In the world of photography, the use of bokeh is an excellent way to enhance the impact of your subject. Bokeh is a japanese-derived term meaning ‘blur’ or ‘haze’, and by having a sharp subject surrounded by bokeh, you minimize distracting elements and draw the viewer’s eye to your subject.
In order to achieve the bokeh effect, there are a few things to consider. In simplist terms, you’re trying to minimize your depth of field, so your subject is in sharp focus, and the surrounding elements are out of focus. To achieve this, pay attention to the following things.
Using a wider aperture (smaller f-stop number) such as f/4, your lens will only focus on a very narrow range of details. Other areas will blur.
This is an area where fast (and expensive) lenses really shine. A lens that can open up to f/2.8 or f/4 allows a very narrow depth of field.
Pay attention to the area behind your subject. Consider how it will look when it’s blurry and reduced to nothing more than colour tones.
If you’re setting up for a bird shot, move yourself around until you see a nice colour or texture behind your subject. The farther away this backdrop is from your subject, the more blurry it will be.
Your camera may have a feature called “depth of field preview”. It’s a handy way see the effect of a chosen f-stop before you shoot.
Watch for distracting patterns
If you’re unable to set up in a way that you’ll have a smooth background, at least try to avoid undesirable background items. Branches or buildings for example, can leave you with a photo where your subject competes with everything around it. Sometimes this can’t be avoided, but at least be mindful of it.
In the included Wood Duck shots, the duck was gliding past me while I was shooting. To take advantage of this, I reduced my shutter speed and tracked the duck as smoothly as possible. This resulted in the water around the duck looking almost as though it was painted, while keeping the duck in focus.
Sometimes you can’t control what’s behind your subject, but when you have a choice, definitely try using bokeh to make your subject pop.
The more you shoot, the more second-nature this kind of thinking becomes.