow along on instagram