Blue flowers with a blurred green backdrop
Lens-Artists,  Photographic techniques,  Themed galleries

Gallery: playing with bokeh

Every time someone tells me how sharp my photos are, I assume that it isn’t a very interesting photograph. If it were, they would have more to say.

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Bokeh is a Japanese word that refers to blur used deliberately to heighten the impact of a photo, by isolating its main subject. It is an aesthetic technique and shouldn’t of course be confused with poor focusing or camera shake (both of which I am also capable of at times!)

When you think about it, bokeh is an artificial construct. The human eye doesn’t see in bokeh, as it were. We usually see things in focus across a wide range of distances, either naturally or with the devices that we use to correct our vision if it’s less than perfect. So bokeh in photographs can be seen as a unique visual experience, only visible when looking at an image captured through an optical lens.

How I do it

Sofia has challenged us this week to share our best bokeh images for the Lens Artists Challenge, and I am happy to oblige. It’s an effect I love to experiment with, both in flower photography and other subjects too.

There is a school of thought that considers only those blurred backgrounds with the distinctive circles of brighter light to be true bokeh. To achieve those circles you need a wide aperture and some contrasting bright spots in the background. Water sparkling in the sun; a string of fairy lights; bright yellow or white flowers; anything that catches the eye is likely to also create that effect. Others meanwhile are happy to accept any blurred backdrop (and/ or foreground) as qualifying. Personally I’m happy to work with that wider definition; a blurred backdrop sets off my subjects very well and helps to create the impact I’m after.

I don’t have a dedicated macro lens and although I sometimes use the macro setting on my bridge camera I find the best bokeh effects can often be achieved by standing back from my subject and zooming in, while also using a wide aperture. Using a longer focal length reduces the depth of field; and the shallower your depth of field, the more you will create areas of your image that are out of focus. Similarly a wide aperture will also create shallow depth of field by letting in more light diffused through the larger hole.

The trick of course is to make sure that your main subject is pin sharp! That means that a steady hand and/or tripod are needed to ensure that camera shake doesn’t introduce an unwanted element of blur; and as I don’t carry a tripod I have to take care to stand firmly. As a result some images are destined never to see the light of day, but thanks to digital photography I can always try again!

I’ve also found that the portrait setting on my phone camera (a Samsung Galaxy) does a similar job. I almost never actually take portraits with it, but I find myself using that setting more and more for flowers, food and other details.

In the selection below I’ve tried to show how bokeh doesn’t have to be restricted to nature photography, although it is particularly effective in that genre.

Nature

Red flower spike with blurred waterfall behind

A ginger plant at Dunns River Falls, Jamaica, with the water of the falls providing a contrasting blurred backdrop.


Red flower with long stamen

In the garden of the Aguila de Osa lodge where we stayed on our recent visit to Costa Rica. The background has the classic bokeh circles, the result of sunlight through the surrounding vegetation.


Purple thistle-like seed heads

In a garden in Craster, Northumberland, taken on a rather dull, drizzly day.


Grass seed head

Grass in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State. This was another overcast day, so there are no bright bokeh circles; instead the surrounding grasses provide an interesting background pattern of blurred diagonal lines. I like the almost monochromatic effect in this image.


Yellow flower spike with a bee

Taken in Kew Gardens, west London, in late October. The background colours are those of the autumn trees as well as other flowers. As with the grasses above, the shot has an almost monochromatic autumnal look .


Large brown butterfly on a tree trunk

An Owl butterfly (Caligo memnon) in the butterfly garden at Selvatura Park, Costa Rica. If the background weren’t blurred like this it would be much harder to make out his more delicate features such as the antennae.


Small mammal looking over a rock

A chipmunk in Mount Rainier National Park. Taken on a much brighter day than the grass above, you can see the classic bokeh circles in the background. In some ways I prefer the more subdued blurring of the duller day; what do you think?


Bird perched on a metal bar

A swallow at Stokesay Castle, Shropshire. The birds nest in the partly ruined castle and fly in and out through the windows. I watched the pattern of their behaviour and focused on the metal bar, waiting for one of the birds to (eventually) choose that spot to perch. Again it was a dull day so the castle grounds provide a soft green backdrop.


Other subjects

Glass of wine with blurred skyscrapers behind

A glass of wine by the Thames in London. This one is pushing the limits of what I would call bokeh as the background, while blurred, is easily identified. However, it is a good example of a shot taken with the portrait setting on my phone.


White marble statue of a woman in traditional Korean dress

One of the statues at Mansudae Fountain Park in Pyongyang, North Korea. I find that this technique is particularly effective when photographing statues and sculptures, helping to make their details stand out.


Head and shoulders of a statue of a man in a coat

Here’s another statue; this is Paul McCartney, one of a group of all four Beatles in Liverpool. Again the soft focus background reduces distractions from the main subject of the image.


Gate painted red, with graffiti

Still in Liverpool, this is the the gate of Strawberry Field in Liverpool. The site was immortalised by John Lennon in The Beatles hit, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Throwing the background out of focus ensures that the gate is the ‘star’ of the image, complete with graffiti from adoring fans!


Small bell hanging from a roof

At the Lama Temple in Beijing. As with the shot above of the glass of wine in London, here the background is still clear enough to tell you something about the setting of the photo; but blurred enough not to distract from the bell that is the main subject. I love taking detail shots like this when visiting historic buildings; and this technique is perfect for creating the effect I’m after.


Worn stone statue

At Lady’s Well, Northumberland. Here an atmospheric little pool is surrounded by a grove of trees. The pool is considered holy. This statue is of St Paulinus who is said to have baptised over 3000 Northumbrians here during Easter week of AD 627. I’ve added a slight vignette to this shot to further make the statue stand out, in addition to the effect of the bokeh. 


Small piece of wood with shells and a note attached, hanging on a red ribbon

A token hung on a tree near Glastonbury Tor. A wide range of beliefs are attached to the Tor, both Christian (some say it is a possible location of the Holy Grail) and mystical. Among the latter beliefs is that it is a gateway to Avalon, the land of the fairies. Hence, I assume, the rough depiction of a fairy on this little wooden plaque.


Carved wooden head and small Chinese figure

A couple of items on a bric-a-brac stall at Tynemouth Market, north east England. The pattern in the bokeh backdrop is created by the glass roof, with metal supports, of the railway station in which the market is held.


Foil paper ornament

A seaside windmill toy, also photographed in Tynemouth. When I was a child these were made of ordinary paper; today they are foil and shiny. I like the way the green background echoes the colours of the toy wit the exception of that central pop of purple.

I’m a bit late posting my response this week because we’ve been away for the weekend. We had a lovely few days in Faro on the Algarve; so look out for several posts about that region, coming shortly!

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