One of the great things about DSLR cameras is your ability to control the outcome of your photographs. I mean, the camera on my cell phone is awesome and takes super, high-resolution photographs. The pictures are almost always in perfect focus from front to back, and the light is wonderfully balanced. So why do we even want to screw with the complexity and costs of DSLR cameras? For me, it is because I want artistic control over my picture. I want to do more than just show you the scene I’m looking at. I want to be able to make you focus on exactly what I feel is the most important part of the scene.
If I look at a flower, or a bug, or my wife’s face, then I usually don’t care about all the other stuff that is going on in the background. My mind and attention is on one thing. In photography (and filmmaking), the term ‘bokeh’ (pronounced ‘bow’ + ‘kuh’, or ‘bow’ + ‘kah’) is used for producing soft, out of focus backgrounds. ‘Bokeh’ is how you can get the person looking at your image to see what you see. It is how you get the viewer to focus on what is important. As a bonus, blurry backgrounds can be much more beautiful than a focused background.
Normal Auto mode:
Are you ready to create that bokeh effect? Great! If you have a DSLR camera and you can change the mode (the dial that says M,A,S,P,Auto), then we are ready.
Quick theory review:
Before we touch anything, I will want to drop a little theory, so you will understand why are doing things I described later. I’ll keep this brief because there are lots of other references that go deep into the theory. I’ll just say that to get bokeh, we want to open the shutter as wide as it will go. This will allow lots of light to come in through your lens, very quickly and hit your image sensor (or film if you are not digital). When the shutter is wide open (small F-stop number), the hole is really big.
Big hole (small F-stop number) + fast shutter speed = Blurry background
Small hole (high F-stop number) + slower shutter speed = More focused background
Switch to ‘A’ mode:
We have to get your camera off of ‘Auto’ so you can control the outcome of your picture. We won’t go all the way to manual mode for this article. Let’s just ease over to the ‘A’ setting. ‘A’ stands for ‘aperture priority’. Turn your mode dial until your camera is in ‘A’ mode. Now that the camera is in aperture priority mode, your camera will take your advice on what aperture setting to use, and it will figure out the shutter speed so that you get a ‘proper’ exposure. (It will ‘proper’ according to your camera’s algorithms.)
Setup your subject:
You should set up your subject with some distance between your subject and the background. The amount of distance will vary, but for starters, try having more distance between the subject and the background than you have between the camera and subject. If the camera is 3 feet from the subject then try more than 3 feet from the subject to the background (the larger the ratio of ‘camera to subject’ : ‘subject to background’, the blurrier the background will be).
Set your aperture to the maximum opening size (this is the smallest number aperture your lens allows). If your camera ranges from F2.8 – F22, then F2.8 would be the setting you want. You will NOT get bokeh at F22.
You may already know this. The F-stop numbers get smaller as the aperture gets larger. If you have a lens that has aperture settings of 1.4 or 2.8, then that is a nice large opening (1.4 is a larger opening than 2.8). If the smallest number of your aperture settings is 4 or 5.6, then you will have a tougher time getting bokeh effects. At F-22 virtually everything will be in focus (no bokeh).
- Your camera is ‘A’ mode (aperture priority mode)
- Your camera is set to a low F-stop number. (As low as you can go. F2.8 or lower ideally.)
- Your camera is closer to your subject than the subject is to the background
Start shooting. Peek at your shots on the back of your camera as you go. Try getting even closer to your subject and notice that the background gets more blurry. Get further from your subject and notice that your background is more focused.
You now have an understanding that low F-stop numbers mean a larger lens opening. Because of the larger lens opening, you are more likely to be able to achieve a blurry background. You have a new word (bokeh) in your vocabulary to make you sound really smart when describing images 🙂 I feel like that was a successful day. I hope you do. Good luck and let me know if you have any questions or comments.