Bonkers for Bokeh!

With an aperture of f/1.4, the bokeh in this image looks smooth and well rounded. Photograph/Keita Amagai

With an aperture of f/1.4, the bokeh in this image looks smooth and well rounded. Photograph/Keita Amagai

Ever wondered about those blurry lights in your photographs? Supriya Joshi explains the phenomenon of bokeh and tells you how you can take beautiful bokeh shots at night.

Have you ever shot a subject at night against bright lights and noticed those lights becoming round spots of radiance in the photograph? This phenomenon is known as ‘bokeh’. It is a Japanese word for ‘blur’, describing the way in which the lens produces out-of-focus points of light.

Just What is Bokeh?
Bokeh occurs because of the difference between the lens design and aperture shape. It occurs best in areas that lie outside the depth of field that have specular highlights or pointillistic sources of light, so that they are completely out of focus.

How Does it Happen?
Lens type and aperture size determine bokeh—the larger the aperture, the larger the bokeh. Bokeh also depends on the shape and size of the lens. Smaller apertures will give small and flat bokeh and vice versa. Fast lenses with apertures below f/2.8 are great for shooting bokeh.

The good news is that you do not need really expensive equipment to capture bokeh. You can also achieve bokeh with a compact camera. Simply switch to aperture priority mode and dial to the widest aperture setting. Shoot by focussing on subjects close to the lens to blur away the background completely.

Which Light Source?
Bokeh is not limited to just highlights or specks of light, as blur occurs in all out-of-focus regions of the image. But the best way to achieve bokeh is by using tiny spots of lights in random order or repeating lights in any form. For example, if you have Christmas lights, arrange them at a distance from your subject, so that it is out of focus, and shoot.

If you are outdoors, you can achieve similar results with street and car lights against the darker backgrounds at night. However, ensure that your main subject is illuminated in the way you want it to appear in the image.

What Settings?
Now that you have everything set up, you can finally begin shooting. Get close to your subject and manually adjust the focus to the point you see the background lights blurring on your viewfinder. Since the light levels are low, you may get slow shutter speeds. You can avoid camera shake by using a tripod or placing the camera on a steady surface. Alternatively, you can increase the ISO settings. Play around with angles, and pretty soon you will get a good bokeh effect in your photographs!

The technicalities and details behind achieving good bokeh in your photographs may seem daunting initially. But once you get the hang of it, you can master the bokeh effect and use it to your advantage!

Tags: Better Pictures, Composition, Unusual, night, Supriya Joshi, bokeh, lights, November 2011