Creating Magical Images with Bokeh
October 29, 2020
The holidays can be a wonderful time to capture photos. From the decor around your house to the glisten in your child's eyes, focusing on the details can really make an image come to life, especially when you achieve proper bokeh. You know, that blurry background effect? Here, I'll break down how to achieve bokeh so you can capture all of the magical images this holiday season.
What is bokeh?
First, let's understand bokeh better using the basics of "depth of field," which is the distance between the closest and farthest objects in a composition that appears acceptably sharp. Don't get it? Try stretching your arm with your palm facing you. Now slowly bring your palm closer to your face while focusing your eyes on your palm. Notice how the background becomes blurry? That's called "shallow depth of field" because the foreground subject is in focus and the background is blurry. The quality of that background blur is known as "bokeh."
How can you achieve this enchanting background?
Bokeh can be achieved in three ways: shooting at low aperture values, shooting at the maximum focal length your lens can go, and subject placement.
Let's talk about aperture values. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, look on your camera screen for something like this:
f/2.8 or f/4
This value determines not only how much light enters your camera but also the overall focus of your image. The higher the aperture value, the more in-focus your image will be overall. The lower the aperture value, the more your camera will focus on the foreground subject and less on the background. Bokeh!
Whatever lens you have, set your aperture to the lowest value possible and you'll immediately see that beautiful, blurry background the next time you take a photo. One thing to keep in mind when you do this is to make sure your subject is close enough to your camera.
Focal length also plays a big role when it comes to bokeh. The longer your focal length, the more compressed the background, and the blurrier it will become. Of course, you might have to take a few steps back so that your subject is in the frame. You don't necessarily need to shoot at the maximum focal length all the time, especially if the location you're shooting in is small. Take your time and play with different focal lengths to see what works best for you.
Subject placement is the third way to achieve bokeh and probably the most important. Proper subject placement means placing your subject close enough to your camera but far enough from the background. Let's say your subject is too far from your camera and right next to the Christmas tree, your image is going to look flat and just okay. If you add some distance between the subject and the Christmas tree, your image will look more interesting because you've created that "shallow depth of field" which I mentioned earlier.
This is going to take some practice, but when you combine shooting at low apertures, shooting at longer focal lengths, and practicing proper subject placement, you will end up with images with beautiful bokeh.
Now, on to the fun stuff!
One of the best ways to take advantage of bokeh is fairy lights. Yep, fairy lights. When you place fairy lights in the background and practice bokeh techniques, those lights turn into beautiful orbs and will truly make the subject pop.
Try not to overwhelm the background with too many fairy lights though. Doing so will just make the photo busy and distracting. If you do have fairy lights in the background, use a lamp to illuminate the foreground. You can also use Edison bulbs instead if you want bigger and softer lights in your scene. One idea to try: if you have a baby who can sit up, you can let them play with the fairy lights (safely)—it always makes for fun and playful images.
Pro tip: make sure to use the standard warm-looking lights. Some fairy lights now have "bright white" bulbs as an option, which doesn't look as natural on skin tones. The goal here is to make your images look warm and natural.
Have fun with these tips! I hope you capture magical and memorable photos this holiday season.
Sidney Diongzon is a photographer that loves to capture real moments. A husband and father of two, he also teaches the craft of finding the perfect shot to other photo enthusiasts.