For those new to the term this reference from Wikipedia is a good place to start. Essentially the word refers to the amount of background that is blurred out to help isolate a foreground subject. Some people like a little. Some people like a lot. I tend to sit somewhere in the middle ground for most images.
For a little more “How To” visit Rob Donovan’s website for a hands on style tutorial using a DSLR. I cite this reference as it gives us a good comparative yardstick to work from.
A lot of the DSLR owners among us like a large creamy area with little discernible background information. For some shots this can be a very nice way of displaying just the subject on its own. I tend to feel that if you remove to much detail in the background, an image can lose its impact, becoming so isolated that it hasn’t any real relationship with its environment. Where this total isolation style comes into its own is well seen in macro photography and micro photography where the subject is itself the only thing that matters. Think about stunning insect photos with detail almost down to the cellular level, truly astonishing images.
Some bird photographers also like to isolate the subject to help enhance detail and that too can lead to a very detailed and pleasing image. Portrait photography also employs this technique. These things all tend to be developed as a particular shooting style or photographic discipline. For the more general enthusiast obtaining a nicely balanced photo is most likely going to be the foremost consideration. For a lot of enthusiast photographers, myself included, we are presented with things as we go along that we instantly recognize as a photographic opportunity, but dont have the time or situation to set up a good shot that will produce quality Bokeh. Typically this is due to the camera on hand at the time, for many this is a compact P&S camera or like myself a superzoom bridge camera. Point & Shoot compacts such as Fuji’s new X10 with manual focus and fast f2-f2.8 lens are now able to create some nice Bokeh effects in the images they take. For those of us who have superzoom cameras such as the HS20, you can also create some nice Bokeh once its understood how to do so with these cameras.
What follows is the two techniques I employ with the HS20 to create this type of image.
In the image at right the small Thrush is seen sitting on a farm fence post and singing in the early morning sun. If the bird was the subject only, this image could be cropped but would yield a poor result. Taken at full zoom (126mm) and at a distance of 30 meters there was never going to be any more detail than what is seen here as resolution falls off at the extreme end of telephoto lenses. What the image does show is the natural background blur that comes about when photographing subjects in this way. My intention in this image was to give it context, by leaving in the background as it is central to how the bird relates to the environment.The leaning posts and the irregular line of the fence wire also adds to the overall context of the image.
In the next series I have an original and edited version. This was a more challenging shot. The flower in this image was being very severely buffeted by the wind making it very difficult to achieve a good focus.
Added to this is the car window I was shooting through which has created a milky look to the image. Extremely fast moving cloud was changing the light in a matter of seconds as evidenced in the next set of images. For this shot I used the camera with the lens zoomed to 71mm (450mm equivalent). This is what I would describe as medium level Bokeh, the subject well isolated , but not extremely so allowing the viewer to get some feeling of where the subject was in relation to the photographer and its immediate environment. This give the image some context. In the mid background fence posts can be seen, with a hedge line and hills in the far background.
The context suggested in this image would be of a rural type environment. This is exactly where this was taken, on the roadside in a flat rural farming area.
In this next series of images the camera was switched to Macro mode and the
zoom extended to the full 126mm focal length. This helps with subject isolation as well as creating a larger image. The camera was held vertically as well for this shot so as to accommodate the increased image size and further helping with subject isolation. Again shot through the vehicle window, and the milky appearance is evident.
As you can see from the two sets of images there was a shift in the natural light at the time.
Both the images were taken within 5 seconds of each other , but in that time the light changed quite markedly. It shows how much things can change in a very short time and why multiple exposures are often a good choice when greeted with these types of shooting conditions.
The distance between you and the subject is one of the most important aspects to creating these types of image. I was no more than 10 meters from the Red Hot Poker flower seen here, with a good range of distant detail out to the horizon, but none of the background objects were closer than 20meters at a minimum.
In the last image you see a completely different environment. Here I was interested in taking images of the bird life in one of our more popular parks and how we interact. The bird in the foreground is no more than 5 meters from me, whereas the elderly couple in the background are approx 100 meters from me with the cafe building a further 20 meters beyond that. It took a little patience as I had to wait for all the elements to line up properly, and I missed several shots because of the bird moving or people in the wrong place at the wrong time. For this image I was intentionally trying to set this shot up, whereas in the images above it was very much a case of grab the camera, a quick check of the settings and fire away. In the images above I have included both the original and the edit, simply to show what can be done with the camera and what can be done from software. I have been able to reduce the milky aspect of the images and create an image that looks more natural, as viewed through a pane of glass. In the last image the PP work was minor as all the elements where there in shot and only needed a small amount of refinement.
No matter what you taste for Bokeh may be, you will find that with a bit of patience and some care and forethought, you can obtain pleasing levels of Bokeh that can be varied with the subject and environment. For those with a DSLR and a good F2.8 prime lens, good quality Bokeh should not be difficult to produce.
No matter what the case may be, enjoy what you are doing, that’s what makes photography fun.
The best way if photographing people is to use the same technique as I have described above. Use Macro settings and the full zoom of the lens. Have then standing far enough away from the background to naturally have it blurred out. Experiment with different distances and focal lengths until you know what looks best.