Bokeh-The Photographer’s Blur Simple Tips to Improve Your Dreamy Backdrop For Wildlife Photography

Taken from a Japanese word for “blur,” bokeh has become a photography slang used to describe how a lens renders a background that’s out of focus. Camera enthusiasts discuss this optical effect regularly, many wildlife photographers like bokeh due to its visually pleasing qualities. It doesn’t only provide a blurry backdrop that draws attention to the subject, but it also creates images that look pensive, eye-catching and even otherworldly. If you frequent photography galleries or have photographer friends, then there’s a good chance you’ve visually witnessed the art of bokeh in their work.

The Heron and The Orb

I will attempt to bring to the attention what I think are some of the most relevant aspects in achieving a background or backdrop that will make your images having “A Dreamy Personality”.

Magpie in The Aspens

The Lens-The most important tool for shooting bokeh is the lens. Every lens has blades on its diaphragm, they open and close when you take a photo, creating the aperture. The number of blades determines the shape of the bokeh. 

A lens with fewer blades will create an octagonal bokeh, while one with more blades will create a smoother, more rounded bokeh. Generally, when people talk about “outstanding” bokeh, they’re referring too more rounded shapes. When you’re shopping for a lens, you can usually count the number of blades. You can also see if “diaphragm blades” is a listed feature. Look for lenses with more than eight blades for rounder shapes. A very good lens to start with would be in the focal length of 50 or 85mm with an f-stop of f/1.8.

Once you have gained some feel for what you can achieve, you can begin to try new lens. Macro, telephoto and longer lenses to create hazy and eye-dropping backgrounds. You can also create bokeh shapes by cutting a shape out of dark paper and covering the lens or by creating a bokeh with different materials within your lens hood. In addition, many lens manufactures feature lenses which capture high quality bokeh images.

Pitcher Plant with various lens hoods

Lenses with long focal lengths (400, 500, 600mm) or telephoto lens (70-200, 70-300mm), usually have a deeper depth of field; however, there are many lenses that you can find with f-stops in the 2.8-4.0 ranges. Length coupled with a low f-stop (f/2.8-4.0), and zooming into what you’re photographing with a telephoto increase blur significantly.

Pronghorns-The American Antelope

The Aperture-As the f-stop value increases, the aperture diameter decreases, allowing less light into the camera while increasing the depth of field. As the f-stop value decreases, the aperture diameter increases, allowing more light into the camera while decreasing the depth of field.

Since your primary concern in achieving bokeh is to keep your aperture wide, then it’s only practical to set your camera to AV mode (also known as Aperture Priority). This useful setting lets you choose the aperture and automatically sets the shutter speed for you.

Somewhere Over The Rainbow

The Light Source- Bokeh is created by small bit of light blurring. If your image doesn’t have any small light sources—such as sunlight filtering through trees, Christmas lights, or even street lights off in the distance—you won’t get any bokeh in your image. The point is that there has to be distinction between light and dark areas in the background of your image.

And Color- Apart from the creamy blur, bokeh also provides distinct, colorful backgrounds that look visually appealing. A lot of photographers actively seek bokeh for the “light orbs” it creates. This effect is achieved when an image is blurred to the point that lights start to look like floating spaceships.

The American Kestrel

Look for locations with colorful light sources. Doing so allows you to experiment with different hues and patterns for your bokeh. Manually focus your lens to blur a scene if you’re curious to see how it would look like as a bokeh background. Take some test shots and figure out how to compose your image.

Don’t look for messy clumps of light. Seek patterns to create engaging compositions. Also, try to illuminate your subject in colors that are different from the background.

Lights with colors that complement the dominant hues in the backdrop would make anything in the foreground stand out. For instance, you can light up your subject with cool colors to balance out the warm-colored lights behind.

Create Distance- Finally, choose a subject that is a reasonable distance from the background, or wait for your subject to move as far from the background as possible.

The Fisher King in His Swamp

If you’re shooting a bird portrait, for example, and there are trees in the background, don’t look for the subject up against the tree for bokeh. Instead, wait for shot when they are at a distance from the trees, so that the trees can appear as a soft, blurred background instead of individual trees with distinct bark and leaves.

I personally like to keep my ISO as low as possible, and when you are looking for a nice clean, smooth bokeh you do want to have little noise associated with your background. Shutter speed usually does not affect the bokeh and only is an issue if your subject has fast movement.

Where Fairies Come and Fairies Show

Focus, Focus and Focus- To make a good exposure, meter your subject and not what’s behind or in front of it. Simply focus on your model and the camera will adjust the exposure settings accordingly. Single point of focus matters and other objects being blurred can add to the interest of your subject. However, if you happen to have multiple subjects that have a slight depth to each other and you want both in focus, you will need to increase your depth of field and make your aperture not as wide.

Create frames from other animals for your shot. Create multiple focal points. Play with your f-stop, experiment with what your camera and lens can do. Look for objects that can describe your subject matter. And practice, practice, and practice…

Are You Taking My Picture

Hello, What’s Your Name?

People often imagine an image with a blurry background when they think of bokeh. But the term applies to the foreground as well.

The Family Discussion

Just Me and My Beach

But, bokeh isn’t just about having the greatest lenses, picking a background with small light sources, getting up close to your subject and shooting wide open, you can likely still get some decent bokeh out of the lenses you already have. Learning how to shoot bokeh draws attention to the subject by paying attention to the background and not just their legs.

Hot Legs

Scream and Shout

Mommy-Tell Me About The Bees