What is the most obvious difference between a portrait taken by a pro photographer and a casual one?
The pro photographer's image will be more blurry.
What!? Yes, you read that right. Of course, we don’t call it blur, we call it bokeh, and the subject will not be blurry at all. The blur is limited to the background to minimize all elements in the image that are not the subject. This makes the subject jump out of the image to capture the viewer’s eye.
It’s true that more expensive lenses will create creamier bokeh. Or that it will be easier to create good bokeh in less-than-ideal conditions. However, you can capture beautiful bokeh with a kit lens, if you know what you’re doing.
Here’s what you need to know.
What Is Bokeh?
First, let’s back up a second. What is bokeh and why are professional photographers so intent on putting blur in their images?
The word “bokeh” comes from the Japanese word for “blur” or “haze.” It came into use as a photography term sometime in the mid-90s.
The idea is to capture an image with a tack sharp subject, but a blurry background. Depending on how your lens is put together, bokeh will have different qualities affecting the look. For example, some bokeh looks round, other bokeh has a swirl effect, and so on.
The point of bokeh photography is to minimize any other elements in the image so that the subject is obviously, without a doubt, the subject.
It also adds a beautiful effect to your images. Creamy photo bokeh background with a tack sharp focused subject makes your image look more ethereal. Lights in the background will create big round blobs, trees become soft blurry tapestries, a cityscape melts into obscurity and leaves viewers focused on what you want them to be, your subject.
A popular trick around the holidays is to take photos in front of a Christmas tree or other lighted display. The photo bokeh created around the little dots of lights adds a whimsical touch to any portrait.
The good news is that anyone can create good bokeh, even without a fancy lens. Let’s look closer.
Choose the Sizes Four Factors to Create Good Bokeh (Blurred Background)
There are four factors affecting bokeh that have nothing to do with the quality of your lens. Instead, they have everything to do with your own skill with the camera and technical know-how.
You can apply these four factors with any camera you use. It doesn't matter whether you’re using a little point-and-shoot, a smartphone, or fancy pants DSLR or mirrorless camera.
All that to say, the quality of the bokeh you get will change depending on the lens you’re using. But you can always create some kind of bokeh with any camera.
The short version of the magic formula for creating good bokeh with a kit lens is as follows:
- Put some distance between your subject and the background
- Choose the longest focal length available to you
- Get close to your subject
- Choose the widest aperture possible with your lens
However, you won’t always have ideal conditions for taking the photo. Thus, it’s important to understand how these factors work together to create good bokeh. Let’s break it down here.
Distance From Background
The distance between the subject and the background has a huge impact on the bokeh you can create. This is because of the depth of field.
When you focus on a point in your image, that point and everything in the same plane as that point will be in focus. The rest of the image will look out of focus.
The farther away an object or element is from the focal plane, the more blurry it becomes.
Thus, if you place your subject a good distance from the background elements, you’ll get a beautiful soft blur in the background.
For example, say you want to photograph a person standing in front of a brick wall.
If you place the person close enough to the brick wall to touch it, the wall will mostly be in focus. It might look a little soft depending on your settings, but that’s about it. You won’t get a creamy, beautiful bokeh blur.
If you have a lens with a super big aperture (more on aperture in a moment) you might get a bit of nice blur. However, a lens with a big aperture is not your typical kit lens.
How do we get around this problem? Move the subject about 10 feet away from the wall. Now when you focus on the subject, the background will be mostly blurred out. It gets even blurrier if you put them 15 feet in front of the wall and so on.
How much distance is required? Is 10 feet the magic number? Nope. The distance required depends on the scale of the items you’re photographing (a small subject requires less distance than a larger one). Plus, how you manipulate the other three factors we are going to discuss has a huge impact.
Key point: Make sure there is physical distance between your subject and the background.
The focal length of your lens is also an important consideration. Longer focal lengths create more bokeh than shorter ones. This is because a longer focal length creates a shallower plane of focus.
Typical kit lenses are 18-55mm zoom lenses. Zoom your lens all the way to 55mm to take advantage of the longest focal length possible.
Key point: Use the longest available focal length.
Distance to Subject
The final distance to worry about is the distance from your lens to your subject. The closer you are to your subject, the better the bokeh will be.
Let’s go back to our example of photographing the person in front of the brick wall. Let’s say you place the subject 10 feet in front of the wall. However, if you photograph them from 30 feet away, both your subject and the background will be in focus.
If you’re only standing 5 feet away, the dynamic suddenly changes. The 10 feet between the subject and the wall becomes a “greater” distance because you’ve reduced the distance between the subject and the camera.
This is a great technique you can use if you can’t move your subject and background away from each other. Simply move closer to the subject and the background will appear to be farther away.
Key Point: Be as close to your subject as possible.
The final piece of the bokeh-creating puzzle is the aperture setting you choose on your camera.
As we’ve discussed, you can affect the size of your plane of focus through the distances you choose between the subject, background, and camera.
You can also affect the plane of focus by adjusting the aperture on your camera.
The aperture has to do with the size of the opening through which light enters your camera. It is written as a fraction so smaller numbers actually mean a wider opening. For example, f/5.6 is much larger than f/16.
Do you already have an understanding of this setting? Then you’ll know that a wider aperture lets in more light than a smaller aperture, giving you a helping hand in low-light settings.
Did you also know that a wider aperture creates a thinner plane of focus? Thus, the widest aperture will let in the most amount of light and only allow for a thin plane of the image to be in focus. Put your subject right in that plane and the rest of the image will be overrun by beautiful bokeh.
A typical kit lens has a maximum aperture range of f/3.5 – f/5.6. This means that at a focal length of 18mm you can get f/3.5 but when you zoom in to 55mm your maximum aperture will be f/5.6.
Fancy lenses allow you to open up the aperture even more. But you’ll pay significantly more to be able to open up your aperture to f/1.2.
Moving from f/3.5 at 18mm focal length to f/5.6 at 55 mm actually doesn’t change the relative size of the plane of field that much. Switching to 55 mm brings your subject “closer” which makes the plane of field smaller at the same time.
Key Point: The widest aperture will give you the best photo bokeh results.
Understanding bokeh photography on paper can be confusing. You need to pick up your camera to really understand how the distances affect each other.
However, I’m sure you won’t mind practicing! Let us know how it goes in the comments belo