The word “bokeh” is a relatively new term (in popular use for less than twenty years) derived from the Japanese word “boke,” meaning blur or haze. When we refer to bokeh, we’re usually discussing the aesthetic quality of that blur, often describing it in terms of shape, softness, or smoothness.
What plays into bokeh? Let’s take a look at some of the primary factors.
1. Large Aperture
The top factor is shallow depth of field. After all, if everything is in focus, there is no blur! With that in mind, shooting wide open is a key factor in producing bokeh. Try starting with your aperture between f/1.2 and f/2.8, depending on your lens’ capabilities.
Bokeh can also be produced by shooting very close up (as with a macro lens), which also yields shallow depth of field. When taking this approach, keep the distance between your camera and your subject significantly shorter than the distance between the subject and the background.
3. Background Highlights
Bokeh is most visible around “out of focus points of light,” such as specular highlights created by direct light (light shining through foliage, headlights on the highway, multiple light sources in nighttime urban areas, small light sources such as Christmas lights) or reflective surfaces (water, metal, glass, etc).
4. Lens Choice
Bokeh is also affected by the lens itself. Older lenses in particular are more likely to produce hard-edged bokeh (shaped octagonally, for example), though many new lenses have curved aperture blades to give bokeh a more circular appearance. Beyond aperture size and shape, certain lenses are often known for producing creamier, more beautiful bokeh. Among them are Canon and Nikon’s top portrait lenses (especially those that open to f/1.4 or wider), telephoto lenses, and macro lenses.
This month, let’s work on producing images that showcase creative and beautiful bokeh, using bokeh as a striking background for the primary subject or making the bokeh itself the primary subject or an important element within the frame.
What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!
And be sure to participate in the next exercise! Visit the forum where Sarah has posted the next challenge. We’d love to see your work!
Sarah Wilkerson, New York
CEO | CMU Instructor
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Duke graduate and former attorney Sarah Wilkerson joined Clickin Moms as a member photographer in 2008 and quickly became a leader in the community. Together with Kendra, Sarah has led the evolution of the company’s mission, program development, and position within the greater photography community. She currently resides in New York with her Army JAG husband, three sons, one daughter, and two dogs. Sarah shoots with a Nikon D4, enjoys tilt-shift and atmospheric black and white work, and instructs CMU’s upper level composition courses: Elements of Design and Composition and Creativity.