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How to Achieve Better Bokeh – 4 Simple Tips

When photographers use shallow depth-of-field, the purpose is usually to make the subject of the photo stand out from the background.  Unfortunately, this usually means that the photographer forgets about the aesthetic quality of the area not in focus and pays attention only to the subject.  Big mistake.  This article seeks to teach photographers how to achieve beautiful bokeh.

Bokeh is the quality of the portion of a photograph that is not in sharp focus.  The pronunciation of “bokeh” is debated, but the photo world seems to have settled on the pronunciation “bouquet.”  Many photographers do not realize that they can control the aesthetic quality of the bokeh.  There are four basic techniques to improve your bokeh: adjusting depth-of-field, choosing the proper lens, creating custom bokeh, and using bokeh to relate with the foreground.

Adjusting Depth-of-Field

Because bokeh is the blurry portion of an image, it is directly related to depth of field, which controls how much of the image is out of focus.  A low aperture value produces short depth-of-field, and consequently a larger blurry portion of the image.  Also, the shorter the focal length, the greater the depth of field.  The last consideration in controlling depth of field is the lens-to-focal point distance.  A longer distance between the lens and the focal point creates a greater depth-of-field. 

Many beginning photographers always push for the lowest aperture available.  This is a mistake.  Often, the blurry portion of the photo is more aesthetically pleasing if enough detail is left in the background to make out some shapes or objects.  The first rule to better bokeh is to determine proper depth-of-field rather than always choosing the blurriest background available.

2. Choosing the Proper Lens

The aperture is a group of several blades which form a circle or octagon through which the light passes to the sensor.  Apertures which utilize more blades or have curved blades will produce more circular-shaped light bursts in the bokeh, while apertures with more octagonal openings produce a similarly-shaped light burst.  Many photographers prefer the circular bokeh to the more octagonal shapes.  Generally, more expensive lenses use more blades and/or utilize curved aperture blades in an effort to produce a more circular bokeh.

3. Creating Custom Bokeh

A few years ago, it became very popular for photographers to create special cut-outs in various shapes to go on a lens.  The shape of the cut-out will control the shape of the light bursts in the bokeh.  This is a very creative and eye-catching effect as long as it is not overdone.  To create this effect, simply punch out a small (approximately the size of a dime) shape in a black piece of paper.  Then tape this paper over the front of the lens as if it were a lens cap, with the cut-out precisely in the middle of the lens.  When you take a picture, the bokeh will reflect the shape of the cut-out.

4. Relating the Foreground with the Background

Often, the most captivating photographs are those which do something that the viewer did not anticipate.  Relating the sharp foreground subject of an image with something in the blurry portion of the image can create a truly creative image.  You’ve probably seen this effect in wedding photography when a bride is close to the camera and in sharp focus, with the groom blurry in the background.  This technique is even stronger when the foreground not only relates to the background, but when it interacts with it.  

Bokeh is one of the most-used photographic techniques, but one of the least focused-on.  Applying these four methods to achieving better bokeh will dramatically improve your photography.

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