The Basics of Bokeh

The holiday season is upon us and Christmas lights are everywhere. What better time for capturing great bokeh shots? If you’ve never really paid attention to bokeh before or haven’t ever tried it, there’s honestly no better time to learn how. Check out this video by photographer Gavin Hoey and give it a try:

Bokeh refers to the way a camera lens renders out-of-focus points of light. If the blurred shapes are pleasing to the eye they’re considered “good” bokeh, and if they are somehow unpleasant or distracting they’re deemed to “bad” bokeh. In general, the smoother and rounder your circles of light are, and the better they blend into the background (i.e., no hard edges), the more pleasing to the eye it will be. The bokeh from the wider aperture (f/2.8) in the example below is what most photographers are going for.

Getting Beautiful Bokeh

Of course, the quality of the bokeh in your shots will depend largely on the quality of the lens you’re using, but Hoey gives four other main points:

The Four Main Variables for Good Bokeh

  1. The distance between the foreground subject and the background lights (you’ll have to figure out the best position through trial and error)
  2. Lens size: longer is better
  3. The gap between the subject and the lens: it should be as small as possible
  4. Aperture: wide open for your lens (i.e., the shallowest depth of field possible)

A key piece to remember is that bokeh is rendered by the lens, not the camera. Different lenses render bokeh differently due to unique optical designs. So while the size of Hoey’s camera doesn’t really matter here (he’s using a micro 4/3 Olympus OMD E-M5 Mark II, it does matter what lens he’s choosing–an Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro. In general, the faster the lens, the better the bokeh.

Post-Processing

If you’re shooting glass or other reflective materials, you’ll often find unwanted reflections that will require some post processing. (They may not be apparent at first glance but a careful perusal of your photo will generally out them.) Hoey’s tip? Always take that extra photo—in this case it’s the one with the light bulb off—no light, no reflection. As in this case, that one extra shot can save you significant editing time, allowing you to paint it in using layers rather than cloning or using the healing brush.

lightbulb with bokeh in background

The end result? A shot with gorgeous bokeh. Just imagine what you could do with your Christmas tree lights!

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