{Beautiful Bokeh – A Tutorial} Westfield, New Jersey Photographer

Day 2 :: Picture the Holidays

Don’t you just LOOOOOOVE the holidays? I think based on my cookie post, we’ve all come to know that I do.  I do my best to avoid getting stressed, though inevitably it happens.  I try to encourage the stress to drive productivity, which I usually prefer over a nervous twitch.  Anyhow.

http://teaandbrie.com/blog/wp-admin/post-new.phpI think yet another reason why I love the holidays involves all of the gorgeous lights.  There are lights everywhere.  Spot lights showcasing wreaths on windows.  Twinkling lights on lamp posts.  Lights on bushes, lights on trees, lights on swagged garland, lights on wreaths.  Candles flickering, fires crackling, moonlight, starlight, sparkling reflections in the snow – there is light everywhere!

Of course capturing light can be a little tricky.  Metering the light and properly exposing really can contribute to a spectacular image, and having your camera on auto will *usually* do this for you.  I do have to say though, that a whole new world of photography opened up to me when I took my camera off of manual 2.5 years ago (and I’ve never gone back. In fact I’ve gotten a new camera and I actually don’t even know how to switch it to auto!).  By doing so I was able to learn how to control exposure, and how to manipulate an image (and the lights) by using depth of field.

If you don’t know what these terms mean, don’t worry.  Stop squirming in your chair.  We’re using our stress to be productive, remember?

For this tutorial, a basic understanding of f/stop (aperture) and how to manually focus your camera is helpful. Even if you don’t know how to do these things on your dSLR, I’m going to try to explain it in such a way that all you need to do is open your manual to find the correct dial to accomplish the tasks. So, let’s talk about bokeh.  In the image above, you can see that the cute little heart wreath I shaped is nice and sharp.  It is in focus and in the foreground.  In the background, there is a beautiful melting of warm soft spheres – bokeh! “Bokeh” is really just anything in your image that is out of focus (some great information here and here if you want to know more).  I knew that I wanted big beautiful orbs, so in order to achieve the look, I held the heart out in my hand, and made sure that the background was my Christmas tree (lights on, of course!).  I also knew that the closer I stood to the tree, the sharper and tighter the bokeh would be.  The more distance there was between  my subject (the wreath) and the tree, the more blobby (so scientific) the orbs would be.

*technical note: I have my f/stop “wide open” at f/2.8.  How big your opening can be depends on your lens.  Switch your camera into “aperture priority” and turn your dial until the number is as small as it can be (in my case 2.8, but this number may be 1.4, 4, 5.6, etc).  The smaller the number = the bigger the opening.  The bigger the opening = how potentially globby and blobby and dreamy your bokeh will look!

Ok, so now that we’re past that bit on aperture (f/stop) lets talk about focus.  Bokeh is all about being out of focus! Who says you need anything in focus in your image?  Maybe you just want blobbs of warm floating beautiful light.  Even if you don’t, practice with the focus to get a better understanding of how it works.

Example 1

Example 2

In the two pictures above show how your bokeh can change based on how focused or unfocused you are.  A completely focused image would give you each individual light, sharp sharp sharp.  Unfocus a little bit, like in Image 1, and your spheres are nice and sharp, but they are totally blobbed out, dude! I’ve seen a lot of graphic designers use this as an element in their word, and you almost always see lights like this at some point during a movie.  In fact, I was kind enough to point out to my husband during a rainy football game last week that the camera man never wiped his lens clean, so he was showing off some lovely bokeh.  My husband didn’t care.

Now on to Image 2. The spheres are blurry, blobby, and totally melting into each other.  Play with the focus, and play with the distance of the camera from the light source.  Once you stick in an object or person, it is the distance of the person from the tree, not necessarily your camera.

Image 3

In Image 3 (above) and Image 4 (below) I tried out another technique.  I manually focused while the shutter opened and closed.  In order to do this, your shutter speed needs to be a little bit slower (but if you are doing this in a somewhat dark room, it will be slow).  As my shutter was releasing, in Image 3 I went from being very unfocused to focusing.  This gave really soft edges to the orbs.  In Image 4 I tried the opposite.  I started out relatively focused (but not perfect) and manually went to super unfocused as my shutter released.  You can see that in this case, I had a more defined center but still got really soft edges on the blobs.

Image 4

If you want to play some more, I recommend moving your camera while you have different variations of focus (meaning perfect focus to very unfocused).  If your shutter speed is slow enough, you will be able to use your soft sphere to paint lines, swirls, zig-zags, etc.

Hope this was helpful.  Please leave any questions in the comments!

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  • Dear Meg,

    thank you so much for this tutorial! This was my first time trying to go out of the automatic focus:-))
    The bokeh was really easy to find ( only with your tutorial)but I did not get my wreath in the front focus…is there any trick?
    I am not shure if my english is right but I will be very happy for any tips.
    Thanks, and lovely greetings from cold Germany

  • Hey Melanie!

    I should have been more specific in my tutorial when it comes to photographing a subject with a bokeh background!! All you need to do is make sure there is some distance between your subject and the lights. Then, using autofocus and a “wide open” aperture (like 1.4, 2.8, 4) focus on your subject! The lights in the background will be nice and blobby if there is enough distance!