A Discussion on Good Bokeh and Bad Computers

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted, partly due to a mild case of writer’s block that was immediately followed up by a case of broken computer.

Active photographers tend to acquire redundant equipment, partly because we never grew out of our love of toys, but also because it’s important to have a back-up. If you go out on a major shoot with just one camera, that camera is a single point of failure. One little glitch and your shoot can be ruined. On important shoots, I bring three, two of my beloved 5D Classics and my nifty Canon G11. I’ve never had to resort to using the G11, I just feel better knowing it’s there in case of emergency. I also have enough lenses to survive the loss of one, so no problem there.

The one thing I don’t have is a backup computer. I was recently reminded of how important a computer is to a digital photographer by virtue of being denied one. Without my laptop, I was pretty much dead in the water as a photog, let alone as a blogger.

Now that my computer is out of the shop, I want to touch on a subject I once briefly mentioned, bokeh. In today’s post, I will define bokeh, show you some examples and give you some tips and tricks on how to achieve good bokeh.

What is bokeh?

If you ask Wikipedia, it’ll tell you that bokeh is:

“The blur, or the aesthetic quality of the blur, in out-of-focus areas of an image.”

I am not going to tell you that Wikipedia is wrong, this is actually, surprisingly, kind of a controversial subject.

I will say, however, that there are differing opinions on this topic; many people (including me) believe that bokeh can more accurately be described as:

“The aesthetic quality of how the lens renders out-of-focus HIGHLIGHTS in an image”

An example of bokeh:

Napa Wedding Photographer

ISO 500 | f/2.8 | 1/400 Copyright Robert Baker

The variously colored out-of-focus highlights around their heads are what I consider bokeh.

As opposed to what’s just out-of-focus background, as in this photograph of my girlfriend Elizabeth:

napa wedding photographer

ISO 125 | f/3.5 | 1/1250 Copyright Robert Baker

This photograph was taken in my backyard, the blur behind her is a combination of valley, hills and sky. If you look closely at the bit in the valley, you can see faint traces of bokeh from the highlights of the windows in the houses below. So in truth, this second photograph has both out-of-focus background and bokeh.

Those blobs of light are very important to some photographers, especially wedding photographers, it’s a cool effect that is simple to achieve if you have the right equipment and conditions.

How to Achieve Bokeh:

In order to create big, plump, juicy bokeh in your images, it helps to have a long-ish telephoto lens with a large aperture. For example, the lens I would pull out of my bag to create bokeh would probably be my Canon 70-200 f/2.8, I’d use it at its longest focal length, 200mm. This lens has the benefit of having a wide aperture and a reasonable zoom.

The reason you want a nice big aperture is because you can throw your backgrounds out of focus much easier. Likewise with the long zoom – a lens with a long zoom tends to create better OOF (out-of-focus) areas behind your subject than a wide-angle lens. It’s this ability to throw your backgrounds OOF that will aid you in creating nice bokeh.

The aperture mechanism is also a factor, Lens apertures are like the iris of your eye, they open up and close down (stop down) to let more or less light fall on your sensor, depending your your needs. Apertures on most mainstream cameras are comprised of “leaves”. In the photo below, you can see that there are five leaves that make up the aperture.

napa wedding photographer

A lens aperture with fives leaves

You can see that five leaves doesn’t make a very good circle, the more leaves you have, the closer to a circle you can get, as in this example:

napa wedding photographer

An aperture with thirteen leaves

This is important because the shape of your aperture will determine the shape of your bokeh. For example, in the five leaf aperture the bokeh will take on a pentagram shape, whereas with the thirteen leaf aperture, it will take on a circular shape. In general, the more leaves your aperture has, the better the quality of the bokeh. It won’t surprise you to learn that the more leaves your aperture has, the more money you will likely have to pay for the lens.

Another consideration for good bokeh is the distance between your subject and the light sources behind them. If your bokeh producing lights are right behind your subject, it’s much more likely that they will be in focus. In focus highlights make poor bokeh, so try to position your subject so that the lights behind them are a good distance away.

Remember that you have to have your aperture “wide open” or close to wide open in order to throw the highlights out-of-focus. The more OOF they are, the larger they will be.

Trick Bokeh

Some people get creative with their bokeh, for example:

napa wedding photographer

Photo Credit "CKG 88" on Flickr

What is bad bokeh?

Bad bokeh is in the eye of the beholder, but for me the best example of bad bokeh is with a Mirror Lens:

Mirror Lenses Create Crappy Bokeh - Image Credit: ...-Wink-... from Flickr

Again, good or bad bokeh is a personal taste thing, but I think these donut style OOF highlights are ugly.

That’s it for today, if you have examples or great (or crappy) bokeh you’d like to share, paste a link in the comments section, I’d love to see what you come up with.

About The Napa Photographer

I am a Napa California area photographer specializing in portrait and wedding photography. I would describe my style as “environmental portraiture”, I like to shoot on location and try to seek out the most interesting backgrounds.

I am the organizer of a local Meetup.com group, I provide bi-weekly lighting and portrait workshops, you can find my group at:

http://www.meetup.com/American-Canyon-People-Photography-Off-Camera-Lighting/

My main photography site is: http://www.robertbakerphotography.com

I use a Canon 5D and about a dozen Canon 550EX’s triggered with Pocket Wizard Flex TT5′s.

Category(s): Uncategorized

7 Responses to A Discussion on Good Bokeh and Bad Computers

    Rick Whitacre says:

    Very timely, Robert! I was just doing a lens comparison between my Canon 24mm f/1.4L USM II and the new Rokinon 24mm f/1.4. I did this shot to try to compare bokeh between the two lenses. While the highlights are not as dramatic as yours, I think there is a difference. Both lenses are wide open.

    To me, it appears that the Canon bokeh is a little harsher with the edges more defined. I think I prefer the softer bokeh of the Rokinon, but would love your take on it

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ricoshanchez/6862930886/in/photostream/

    Best,
    Rick

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