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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Photography 101 {Bokeh}

The most frequent question I get from new photographers goes something like-
How do I get that blurry background?
The frog is in focus.  Patch is not.  Patch has become the blurry background, called bokeh.  
And it was exactly that yummy blurry background (I didn't have a clue that it actually had a name, bokeh, when I started taking photographs) that made me say to myself,  Self, you really need to get a good camera learn how to take pics like that!  In the beginning, bokeh was the one thing, the first thing, that I noticed on the photos that I admired.  The wonderful thing about bokeh, is that it helps the viewer concentrate on what's important to the photographer and not get distracted by the background or foreground.  Bokeh helps the subject "pop" against its background.
Here is Jude when he was just a tubby 2-year-old toddler, sporting a big ol' goose egg.
F-stop on this photo is 1.8, and the bookcase in the background creates the yummy bokeh.  Without the bokeh blur in the background, the bookcase would draw your attention away from the subject.  

You have a couple options to get bokeh in your photographs, and it really depends on the lenses you have.  At this point I could get all technical on you and explain why and get into a big ol' physics lessons, or a lesson in the relationship between f-stop and aperture.  But I promised I wouldn't do that.  We're gonna keep it super simple and concentrate on "how to."

So let's get down to brass tacks, and learn how to get some yummy bokeh in your pics.
The bokeh in this image is created by Xmas tree lights.
Option #1---a lens that has low f-stops
In my opinion, this is the easiest option for creating great bokeh.
The f-stops are those little numbers that are directly after the focal length on your lens.  So let's say you have a 50mm 1.8 lens.  The 1.8 is going to be the lowest your f-stop can get on that lens.
See up on the top of the lens (it's upside down at the top here) where it says 1:1.8?
This shows that this lens's smallest possible f-stop is 1.8

To get good bokeh, you'll need a lens (not necessarily a 50 mm, but ANY lens) that has small f-stops.  Lets say smaller than 3.0 for starters.  The smaller the number, the more dramatic the bokeh.  So although a f-stop of 2.8 will give you some bokeh, it won't be as dramatic as an f-stop of 1.8.   And an f-stop of 1.4 can get bokeh that will knock your socks off!

For option one--

First set your camera to Av or Aperture value.  (Again, I'm going to stick with Canon lingo here.  Holler if you have a Nikon and can't figure out the translation.)   Selecting this Av mode will allow you to select the aperture and your camera will automatically select the other settings.
Turn this dial to "Av"
Second, select a small f-stop, try something smaller than 3.0.  2.0 and smaller is even better!
Selecting the f-stop in the Av mode is usually done by moving the large dial by the shutter release.  If this doesn't work, you may have to dig around in your camera's manual to figure it out change your f-stop.

Third, focus on your subject and shoot.  You'll need good focusing skills as the smaller your f-stop, the less forgiving focus will be.  Additionally, the farther your subject is away from your background, the more bokeh, or blurrier the background will be.  

So in review, to get bokeh with a lens with small f-stops
1---Set your camera to Av mode
2---Select a small f-stop

F-stop of 2.4 on this photo.  The "knocker" on the right is in focus where as the second one is not.
The farther way from the focal point you look, the more out of focus it gets.  
Option #2---a zoom lens 

Forgoing the physics lessons, in this option, the higher focal length, or more zoom you have, the more bokeh you can create.  Thus the kit lens that came with your camera, maybe an 18-55mm, won't give you as much bokeh as a zoom that is say a lens that is 70-200mm.  

And like option #1, the farther your subject is away from your background, the more bokeh, or blurrier it will be.  

1---Zoom ALL the way IN on your subject
2---Step YOUR BODY back as much as you'd like, but keep your camera zoomed all the way in

There is a very distracting swing set in the background of this pic.
By zooming all the way in, and selecting a  smaller f-stop, it's hard to tell what's in the background!
So you have a couple options for creating bokeh.  And you can even combine both of these options, selecting a small f-stop and zooming all the way in.  Unfortunately, if you're starting with the kit lens that came with your camera, you probably won't be able to get good bokeh.  Thus part of the popularity of the nifty 50mm lens, that comes with small f-stops.

There's a new poll over there on the right sidebar.  Let me know what you'd like to see in the next Photography 100 post.


  1. I started getting into photography because of the bokeh too! Love the pics!

  2. Thanks! I love the 101 series you are doing and I am following along and experimenting too. You are really making it very easy to understand. Love it!

  3. Yes, as a total novice, that's the effect I admire the most! Maybe someday I'll have the right camera to do it. For now it's point and shoot. Oh well.

  4. WooHoo!! My camera has arrived and my lens should come today! I am so exited. Thank you for doing these posts!

  5. Jerusha--- You CAN get bokeh with a point-n-shoot, but you have to be very purposeful about it and it may not be as much as you'd hoped. But give it a try. See if your point-n-shoot has a setting for f-stops and select that setting, then select the smallest f-stop possible. Even if you only get down to 3.0 or 4.0 something, give it a try. Then zoom ALL THE WAY IN, and use your feet to step back till you have a close up you like. Then snap the pic and see if you have some bokeh. You should get some.
    Let me know if it works.

  6. The Mart
    How exciting!!!! Would LOVE to see what you come up with!

  7. I just wanted to say "Hi" and tell you I enjoy reading your blog. I started reading right before you left to get Mimi and have been reading ever since. We are leaving for China in 13 days to get our sweet little girl. Your blog has really helped me see what it will be like while in China and the struggles our daughter will most likely have. I really appreciate your honesty!

    PS. I love your photo tips!

  8. Amy--I looked for a return email, but it didn't pop up. So I'll reply here and maybe you'll see it.
    SOOO excited for you! It is an amazing process full of blessings. Hang on tight for the ride of your life! Bring dumdums. And a sense of humor.
    So wonderful she'll be in your arms SOON!

  9. Managing to get bits of bokeh with my "Limited" lens as long as there's something else in the bag like backlighting or distance...2nd shot from the top on this post,...oh, great Nancy, now I want a new lens!!! (shhh..don't let my hubby hear me say that)
    My focus looks poor though.
    I accept all major forms of advice...haha


  10. Is there anything else you did different to get the Christmas Lights in the picture to focus that way? I love your Photography 101 lessons. I have been reading them and they are so simple and easy to understand!

    1. Hi Meet the Barringtons! The only thing I did (like example #1) is to have a really small f-stop. In this case it was likely 1.8. Also, the lights were pretty far away from the subject, about 15 feet, and this distance also helps.
      I'm glad you are enjoying the Photo 101 posts!


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