Having an artistic license to try things a little differently or off-the-cuff is what can make photography so appealing. You can try out new things, attempt different techniques, and create unique representations of how you see the world around you. One such way of doing this that has become quite popular is called bokeh.
But what is it? Can you measure it? Where did the word even come from? Don’t worry it’s quite easy to understand, but perhaps a little difficult to implement in practice. In this short article, we’re going to take an in-depth look at bokeh and try to answer some of these questions. People new to photography shouldn’t be dissuaded from taking a few minutes to learn about an element of photography that could quickly elevate your work.
What is bokeh?
Literally translated from Japanese, it means “blur.” This doesn’t mean that if you’ve shot a blurry image that you’ve achieved bokeh. Bokeh (or sometimes just “boke”) actually refers to the quality of the out of focus aspects of the picture. Simply put: bokeh is an intentional blurring of an image.
Still, this is not necessarily related to purposely blurring the background or foreground, referred to as depth of field. It’s the quality of the blur and any reflected points of light. These two elements together can be what photographers refer to as bokeh.
Think of it this way: you’ve taken a close-up shot of a cat sitting in a windowsill. The cat and foreground (for this example, we’ll say that the foreground includes a pillow on the windowsill that the cat is sitting on) are sharply in focus, while the background (the window frame and everything outside the window) is blurred. However, elements in the background (perhaps some leaves from a tree just outside the window) to one side were rendered by the camera lens as soft light reflections. They’re round, blurred, but add a different background aspect to the overall image. This is bokeh.
Some photographers disagree about bokeh, stating that it’s about the quality of the circular light reflections, while others say it’s the quality of the out of focus area that counts and not just reflections. However, the two sides of the argument are similar enough that as a budding photographer you can just concentrate on distinguishing the light reflections from the rest of the background.
Is there good bokeh and bad bokeh?
Yes! Since bokeh is a product of adjusting the lens, it’s something that can be changed from image to image, which means that there is a good way to do it and a bad way to do it. Since not all lenses are created equally, it means that different lenses will render bokeh differently. This is largely due to optimal designs of the lens.
Just like anything in photography, if you spend the money on a higher quality lens, such as one made for portraits or even a telephoto lens, then you’re going to have a much easier time achieving bokeh. These better lenses have larger apertures in comparison to cheaper models mainly due to optical design.
While bokeh can’t be quantified technically, there are aspects of bokeh that can be seen as pleasing instead of jarring, resulting in either good or bad bokeh. Good bokeh will compliment the perception of the subject and not distract from it. Good bokeh will be soft, with smooth circles of light that are devoid of hard edges, while the rest of the background is blurred effectively, but still “creamy.”
So, what is bad bokeh? It might seem impossible, but it certainly is achievable, and usually not on purpose. If the blurred background still has sharp edges around the circles of light, as opposed to smooth ones, then this would be considered bad bokeh.
What bokeh shapes are there?
So far, we’ve described bokeh as soft, circular points of light in the blurred background. However, this isn’t definitive. Good bokeh, generally, is defined this way. However, older camera lenses have straight blades in their diaphragms, so the soft circles actually come out as hexagons.
There’s nothing wrong with this and in fact, some people may prefer it. It adds a different background aspect to the image that could be considered complimentary to the subject.
How to achieve bokeh?
Since achieving bokeh largely depends on the kind of lens you are using, it’s best to start with your equipment selection. The cheaper the lens, the worse the bokeh; that’s a pretty safe bet. If you spend a little more money than the cheap consumer models, then look for something with a fixed lens. You could also select a zoom lens with a fast aperture.
As a test, select a subject with a background that you plan to draw good bokeh from. Set your aperture to priority mode and then lower the aperture setting to its lowest possible one (i.e. f/2.8). When you take a photo, what should happen is that your subject is in focus with a blurred background. Play around with this with different apertures until you get the desired result.
Is the bokeh present in this image? You need to decide that for yourself. Look closely at the background. Are light blurred? Are the edges soft or sharp? Do these points compliment the subject or distract from it? Ideally, they should be round, soft elements that do not have hard edges to them.
This technique can give some wonderful abstract results as well as adding another creative technique to your arsenal. With some practice, you’ll be able to master this technique and end up with some wonderful photos.
Photo credits: Dreamstime – All rights reserved. No usage without permission.