Amazon Kindle Unlimited Offer: 1-Month For FREE!

8 Top Tips On Creating Beautiful Bokeh In Your Photos

John Duder is back sharing his wealth of photography knowledge and to kick the series back off, he's looking at the lovely out-of-focus areas in images.

|  General Photography
 Add Comment

Arabella in the studio with Alicia K thrown out of focus ten or fifteen feet behind. 85mm Samyang at f/1.4.

Arabella in the studio with Alicia K thrown out of focus ten or fifteen feet behind. 85mm Samyang at f/1.4.

 

This article is entirely the result of a casual remark by IrishKate - thank you for your inspiration, Kate, and I hope this will be useful to you, and to others!

The question Kate posed was simple - how to get nice, out-of-focus backgrounds. She said: ‘I'd love a lens which helps with lovely Bokeh but they always seem to be expensive.’

And in 2019 I wrote an article about the Bokeh monsters - the lenses like the Sigma 105mm f/1.4 and the Sony 135mm f/1.8 that give wonderful softness in the background, and also command wonderful prices, well into four figures - entirely in line with Kate’s expectations. There are cheaper ways to do it, though, and this article will deal with the absolutely accessible - lenses that you already own, or which you can own for around £50, or less.

 

A Step Backwards

Just a snapshot. There are no special requirements for depth of field, and the aperture isn’t in any way critical (it was actually f/8).

Just a snapshot. There are no special requirements for depth of field, and the aperture isn’t in any way critical (it was actually f/8).

 

Let’s rewind to your first few pictures when you were just glad to get everything reasonably sharp. It took one artistic development from there to the idea that if you can leave the background out of focus, the viewer will concentrate on the subject more. This is about the next development. You can make the out-of-focus area a feature of at least some of your images, and take control of how the out-of-focus area looks.

Do you want to lose the background as much as possible, or do you want to keep a suggestion of what is there? While it’s very difficult to get rid of every detail merely by defocusing the background, combining this with different levels of lighting can be thoroughly effective.

Depending on the level of blur you require, a really wide aperture may not be necessary - just wide enough to lose distracting detail that competes with the subject. The constant factor is that a wider aperture blurs more, and cheaper kit zooms usually have an aperture around f/5.6 at the long end. This is three stops slower than the f/2 that used to be the baseline for an SLR standard lens.

 

Mirrorless Advantage

Anyone with a mirrorless camera, whatever the format, has a big advantage. The absence of a mirror box means that the lens mount is closer to the sensor than on any DSLR - so literally any lens made for a 35mm camera over nearly a century can be fitted with a cheap adaptor, and will achieve infinity focus.

 

55mm f/1.8 Takumar lens at full aperture, giving beautifully soft background detail

55mm f/1.8 Takumar lens at full aperture, giving beautifully soft background detail

 

So, for instance, if your grandma’s Pentax Spotmatic is around the house with a 50mm or 55mm f/1.8 (or possibly even f/1.4) standard lens on it, an adaptor to allow you to use that on your MFT camera will cost something like £11. Part of the appeal of a lens like this is that you already own it, or can borrow it, and even if the Bokeh is nothing special, the differential focus it can deliver will blow you away if your previous efforts have involved a kit zoom. f/2 leaves f/5.6 standing for separation of subject and background.

Mirrorless cameras make manual focus at any aperture easy, as well as focussing in any part of the image. But if you have a conventional DSLR, don’t lose heart! It may require patience, a tripod, and live view, but it’s still possible to get delightful results, albeit with a strictly limited range of lenses, or at closer focusing distances only.

 

Nifty Fifty

If you use an APS-C format camera, to my mind the obvious first extra lens to buy is a 50mm f/1.8 for portraits. (It’s not a bad lens to have with full-frame, either, and amazingly versatile, despite being very unfashionable.) If you’ve got this, it almost certainly represents the very best possible value in lenses, combining excellent quality with a low price. Canon and Nikon users have the extra advantage of Yongnuo lenses, which are less than half the price of the manufacturer’s own equivalents. They are less robust, and may well be less sharp, but they are of amazing value.

 

50mm f/1.8 Sony shows very similar Bokeh to the Takumar.

50mm f/1.8 Sony shows very similar Bokeh to the Takumar.

 

And if even this lens is outside your camera bag and budget, there’s always the kit zoom. Use this really well, and you won’t have any problem getting sharp subjects and dreamy backgrounds.

(For those who enjoy irony, it’s worth saying there’s an exception to the general rule with my own chosen camera, the Sony Alpha 7R. Sony’s cheapest standard lens, the 50mm f/1.8, both costs more and is, relatively, less good than other manufacturer’s offerings. My advice to fellow Alpha users is either to go off-brand, as I have, and buy a Samyang 45mm f/1.8 or 50mm f/1.4, or stump up for one of the more expensive Zeiss, Sigma or Sony offerings. But for the purpose of this article, I’ve dusted off my 50/1.8 and made the very best of it, because it’s still not at all bad…)

 

Standard Zoom

It’s the lens that everybody owns unless they have tried very hard to avoid it! And while it won’t allow quite as much differential focus as the wider aperture of a fixed focal length lens, but it’s far from impossible…

 

Olympus 14-42 lens at 42mm and f/5.6 blurs detail in the background, but can’t supress the chimneys.

Olympus 14-42 lens at 42mm and f/5.6 blurs detail in the background, but can’t suppress the chimneys.

 

You just need to go for your longest zoom setting and your widest aperture. Here are a couple of examples, shot with an Olympus OM-D EM-10 Mark III - a micro four-thirds sensor makes differential focus really hard work, as it’s physically smaller than APS-C, and a quarter of the area of full-frame. My shots were taken with the 14-42mm kit power zoom, at 42mm and the widest aperture available, f/5.6.

 

Technicalities

To get the maximum differential focus, you need to do three things:

  1. Shoot at the widest aperture the lens allows
  2. Get as close as you can to close into your main subject
  3. Use a background that is as far as possible behind the subject

Each of these requirements brings at least one problem with it, and you will need to put some effort into holding everything together.

 

Olympus 14-42 lens at 42mm and f/5.6 shows far sharper background details than the various standard lenses for full frame.

Olympus 14-42 lens at 42mm and f/5.6 shows far sharper background details than the various standard lenses for full-frame.

 

Wide aperture: first, the depth of field will be tiny. Therefore, your focussing needs to be spot on, millimetre perfect. Many cameras have a limited number of focus points, and you will need to select single point focus, then position that single point over the part of the subject that you want critically sharp. And - easily missed - you then need to release the shutter before either you or your subject move: that takes a real effort: if you are taking a portrait and focussing on the nearer eye of your model, a second’s pause will allow one or both of you to sway slightly (human beings remain standing by constantly swaying) and the focus is lost.

Also, with most lenses, the poorest performance, lowest sharpness and worst vignetting will be at full aperture. Let’s be clear about this - this probably doesn’t matter compared with the impact that your composition and differential focus will have, but it does mean that putting your main subject right in the corner may mean that it’s rather softer and darker than you might expect. Try it, and see - only you can judge what works for you! If you are shooting with really expensive glass - the latest Canon L series, the Sony G-Master range, Sigma Art lenses, and similarly recent stuff from other companies - sharpness and lack of vignetting are more or less guaranteed. But this article isn’t about using those lenses…

 

Sony's cheapest kit zoom for full frame gives reasonably defocused backgrounds at f/5.6 near to 70mm – Lottie21 standing behind Elle J.

Sony's cheapest kit zoom for full-frame gives reasonably defocused backgrounds at f/5.6 near to 70mm - Lottie21 standing behind Elle J.

 

Get in close: again, the closer you get, the shallower the depth of field is. Everything is pushing you towards precision in focus, and the best way to achieve that. Of course, if you have a static subject, you can use a tripod, and take as much time as you need to, trying, checking and refining the focus manually, possibly with the aid of a focus rack.

You may find that getting close makes it hard to include all of the subjects: and maybe you shouldn’t worry about including the whole of the subject: instead, aim for an elegant and artistic crop. Be creative!

The third element is often not within your control, or at least depends on how you compose your picture - with a fixed subject, rather than one that you can move around, you need to think in terms of which angle gives you the best background in terms of closeness, colour, brightness and detail - sometimes this will be at odds with the other things that you want for your image.

 

Good And Bad Bokeh

If you look carefully at a lot of pictures with an out-of-focus background, you will notice that some look better than others. There are a number of factors, and one of them is that there are some lenses that, frankly, have bad Bokeh. There’s an awkwardness about objects that aren’t sharp…

 

Helios 58mm f/2 at full aperture – can you tell the difference from the Takumar and Sony images? Once plentiful on the front of Zenith cameras in charity shops, these seem to fetch £40 on eBay these days.

Helios 58mm f/2 at full aperture - can you tell the difference between the Takumar and Sony images? Once plentiful on the front of Zenith cameras in charity shops, these seem to fetch £40 on eBay these days.

 

Contrariwise, there are some lenses that gave an exaggerated reputation for good Bokeh, including the Russian Helios-22 58mm that came fitted to Zenith cameras over the years. It’s OK, but I reckon its reputation rests, very largely, on the contrast between the differential focus it gives at f/2 and what a kit zoom does at 55mm and f/5.6… I’ve tried repeatedly to see something really special about the Bokeh, but I’ve failed. Compare the result above with those from a Seventies Pentax lens and a contemporary Sony earlier in the piece.

The ideal, I think, is a lens that gives a smooth transition between light and dark, and renders objects in a way that looks geometrically correct. Many lenses render circles as ellipses or distort highlights in other ways – though some of these are attractive. In fact, some specific designs from the Fifties have become so popular that they are back in production, notably the Meyer Trioplan and Primoplan designs. Ironically, for lenses that were intended as cheap and cheerful alternatives to the more expensive Zeiss optics for East German cameras, the prices are truly stratospheric.

 

Meritar lenses are not great, optically – but even the old, cheap and fairly nasty can give good results – don’t worry about the sharpness, just look at the differential focus

Meritar lenses are not great, optically – but even the old, cheap and fairly nasty can give good results - don’t worry about the sharpness, just look at the differential focus

 

However, it’s probably going to be more important to you that a lens makes the background really blurred than that it does so in a way that makes connoisseurs weak at the knees. A cheap, wide-aperture lens does the job. The picture of leaves against the sky was shot with an f/2.8 Ludwig Meritar, the cheapest standard lens ever sold with Exakta cameras. It’s not as sharp as the other lenses I played with for this article, but it’s not too bad, even at maximum aperture.

 

Diaphragms

You will, from time to time, get unfortunate interactions between the background and your camera and lens combination. Remember how tests used to obsess with Moiré patterns, where the detail of a check-pattern cloth interacted with individual pixels on the sensor? Something similar can happen if the background doesn’t jive with the way your lens delivers Bokeh at your chosen aperture.

In the previous article on lenses that produce interesting and extreme Bokeh, I referred to the look that mirror lenses give – every highlight is doughnut-shaped. The effect can be fascinating, but some Bokeh disciples view it as being terribly bad: the lesson is that it depends if you like the effect and whether people viewing your pictures do. Perhaps the lesson that you can draw from this is that you need to look carefully at how things work for you in any given situation. Sometimes, a 'wiry' look to an image is delightful, although purists would call it bad Bokeh. But where you have a tangle of twigs behind a subject, possibly with high contrast in sunshine, it can lead to strong patterns in the background which simply drags the eye away from the main subject. The same is true of the 'bubble Bokeh' that Meyer Trioplan and Primoplan lenses give.

 

Trioplan ‘Bubble Bokeh’ illustrated by Joceline Brooke-Hamilton and some LED fairy lights in the background.

Trioplan ‘Bubble Bokeh’ illustrated by Joceline Brooke-Hamilton and some LED fairy lights in the background.

 

You Don’t Have To Use It All Of The Time!

It’s easy to fall into the trap of always shooting at maximum aperture. After all, dammit, you paid for every millimetre of that aperture, so you should use it!

But no. There are some pictures that will look amazing at maximum aperture and become more mediocre with every third of a stop you close the lens down. But there are also occasions when you need more depth of field - for instance when you need the background to be recognisable in order to set the context for your picture. And there are just a few occasions when you want absolute front-to-back sharpness!

Imagine that you’ve bought a Ferrari. It’s a car that is built, above all, to be driven extremely fast: it’s designed around the idea of maximum acceleration and cornering power, with brakes that will bring it back from 200 m.p.h. to rest with safety and assurance. Will you drive it flat out all the time? Probably not: it will work better if you don’t push it to the extremes in most situations. And it’s the same with your wide-aperture lens. Pulling back very slightly from the absolute maximum can improve technical quality a lot, and give just a little more leeway with focus.

 

10 Amethyst in her natural environment – 85mm Sony lens at f/5.6. You don’t have to work at extreme apertures all the time!

Amethyst in her natural environment - 85mm Sony lens at f/5.6. You don’t have to work at extreme apertures all the time!

 

Creative choice matters: and once you understand the ways in which you can maximise background blur, you can use it when you need it – and go for more overall sharpness when that’s the right creative option for your picture. In the meantime, there’s no substitute for practice, so go and try it now! Remember: wide aperture, get close to the main subject, and have the background a relatively long way away. As the meerkat said, simples.

 

Arabella and Alicia K again, with the same 85mm lens stopped down to f/5.6.

Arabella and Alicia K again, with the same 85mm lens stopped down to f/5.6.

 

About Author: John Duder 

John Duder has been an amateur photographer for fifty years, which surprises him, as he still reckons he’s 17.

Over the last few years, he’s been writing articles for ePHOTOzine, as well as being a member of the Critique Team. He also runs lighting workshops and provides one-to-one photographic tuition.

He remains addicted to cameras, lenses, and film.

Support this site by making a Donation, purchasing Plus Membership, or shopping with one of our affiliates: Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon CA, ebay UK

It doesn't cost you anything extra when you use these links, but it does support the site, helping keep ePHOTOzine free to use, thank you.

Other articles you might find interesting...

10 Top Lighting Tutorials That Explore Light In All Its Forms
5 Easy Ways To Prevent Camera Shake
8 Top Photography Tutorials To Help Improve Composition
How To Make Sure Your Subject Is The Main Point Of Interest
How To Use Negative Space In Your Photos
What Is A 'Fast Lens'?
8 Top Ways To Use A Telephoto Lens For Photography
Create Great Bokeh By Following These 6 Simple Tips

Comments


dudler Plus
18 1.7k 1876 England
28 Jul 2021 9:51AM
All thoughts welcome: even if you disagree with every word I've written...
Techno Plus
13 6.1k 8 England
28 Jul 2021 12:10PM
Hi John,
I read with particular interest the above blog, and I thank you for your time/dedication and photographic knowledge in producing such an article and others.

Being a Mirrorless shooter (Fujifilm X Series) and after much research on YouTube etc: I purchased, for the princely sum of 85 TTArtisans 50mm f1.2, hoping to stir some interest or inject some mojo back into my hobby through these difficult times, to some extent it has widened my interests in the basics, being manual focus I have chosen Focus Peak Highlights (Red) in the Fuji menu to assist in accurate focusing, that works very well, proving reliable and providing further memories of yesteryear film techniques.
My conclusions are more positive than negative about this lens, an aperture ring that clicks! really well dampened focus ring, build quality beyond its price, ok, wide open a smidgen muddy see Wallace (I Think that's the expression) not being a film man I'm sure on that.....Blush
I'm informed, and for those who know about such things it is a Sonnar build.

The attached images are not my finest, but auto adjust in ACR only, affords some idea of quality/dof etc..
Regards Mal
PS Onions rings was a criticism/description relating to Bokeh but I don't seem to have encountered them, maybe on the veg plot yes...Wink

85831_1627469443.jpg
@f4

85831_1627469506.jpg
@f1.2

85831_1627469577.jpg
@f3.5




28 Jul 2021 12:11PM
A great article and lots of food for thought, about a subject that I enjoy exploiting, and will investigate using 14-42mm Lumix/Olympus lenses. As you have said a few years ago you could buy a nifty fifty for a reasonable price, and I did just that, now however they seem to be like gold very expensive. The Yongnuo 50mm lens is very good for both Nikon and Canon, they also make a 35mm f2 for Nikon. Thank you for taking your time to write and illustrate the article. Paul.
28 Jul 2021 12:37PM
A couple of examples to add to above comment.
324228_1627471967.jpg

Nikon D100 with Nikkor 50mm f1.4
324228_1627472075.jpg

Nikon D100 with Minolta MC ROKKOR-PG 50mm f1.4.
dudler Plus
18 1.7k 1876 England
28 Jul 2021 3:41PM
There are still a few interesting lenses available for peanuts: one avenue I've tried is Fujian CCTV lenses, available at a range of prices from eBay. The right supplier will charge under 20 for lens and an adaptor to fit a mirrorless camera for the 35mm f/1.7 or 50mm f/1.4. Technical quality isn't outstanding, and they struggle to cover full frame, but as a cheap way to own a wide-aperture lens, they're amazing.

I blogged about the 50mm optic a few days ago - read HERE to find out more about it, and see some results.

Focus peaking is good, but I've found that the ability to view a magnified section of the image, anywhere in the frame, is even better - it's simple to customise a button for it with Sony, and I can't imagine that Fuji don't offer a similar facility.

My feeling is that it's more accurate than anything else, including focus peaking and everything in hte DSLR focus armoury.

Sign In

You must be a member to leave a comment.

ePHOTOzine, the web's friendliest photography community.

Join For Free

Upload photos, chat with photographers, win prizes and much more.