This blog article describes how to take photographs that have a subject that is in focus highlighted and surrounded by a background that is completely or partially out of focus. The out-of-focus background is called Bokeh (pronounced “Bow-Kay”). It is a Japanese word meaning blur. The in-focus subject of the photo can be in the foreground, the mid-ground or even in the background (with the foreground filled with Bokeh).
A BRIEF HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Before we get into how to take these pictures, let me mention a bit of photography history. By the 1830s the technology had advanced to the point where photographs could be taken, handled, stored and displayed without fading. Portraiture was among the earliest uses of photography. Many people went to a portrait studio and endured long, uncomfortable minutes remaining still while a Daguerreotype was taken of them. Not long thereafter the camera was put to use in the field of photojournalism. For example Mathew Brady took over 7,000 photographs during the American Civil War, 1861 – 1865. As technology progressed, some photographers realized that photographs can be an art form in themselves. A simple way for anyone to make highly pleasing and artistic photographs is to incorporate Bokeh in the frame of the photo.
NOW BACK TO BOKEH
The examples in this blog were all taken with a Fujifilm X-E2 camera with an APSC 1.5X crop factor sensor. The millimeters mentioned are the actual lens focal lengths not adjusted for crop factor.
An example of a photo with Bokeh is Figure 1 above. The picture was taken at f/4.0 at 200mm. The background is just a pleasant soft blur because the photo was taken at such a long focal length. Yes, with Adobe Photoshop it is possible to create the most incredible images imaginable. It is also possible to use the Blur tool to artificially create Bokeh. But there is nothing like an honest, unadulterated photo that is beautiful to look and you took it.
Here is what to do to take a photo with Bokeh:
- Have the camera close to the subject
- Use a wide aperture (e.g., f/2.8, f/4.0)
- Use a reasonably long focal length (e.g., at least 50mm to 100mm)
- Position yourself so that the background that you want to be out of focus is as far from the subject as possible
Figure 2 was taken on the Stanford University campus. I wanted the colorful orange flowers to be the subject of the photo, but I wanted the viewer to see the context for the photo (it was taken on the old campus). I used an f/4 aperture at 55mm. Had I used a 200mm focal length the buildings would not have been recognizable.
Figure 3 was taken looking through the branches of a budding tree. The sky blends with the out of focus green leaves to give a non-distracting “creamy” background. The picture was taken at f/5 and 100mm focal length. For effect I added a bit of a white vignette in Adobe Lightroom. But the photo itself is as the camera saw it.
Figure 4 is a photo of some branches of a cherry tree. I wanted the foliage-covered branches behind it to form a colorful but out-of-focus background. I used f/4.8 at 200mm.
One thing to keep in mind is that when you take a picture of an object close-up with a long lens, you will be creating a relatively narrow depth of field. Be sure that the object of interest is in tack-sharp focus. Move a bit back if you have to in order to get the entire subject in focus. This is not as critical as when taking macro photographs, where the depth of field may only be ¼ inch, but nevertheless it’s something to keep in mind. Check your LCD screen to see how the shot came out. P.S. – there is another blog on this website about how to take macro photographs.
Another point to remember is that shooting at a wide aperture will usually push the settings toward a low ISO and a high shutter speed, especially when taking pictures on a sunny day outdoors. This is actually a good thing as flowers and bushes will be moving on a windy day, and a high shutter speed will freeze their motion.
OK – it’s time to try out your creative self. The more you experiment the more interesting and artistic will be the photos you produce. Have fun!