Bokeh—from the Japanese ‘boke’, meaning ‘blur’ or ‘haze’—is the blurring or more precisely the aesthetic quality of the blurring of a photograph. Blurring is achieved by using a shallow depth of field. It can be used to create a number of striking light effects or simply to highlight a subject by keeping the rest of an image out of focus.
By employing a shallow focus (depth of field) you can start to use these kinds of blurring effects to your advantage, creating a refreshingly different kind of image to the razor sharp, crystal clear style that has often been prioritized and standardized in photography.
Start by setting up your camera to optimize bokeh. You need a large aperture, such as f/1.4, f/1.8 or f/2. Aperture settings affect the depth of field. In bokeh photography, you want a shallow field depth, achieved by using a low f-stop number. This allows you to apply the technique of blurring to the background while your subject remains in focus. Set your camera to aperture priority.
In aperture priority mode, you can either let your camera dictate your shutter speed or use customized settings of 1/50 second or faster. If you go slower than this and the background blurs too much, negating the circled light effect. This can darken an image, however, but don’t be tempted to go for a higher f-stop number, try increasing the ISO level instead.
Subjects and Lighting
Bokeh is easier to achieve if you can get close to your subject. Use your zoom to help, if necessary. You’ll also find that when the background is bright— i.e. street lamps at night or bright sun behind your subject—bokeh will occur more naturally.
Once you’ve mastered the basic techniques behind bokeh, you’ll soon find which kinds of background and subject matter best suit your style. You can take the technique further by making your own lenses to play with specific shapes and lighting conditions.
Bokeh in the City
One setting in which bokeh photography is particularly effective is in a city at night. The rush of lights, the glare of the streets can be captured with greater atmosphere when you let a little blur into the frame. Blurring is also a great way of expressing movement in photography, allowing you to portray the busy nature of the cityscape and the buzz of cosmopolitan life by night.
If you’re looking for fresh material, glance over these 40 examples of bokeh images to get the creative juices flowing. Remember that bokeh is an effect that can be used to produce a range of different aesthetics in a photograph and is not restricted to certain kinds of subject matter.
Organize Your Ideas
A great way to keep your ideas in order is to use a photo lightbox. Designate different Lightboxes to different subject matters and styles and compile collections of images that can help you to establish the right tone or texture within your own bokeh images. Lightboxes also allow you to share your sources of inspiration with other creative minds so you can do a little collective brainstorming before you pick up the camera to shoot.
All photos via Shutterstock Photos.
Luke Clum is a Seattle based graphic designer, developer and photographer. He’s an outdoorsman, loves alpine climbing and is crazy about earl grey tea. Follow him on twitter @lukeclum.