For the uninitiated, the word “bokeh” first emerged into the mainstream in the late 1990s. Derived from the Japanese word for “blur,” it simply describes the visual effect created in the out-of-focus parts of a photograph. With the right lens and a shallow depth of field, the background (or foreground) of an image will be blurred into smooth, creamy balls of light, known as “bokeh balls.”
While the word itself has only been around for 25 years, “bokeh” has quickly established itself as one of the most sought-after photographic techniques. These days, creative bokeh is a major selling point among lens manufacturers, with brands like Lensbaby and Lomography taking the effect to new heights. A few years ago, an iPhone commercial even used “bokeh” as a verb.
Browse social media for trending hashtags like #bokeh_addicts, #bokehlicious, #bokehkillers, #bokeh_bliss, or #pearlsofbokeh, and you’ll get a feel for what’s possible. We reached out to six artists embracing classic bokeh and pushing the trend into new and exciting territory; they were kind enough to share their secrets for perfect blur.
1. Shoot wide open
Of course, the very first step is opening up your aperture for that shallow depth of field. “If you’re going for bokeh, do what you can to shoot with the widest aperture possible,” the portrait photographer Nate Zoeller suggests. “Keep in mind that ND filters can allow you to shoot wide open in brighter settings.”
For this technique, a fast prime lens works best. You also want to be aware of the construction of the aperture blades themselves, as the lens you choose will affect the quality of the balls. “Pay attention to the number and shape of the aperture blades,” the artist Juuli Salo advises. “The more rounded aperture blades there are in a lens, the more circular and smooth the bokeh will be.”
“Pay attention to the number and shape of the aperture blades. The more rounded aperture blades there are in a lens, the more circular and smooth the bokeh will be.”
2. Try a vintage lens
Juuli is a connoisseur of vintage lenses, beginning with her first, a Helios 44-2. She’s not the only one who recommends experimenting with second-hand treasures, either. “I love shooting with vintage lenses,” the photographer and self-described “bokeh lover” Olivia Rosendahl tells us. “They have a special flair, and they also offer a certain challenge due to the manual focus. However, with a little practice, you quickly learn how to use and love them.”
If you don’t have a vintage lens, the artist Jyotsna Bhamidipati says you can also try something newer like a Lensbaby Creative Bokeh Optic (she’s an ambassador for the brand), which she uses in addition to Helios and Pentacon lenses. “One of the biggest mistakes I see photographers make is when they don’t experiment with lenses,” she tells us. “Stay open to opportunities that present themselves while shooting.”
3. Skip the wide-angle
A final note on lenses: longer lenses mean more dramatic bokeh. “Wide-angle lenses are going to make it more difficult to achieve lovely bokeh due to their distance from the sensor,” the freelance commercial photographer Gillian Vann says. “You are fighting the physical optics of the lens from the start, so choose a longer focal length. It doesn’t have to be too long; my favourite 50mm is still fine for achieving bokeh if you have positioned your subject farther away from the background.”
4. Plan for the golden hour…
“I prefer a backlit subject when the sun is low in the sky,” Gillian reflects. “In the late afternoon, the light softens, and the angle of the sun’s rays is more flattering. Start with the most favourable lighting, such as the golden hour before sunset. Then, once you are confident, you can try the same techniques in more challenging lighting situations.” When shooting during this time of day, Gillian will often bring out those warm yellow tones in post-production to enhance that dreamy mood.
5. … But play with different light sources too
That’s not to say that you’re limited to the golden hour alone. You can also experiment with various lighting throughout the day and into the night. The important thing is that you have those visible highlights in the background. “Other sources of spectacular bokeh could be street lights, light reflecting from water/droplets, or fairy lights,” Juuli tells us.
6. Look for contrast
Additionally, backgrounds with some contrast, such as sunlight filtering through trees, tend to work well with a wide-open aperture. “Another trick is to look for tree lines or natural shapes in the scene that block some light, hence creating some nice, playful bokeh,” Jyotsna says. “This often works better than shooting in a fully open location against a background without any contrast.”
“My best tip is to follow the light; look around to see how and from where it is shining (through the leaves, for example), and position yourself to capture those beautiful glowing orbs.”
7. Change your perspective
When working with sunlight, a simple change in perspective can have a dramatic effect on the quality of your bokeh. “I recommend going low with the camera, rather than shooting from eye-level,” the Swedish artist Emelina Forsberg urges.
“If you focus on a flower, for example, move around so that you have elements in the foreground and trees in the background. That will create a stunning image with lots of blur and bokeh. My best tip is to follow the light; look around to see how and from where it is shining (through the leaves, for example), and position yourself to capture those beautiful glowing orbs.”
8. Separate your subject from your background
A narrow depth of field will separate your subject from your background visually, but you also want to put some physical distance between them. If you’re finding the bokeh effect isn’t as pleasing as you hoped, try moving your subject away from the background, or vice versa. “The greater the distance between the subject and the background, the larger the bokeh balls,” Olivia says.
“One tip I have for capturing bokeh in-camera (in the right setting) is to utilise double exposures: one to expose your subject as normal and another to add bokeh by stopping down to expose for just the light source. For that, I use manual focusing and get as close as possible to blow up the bokeh and make them look like phantom light balls in the foreground.”
9. Try a double exposure
“One tip I have for capturing bokeh in-camera (in the right setting) is to utilise double exposures: one to expose your subject as normal and another to add bokeh by stopping down to expose for just the light source. For that, I use manual focusing and get as close as possible to blow up the bokeh and make them look like phantom light balls in the foreground,” Nate says. “It’s fun to play around with and when you nail it, it’s so sweet.” The portrait above is one example of this technique in action.
10. Think beyond the bokeh
“I think the main mistake that I see photographers make when it comes to capturing bokeh is simply relying on it to make an image interesting,” Nate says. “Sure, bokeh is cool to look at and is a fun pop to any photo, but any image worth giving your time to has complementary elements. If not a person (my usual subject), then try finding some kind of foreground interest, lines to direct the viewer’s eye, and so on.”
11. Take a subtle approach to editing
If you capture that creamy bokeh in-camera, there’s not a lot you’ll have to do while post-processing, save for a few minor tweaks. “I don’t edit my photos that intensively,” Olivia says. “After applying one of my usual presets, only small corrections follow. I tend to increase the contrast or clarity in the bokeh portions selectively or/and increase the ‘white’ value, and that’s basically it.”
12. Consult the colour wheel
This tip comes from Juuli, who likes a complementary colour palette (e.g. orange and blue, purple and yellow, green and red). “One way to bring out the bokeh while editing is to play with complementary colours,” she tells us. “Complementary colours create a beautiful contrast when used together, and they can help to draw attention to certain parts of the image.
“Using a simple colour wheel will help you understand what colours go well together. For example, in golden hour bokeh shots, the bokeh is usually orange; the contrasting colour to orange is blue. In order to make that golden bokeh pop, I might add a subtle blue hue to the shadows.”
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.