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.Unknown
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.
A ginger plant at Dunns River Falls, Jamaica, with the water of the falls providing a contrasting blurred backdrop.
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.
In a garden in Craster, Northumberland, taken on a rather dull, drizzly day.
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.
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 .
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Great selection of bokeh. Your first photo doesn’t even look real. so pretty. I love seeing your photos from Mt. Rainier. Agree, while the chipmunk is cute, a softer day would have softened the photo. I loved the ginger flower with the muted waterfall in the back. Honestly, I don’t think I would have known that was ginger. Donna
Thank you Donna 😀 We loved Mount Rainier and were so lucky to be there in good weather (for one day at least!)
Great shots, Sarah! Funny, I have recently discovered that my new phone has this feature, I only need to go close enough to the main subject, and then voila!! This new technology makes the things so much easier😀
Glad you had an amazing time in Portugal!! xx
Thank you Christie 🙂 Yes, new technology can really help you achieve results like this, not just in your phone but also in some of the settings available on ‘point and shoot’ cameras. The trick is as you say to get close enough to your subject, either in a macro shot or through zooming from far enough away!
What a beautiful set of bokeh images. I love the blue flowers especially, it’s like a watercolor painting. 🙂
Thank you Amy 😀 I’m no artist but it might be fun to try a painterly effect with that photo. Thanks for the idea!
I liked your photo of the Bachelor button flowers and the little ground squirrel, Sarah. I also have a Samsung phone and have used the portrait setting. The blurred background works great for flower photos in particular, as you have shown so well.
Thank you Siobhan 🙂 The flowers you call bachelor buttons, are they the ones in my featured photo? We call them cornflowers 🙂
Yes, the ones in the featured photo. Cornflower is another name for them. We grow them in our garden in multiple colors. One of my favorites since they bloom for so long. 🙂
Thanks – I hadn’t heard that name 🙂
So many great examples! So good Sarah! 👍🏼👍🏼👍🏼
Thank you Teresa 😊
Smartly done, Sarah, with great variety. I like you went for not just nature but pretty much everything and they all work incredibly well, the glass of wine one is exceptional!
Thanks so much Sofia 😊 It’s interesting that several people have picked out the glass of wine as a favourite, as it was ‘just’ taken on my phone. Shows what they are capable of these days!
Absolutely! Quite a few posts with photos taken with phones and they’re more than capable to do the job.
Beautiful examples of bokeh Sarah! I particularly like the wine glass and its reflection. Your other images are equally great.
Thank you Anne. As I said to Leela below, there’s a happy memory attached to that photo of the wine glass. It was taken our first outing to central London after lockdown rules were slightly eased in 2020 😀
Oh, the Places We See
Excellent examples and much good information about what works for you. I’m going to try my hand at this intentionally rather than accidentally! I especially like your shots taken in Liverpool and that first dramatic red flower. Oh, my! Looking forward to your photos from your recent trip!
Thank you 😊 Do have a go, and share the results!
Wow. GREAT variety of selections. Superb.
Thank you John 😊😊
SLR that is
Bokeh…that’s the word I was looking for. I have numerous photos with what I always thought of as Orbs, I never figured out where they came from. I’ll locate some and post on the subject. Any “bokeh” in any of my photos are strictly serendipitous…I wouldn’t know how to create the effect artificially. Back in the olden days before digital cameras I used a 35m SRL, and my focusing always left a lot to be desired. 🙂
I think a lot of people like to use the effect without knowing its name – I only learned it a couple of years ago through a photography group on Facebook. I’ll be interested to see your examples 🙂
Oh Yes, these are wonderful photos Sarah! You took really good care of your subject. The statue examples looked real!
Well done! Happy easter to you.
Thanks so much, and happy Easter to you too!
Sarah, it is very hard to get ‘tack sharp’ without a tripod, but you have done well with these. Thanks for the Iphone ‘portrait setting’ tip. I will experiment with that this week. My favorite photo here is the butterfly.
Thanks Suzanne and good luck with your phone experiments. I’m sure you’ll find the setting useful, although you do have to fiddle a bit sometimes to ensure the phone agrees with you about the main subject 😆 Glad you liked the butterfly, it’s one of my favourites and I had to include it even though it’s not long ago that I used it another post!
I also think of bokeh as those small circular (or multi-gonal (is that a word?) 5- or 6-sided points of light rather than a blurred background. In either case, however, the result is the same, the subject is highlighted by the lack of background details to distract the viewer.
Of all your images, I found the chipmonk to be my favorite.
You’re right John, any sort of blurred background highlights the main subject effectively 🙂 See my reply to Jude below re the term – there’s definitely some confusion/debate among photographers from what I could read! Interesting that you like the chipmunk best, as Manja (below) liked it least 😂
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. >grin<
Definitely – it’s all very subjective 🙂
I still think of bokeh as that special effect with the light orbs, the rest is simply a blurred background, which is good for isolating a subject, but not what I consider bokeh.
I thought the same Jude, but reading up about it I found that both definitions seem to be in use. The original Japanese term simply means blurring for effect (rather than by accident!) so the wider definition actually fits better 🙂
Aletta - nowathome
Thank you Aletta 😊
These are all great examples of bokeh Sarah and I appreciated the explanation as I wasn’t aware of the real meaning of it. I just thought it was any blurred background so thanks for the examples. I also use the portrait setting of my iPhone sometimes to good effect. I like flowers done with this effect as they come out so clear and yours are fabulous!
Thank you Debbie – I’m glad you like the photos and found the explanation useful 🙂
I LOVED THE WINE GLASS BEST….THOSE CLOUDS AND THE GRILLS REFLECTING ON THE WINE….
Thanks so much Leela 🙂 There’s a happy memory attached to that photo too. It was our first outing to central London after lockdown rules were slightly eased in 2020. No indoor hospitality at that point, but we could buy a drink to have outside the pub and luckily it was a warm enough day to enjoy it. It felt like a very special treat!
Probably the happiness is also reflecting on the wine and that’s what has made it such a classic picture!!!
Ah yes, maybe 💟
Thank you so much 😊
Excellent examples and wonderful, vibrant colours! Love them all, but there is one image that really stuck in my inner eye – the little swallow at Stokesay Castle. A poetic and totally lovely image. The piece of stone in the right margin does it all. The last one is also a memorable and stunning capture of an ordinary toy made colourful and spectacular.
I think my eyes see in bokeh.
Yes, actually my eyes saw in bokeh too in the run-up to my cataract operation a few years ago 😂
Is that supposed to make me feel better?
Nothing specific intended, it was just an observation about my own eyesight 🤗
Thanks so much for the thoughtful feed back Ann-Christine 😍 I have to agree about the stonework in the swallow shot, I included it deliberately to give more context and provide a sort of frame. I’m so glad you like it!
It is a lovely picture.
Thank you 😊❤
Brilliant examples. As you could see in my post, I most like the blurred background as it’s in your featured photo. Your chipmunk photo is a good example of the background that I don’t like and it makes me crazy when it happens in my photos. And now I know how to prevent this! Yeah! And how great that you hopped over to Portugal!!
Thanks Manja 🙂 Yes, that chipmunk background is a little busy but I find him too cute not to share! It’s great that you now know how to create these blurred backgrounds, it can make such a difference to a shot. We had a super time in Portugal, the perfect little weekend break 😀