In college, one of my friends asked me to take her senior pictures (hi Day!) At this point, I didn’t have my own DSLR and would occasionally borrow the school’s camera and lenses. Before her shoot, I accidentally grabbed the school’s 50mm f/1.4 lens, not knowing what magic would await. I’m sooo glad I did.
Why? Because this lens produces the most amazing bokeh I’ve ever seen. This was the first shoot I realized just how much I loved bokeh and have been striving to include it in all of my portraits since. I thought I’d share a little more about bokeh and how you can apply it to your own photography.
What is bokeh?
Bokeh is the bluriness that you see in the background of pictures or any area of your pictures that are out of focus. You’ve probably seen this a lot in portraits where the focus is on one person and the background is hard to distinguish.
Random photography history
: the word bokeh
comes from the Japanese word “bokeh” which literally means fuzziness or dizziness, blur or haze. now we know.
You can see the bokeh in the background of both of these pictures. The horizon in the picture on the left
is fuzzy and gorgeous, just the way I like it. It can generally be easier to get a blurrier background when the background is further away from the subject, as on the left. But you can also get bokeh when the subject is right by the background, as on the right. The quality of your lens and aperture will help determine how much bokeh you’ll be able to have.
Why would you want to use bokeh?
As a photographer, this is really going to be a personal choice as to how much bokeh you include. Bokeh is great if you want the person to be the focal point of your image. Personally, I use it in portraits and engagement sessions whenever possible because I love the ethereal and dreamy look. That’s just my personal taste but you will learn as you shoot what you prefer.
How do you get bokeh?
In short, you can get bokeh by widening the aperture of your lens. Aperture controls how much light comes through your lens and also affects the blurriness of the background, depending how large or small the aperture is. For example, an aperture at f/2.0 will have a much blurrier background than an aperture of f/15, which will have the person in focus but will also show most of the background. You can also have more bokeh in your image if your subject is further away from the background as opposed to being right in front of a wall or tree, for example.
In this image, I’m shooting with a very wide aperture – probably around f/2.8, so the bokeh is greater and nearly everything in the background is blurry. I love the fact that this allows me to focus more on the amazing couple in the foreground and gives them a colorful background that isn’t too distracting.
Wide apertures like f/2.0 will give you a shallow depth of field and more bokeh.
Narrow aperture like f/18 will give you a large depth of field and almost everything will be in focus.
What lenses are best for bokeh?
- 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.2 are both lenses I’ve used that produce beautiful bokeh
- Prime lenses (lenses that don’t zoom) are also great for bokeh as they usually have the capability of shooting in wider apertures
- Generally, the higher quality the lens, the more likely you are to be able to get great bokeh and the smaller the aperture (like f/1.2 or f/1.4) the more you’ll be able to push your lens
- If you don’t have a high end lens or a prime lens, you can have the subject very close to you and the background much further behind them. I would also recommend shooting backlit to help increase bokeh as well
How does aperture affect ISO and shutter speed?
That is another blog post for another day, but basically each one affects all other settings as you change them. This confused me when I first started learning about photography but just remember the more you shoot, the more you’ll understood how they relate to each other and they’ll become second nature to you.
For example, if you’re shooting at f 5.6 at 500 ISO and you want to increase your bokeh slightly, you’ll need to stop your aperture down to f 5.0 and – if you want to keep same lighting – you’ll need to lower the ISO to 400. Again, I found this really difficult to navigate on paper when I first started shooting, but the more I used my camera and discovered how aperture, ISO and shutter speed all affect the others, the easier it got to shoot and the less I thought about the actual numbers.
When would you not want to use bokeh?
You wouldn’t want to shoot bokeh if, for example, you’re shooting editorial or journalistically and want to be able to see all the scenery in the background, to help tell the story. Or if you’re shooting a landscape and want to include the entire scene. Again, if you want almost everything in focus use smaller apertures around f/16 or higher.
Can there be too much bokeh?
Again this will depend on the goal of your shoot and what your personal style is, but it can be possible to have too blurry a subject if the aperture is too wide. If you’re trying to shoot a group of people at f/1.4, almost all of them will be out of focus. The important thing is to make sure their eyes are in focus.
I hope this helped in some small way. I encourage you to go out and shoot as much as you can and experiment with different apertures to see what you like best. Do you have any tips for photographers on shooting with bokeh? I’d love to hear them in the comment section below!
p.s. are you on my VIP list? If you want to get my weekly photography tips delivered to your inbox, you’re welcome to join for free below :)