Understanding ‘bokeh’ – a how to guide.

‘Bokeh’ is a Japanese word that has various meanings depending on how you enter it into google. It is the name for those lovely out of focus areas in photographs. But how do you get those out of focus areas? The following is what I’ve learnt through trial and  error and is hopefully a bit of help. This is not a scientific explanation of bokeh, rather a hopefully practical guide to how to get it in your photos.

There are several factors in getting bokeh.

1) The aperture of your lens

2) The focal length of your lens

3) The distance from you to your subject and from your subject to their background

1) To get bokeh the most important thing is a lens with a big aperture. f2.8 will work well, but f1.4 is even better. A lens with a big aperture creates a shallow depth of field (what is in focus) so your subject will be in focus, but anything in front or behind will be out of focus.

2) Focal length is the second most important thing. The longer the lens the shallower the depth of field and the better the bokeh. A 200mm f5.6 lens can produce excellent bokeh. Here is an example where the long focal length has washed away the background entirely.

3) Finally the third element is the distance to the subject and the distance from the subject to their background. The closer you get to your subject, the better bokeh is. The further away the background is from your subject also equals better bokeh. In the second photo I am very close to the subject and the background is at least 300 feet behind her. (large version here) In the first image, of the policewoman, I am about 100 feet from the subject and the background is only about 50 feet behind her. (large version)

If I were closer to the policewoman the bokeh would be better. Equally the bokeh would be better if the marching soldiers behind her were further away. The bokeh would also be better if I had a longer lens, or a lens with a bigger aperture. (The above were shot at f4 on a Canon 70-200 f4L.)

Practically then, what is the answer to getting bokeh? The most important thing is to get a lens with a big aperture. Canon and Nikon make excellent 50mm 1.8 lenses that can be bought for around £100 ($100 in the US). With these lenses you can get good bokeh even in a tight situation like a bar or around the house. See this example, shot at f1.8 in my kitchen. If you have a long lens with a focal length over 150mm try getting closer to your subject – as close as the lens will focus – and seeing the difference it makes. Lastly, if you want the best you can get, buy a 135mm f2 lens. Both Canon and Nikon make them and they provide the most practical way of getting incredible bokeh at a cost that doesn’t break the bank. Here are two of my favourites from a Canon 135 f2L I owned…

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