That blurry effect you see in photographs? You know, the one where the background is smooth blobs and the subject is nice and crisp?
That’s called bokeh. More specifically, bokeh is the photography term used to define out of focus light sources that simply look like neat circles in the background of the photograph, like this:
While bokeh looks (and sounds) like a complex task, creating the bokeh effect is actually pretty simple to do. Here’s a quick three-stop bokeh effect tutorial that will help you capture amazing backgrounds (and hopefully help you stop calling it “that one blurry effect”. Also, if you need a more complete guide to Bokeh, check out our Ultimate Resource Guide here).
The true definition of bokeh isn’t just a blurred background, but blurred lights. Naturally, that means you have to find a light source. Christmas lights are an easy way to add bokeh to an image any time of the year, but they certainly aren’t the only option. A cityscape at night or evening sun filtering through some trees works too. You can even crinkle up some tinfoil and put a light in front of it for some great bokeh.
The best light sources to create bokeh are small, and it’s usually best to have a few of them. The sun won’t create a bokeh effect itself, but small patches of sunlight coming through leaves will. Outside of finding small light sources, keep in mind the color of the light source will show up in your photos too.
Novice photographers often put their subject directly in front of the background, or even leaning up against it. But, the farther your subject is from the background, the blurrier the background will be. To create bokeh, the background needs to be blurry, so make sure to position your subject at least a few feet in front ahead of the light source. If you don’t have a camera with manual modes (which we’re talking about next), you’ll want to get even further away.
Outside of using distance to blur the background, distance will affect how big those light orbs appear. So, if you want larger orbs of light, you’ll need to place the subject a little bit closer to the light source. For smaller circles, put even more distance between the subject and the background.
Tip: If you don’t want to photograph a subject but just want a photo of only bokeh (they make great desktop wallpapers), switch to manual focus. Adjust the focus until the lights are completely out of focus and Bam! Bokeh!
Distance will help blur out the background, but so will aperture. (If you haven’t brushed up on photography fundamentals yet, aperture is how wide the opening in the lens is). A wide aperture, or smaller f-number, will blur out that background even more. A wide f/1.8 will really blur out that background for a great bokeh effect. Set your camera to Aperture Priority mode and choose a low f-number, then you are ready to take the shot.
Tip: If you don’t have Aperture Priority Mode on your camera, try the portrait scene mode.
You can use both aperture and distance to control the bokeh in the background. If you don’t want to use a super wide aperture because you need more of the subject in focus, or don’t have a lens capable of a super wide aperture, simply use compensate for the narrower aperture by adding more distance between the subject and the light source. With a bit of experimenting, you should be able to capture a bokeh effect by using both distance and aperture to blur the background.
While the bokeh effect is simply to achieve, a number of issues can pop up, depending on where and what you are shooting.
With the light source behind the subject, chances are, your subject may appear a bit dark. Toss a little light back on the subject by using a low powered flash or reflector as a fill light. Or, you can adjust the metering mode to spot metering, though this switch will make your background appear a bit lighter.
When I photographed my kids in front of the Christmas tree last year, I was frustrated when I looked at the pictures because in several of them the lights didn’t appear at all. I didn’t change my settings or the lights between shots, so, what gives? Artificial lights are actually sent out in surges—they aren’t always on, though they appear that way to our eyes. The photos with the lights “off” simply caught one of those surge moments. That’s simply a timing error. While you can’t see the surges to adjust your timing, if you use a shutter speed slower than 1/60 you shouldn’t have the same issues. Since I was photographing active kids, I chose to keep my shutter speed high and just took more photos for a better probability of missing that surge.
Bokeh can create some amazing backgrounds, without detracting too much from the subject. The key to capturing a great bokeh effect is to find a light source, position your subject several feet away from the light source, and use a wide aperture.