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Bokeh Photography 101

July 24, 2013 by Michael Gabriel

Whether you’re a hobbyist or a professional photographer, you should have come across the word “Bokeh” (pronounced BOH-kay) more than once. If it sounds Japanese, it’s because it is. Bokeh (or Boke) actually means blur or haze.

In photography, it refers to the effect created by areas in the photo that are out-of-focus (particularly the background). Photographers who make use of this effect play with the lens, aperture and focus, and employ a shallow depth of field.

Bokeh Photography 101
Bokeh photo by Andrew Abogado

The term Bokeh also comes from the Japanese word “boke-aji”, which means blur quality.

Characteristics of Good and Bad Bokeh

Being a good photographer does not mean that you’ll come up with good Bokeh all the time – especially if it is your first time. Achieving good Bokeh takes a lot of practice, perseverance and patience. That is, of course, aside from knowledge.

To give you an idea of the difference between good and bad Bokeh, here are descriptions of each.

  • Good Bokeh is something that’s easy on the eyes; something that easily attracts. The background is creamy and soft; there are hardly any details. Good Bokeh means a background without any hard edges or sharpness. Nothing in the background should distract the audience or viewer. The blurry area should have circles of light that are round and smooth. Lines that are out-of-focus should be blurred and the points that intersect should blur into each other. Some people describe good Bokeh as one with a bland background; but that is essentially what you need to give your audience – something that will make them notice the central subject and the picture as a whole.
  • Bad Bokeh is the exact opposite of the ones stated above. The background shown has sharp lines, double lines and circles with sharp edges. These lines have bright spots that can easily distract any viewer. There’ll also be double lines. In other words, bad Bokeh takes the spotlight away from the subject.

It does not mean, however, that bad Bokeh cannot be useful. Some photographers have a way of turning bad Bokeh into a creative endeavor that pleases viewers.

Neutral Bokeh

If a Bokeh is not good or bad, it is known as Neutral Bokeh. There are actually no Bokeh lenses, but there are those that come close to giving off such effect. In this type, the light in the blur circle is even. The edge is quite well defined and the lines are still sharp. Technically, Neutral Bokeh is described as perfect little circles.

Shapes

Bokehs come in different shapes and this depends largely on the type of camera that you use. More specifically, the lens diaphragm determines what shape a Bokeh takes. For example, cameras with seven straight blades in the lens diaphragm give out Bokehs that are shaped like heptagons. Eight blades result to polygonal Bokehs, while nine rounded blades will give you round Bokehs.

So, basically, the type of lens and its aperture number or shape will help you achieve the kind of Bokeh you want.

What You Need to Achieve a Good Bokeh

It will take more than just knowledge of the right lens to use and the passion for photography to get good Bokeh. You have to be willing to spend for cameras with professional zoom lenses. Choose those with round-blade apertures, as they are the ones that usually yield soft and creamy Bokeh. If you cannot afford to buy a complete camera set that come with the said aperture, you can always go for simpler models and then look for autofocus telephoto lens that can do the trick. One such example is the Canon 85mm f/1.2II USM, which is a large aperture model and thus, effectively blurs the background.

Although it’s a cliché, practice does make perfect. So it will help a lot if you practice with your camera before setting out to fulfill your goal. So play around and practice with your camera, particularly with your lens.

Here are some things that you can do if you want to check out the Bokeh capabilities of your lens:

  • Find an object that interests you. Position it (if it is not yet positioned so) in an area or space not too far from you. Check how close your lens will allow you to focus and choose the nearest distance. Examples of good subjects include Christmas or disco lights and flowers in a vase.
  • Once you have established your subject, its position and focus, clear the background so that no object is directly behind it. Keep around five to six feet of the background area free of objects. Additionally, your background should be colorful and lighted.
  • Position yourself on the same level (not below or above) the object. Then proceed to setting your camera to Aperture Mode (“A” on the settings or control dial). Choose the lowest or smallest aperture number (as it carries the largest aperture).
  • Now you’re ready to take a picture of your subject. Before doing so, however, be sure that your subject is in focus. The background should be blurry.
  • If your lens has good Bokeh characteristics, your picture should come out with the subject right in focus while the background is blurred in the most pleasing way: creamy, soft, smooth (no hard edges and double lines). Over all, your photo should attract attention in the right way: the object should be clear.

Again, practice will help you achieve perfect (or close-to-perfect) results. So you should not stop after just one practice. Keep practicing and learning. You should also try to look for photography groups or clubs that offer Bokeh-related activities. Aside from discovering more interesting things about Bokeh, you’ll also meet people who share your passion and desire for good photography.

Bokeh photography is not new. It’s been around for many years, but its popularity is constantly increasing now that more and more people are into photography – or are trying to get into photography. Also, more photographers are now open to embracing creative innovations and concepts into their profession (or hobby).

Michael Gabriel

About the author: Michael Gabriel

Michael Gabriel L. Sumastre is an experienced freelance writer for hire. He has been professionally writing articles, blogs posts and tech content since 2005. Michael loves to take pictures of the countryside when he is touring with his motorcycle. He maintains his professional writing portfolio and personal blog at www.TheFinestWriter.com or on Google+.