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Bokeh versus Other Photography Techniques
Photographers who have worked with portrait photography, shallow depth of field, and even motion blur will find many of the techniques for creating bokeh outlined below familiar. The difference between bokeh and those techniques is that bokeh refers specifically to the blurred quality of specific points of light.
So, for example, if your image has a background of a blurred line of trees, that’s not bokeh. But if your image has a blurred background of trees with fairy lights, that’s bokeh. It’s a subtle distinction but an important one when you’re distinguishing bokeh from other techniques.
How to Shoot Bokeh
The most important tool for shooting bokeh is the lens. Every lens has a certain number of blades on its diaphragm; these open and close when you take a photo, creating the aperture. That number of blades determines the shape of the bokeh.
A lens with fewer blades will create an octagonal bokeh, while one with more blades will create a smoother, more rounded bokeh. It’s up to you which you prefer, but generally when people talk about “good” bokeh, they’re referring to more rounded shapes. You can also create or buy different bokeh shapes by cutting a shape out of dark paper and covering the lens with it.
When you’re shopping for a lens, you can usually count the number of blades. You can also see if “diaphragm blades” is a listed feature. Look for lenses with more than eight blades for rounder shapes.
A lens with longer focal length will also make it easier to shoot good bokeh, as a longer focal length reduces depth of field. Get as close as possible to the subject of your photo. The closer you are to the subject, the shallower your depth of field, and the more blurry your background will be. When shooting bokeh, you also want to make sure the subject is even further than usual from the background. Think hundreds of feet; not five or ten.
In order to shoot good bokeh more easily, you need a faster, larger aperture lens. When you’re using a large aperture, you’re creating a very shallow depth of field. That allows your camera to focus on the subject of the photo, while the background is blurred.
When shooting bokeh, set your lens to the lowest aperture, which is called “maximum aperture.” Set your camera to aperture priority mode, and then put the “F” value to the lowest number possible. On a Nikon DSLR, you can do this by rotating the front dial counterclockwise. On a Canon, turn the camera to “M” for manual, press “Q” for quick mode and then turn the dial to the left until you can’t get the “F” value any lower.
Use a small light source
Bokeh is created by small bit of light blurring. If your image doesn’t have any small light sources—such as sunlight filtering through trees, Christmas lights, or even street lights off in the distance—you won’t get any bokeh in your image. You can create the small light source by setting up Christmas lights or candles in an indoor space, for example. The point is that there has to be distinction between light and dark areas in the background of your image.
Finally, choose a subject that is a decent distance from the background, or move your existing subject as far from the background as possible. If you’re shooting a portrait, for example, and there are trees in the background, don’t put the person up against the tree for bokeh. Instead, place them at a distance from the trees, so that the trees can appear as a soft, blurred background instead of individual trees with distinct bark and leaves.
Shooting bokeh with an iPhone
It is possible to shoot bokeh with an iPhone. This is a great option for people who are not professional photographers or who aren’t willing or aren’t able to invest in expensive photography equipment.
Newer iPhones—starting with the iPhone 7—have dual lens. If you’re using an iPhone with dual lens, you can choose which part of the image to focus on and which to blur before you take the photo. The phone then takes two photos, which it combines for a pleasing bokeh effect. Of course, in order to get bokeh in your image and not just a blurry background, you have to make sure those points of lights are also present.
If you’re using an older phone with a single lens, it’s still possible to capture bokeh. Instead of capturing it at the time of taking the photo, however, you’re going to create the effect after the photo is taken by using a third-party app. The available apps are constantly changing, so your best bet is to search in the app store and find what’s currently at the top of the list. Some highly rated ones include Bokeh Lens, Tadaa SLR, and AfterFocus.
If you’re having trouble achieving that hard-to-define, pleasantly blurred quality, there are a few key things to check and adjustment to make for better bokeh.
1. Your bokeh is too “crunchy.”
Photographers often refer to “crunchy” bokeh, which means angular instead of blurred edges. First check if your aperture is wide enough. Make sure it’s as wide as it can go and if that’s not wide enough, you may need a different lens.
However, this could also be an issue with your lens not having enough blades or the wrong shape of blades, in which case the solution is to invest in a new lens.
2. Your background isn’t blurry enough.
Are you close enough to your subject? Check to make sure you’re close enough to your subject. In order to capture good bokeh, you need to be very close, so that the depth of field is shallow.
3. Your subject is too blurry.
When your aperture is wide open, it’s important to keep your camera steady. That’s because any movement can cause the entire image to blur, which is not bokeh—it’s just an out of focus image. Remember, one of the elements of good bokeh is that the subject is in crisp focus, while the background is blurred. You might need a tripod or other method of keeping your camera very still when you’re trying to capture bokeh.
4. Your image is overexposed.
Another potential issue is that the light may be too bright to shoot with a wide aperture. The aperture of your camera determines how much light is let in, which means shooting with a wide aperture in bright light can lead to an overexposed, or blown out, photo. A solution for this is using a neutral density filter, which filters out some of the light. Another option is waiting until later in the day, when the light isn’t as strong.
While this may seem complicated at first, capturing bokeh is surprisingly easy once you get the hang of it. As with many photography techniques, the key to success is experimenting with your equipment and seeing what works best for you.