Bokeh refers to the aesthetic quality of any lights in the out of focus area of your images. This is to not be confused with a blurred shallow depth of field. Bokeh is all about the shape of any lights or highlights in an image. Different lenses naturally give different shapes depending on the shape of the blades.
In this article, I am going to tell you two different ways to create bokeh in-camera. You can create bokeh in Photoshop using the Field Blur filter, and you can purchase overlays online to add to your images. But it’s always fun to know how to create it yourself.
Outdoors Using Natural Lighting
You can really take advantage of getting beautiful natural bokeh when shooting outdoors. The key is to shoot with a wide aperture. You want your subject to be sharp and in focus and the background with the lights you are incorporating to be blurry and out of focus. Look for things to include in your background such as trees with speckles of light coming through, street lights, car lights, lights from buildings, etc.
The images below were shot with a 70-200mm 2.8 lens. When I shoot my own images, I always try to shoot at 2.8 to get my background as blurry as possible. When going for bokeh, I check out my surroundings and place my subjects a good distance from the light source.
As you can see in these images, this lens gives a natural circular shaped bokeh effect. Get as close to your subject as you can to have them and whatever else you want to be sharp in focus. The goal is to keep the bokeh light source blurred. For these images, the lighting coming through the tree leaves was used as the source of bokeh.
If shooting objects at night look for things that have random lighting that you can use to create interesting bokeh effects.
The first image below is curved shape row of lit candles that were shot at a high aperture to keep the flame in the foreground in focus, and then the flames further back were used as the bokeh light source.
Shooting with a wide aperture and using this technique really gives a beautiful background that is appealing to the viewer.
This next image was also shot at night using the random street and city lights as the Bokeh light source.
You can experiment with many different ways to create bokeh just by paying more attention to your surroundings, whether it be day or night.
You can find all sorts of natural bokeh opportunities indoors. Christmas lights, glimmers of light reflecting off of walls or ceilings, unique shaped light fixtures, etc., all work very well. Just remember to keep your subject or object you are shooting a good distance from the light source to get great background blur for the best bokeh possible.
Many of us aim to get that beautifully blurred background in camera to draw the viewer’s eyes to our subject or focal point. But when you can make the blurred out areas more appealing, you give the viewer more to look at because you add more interesting elements to the image as a whole.
Create Your Own Bokeh Shapes
As I mentioned earlier, different lenses give different bokeh shapes. Some give off circular shapes, some give off more of an octagon shape, depending on the shape of the blades in the lens. But there is a fun and easy way to play with different shapes and effects with your camera. It just requires getting a little creative and crafty!
All you have to do is take a blank piece of black paper and create a “lens cover”. Cut out a circle big enough to cover the front of the lens entirely. Make sure you leave enough to fold over the edges and secure. You can either use tape or a large rubber band. Just make sure it covers all of the glass part of the lens so that no extra light can get in.
Cut out a shape about a ½ to ¾ inches in size in the centre of the circle. You can use scissors or a craft knife to cut out stars, hearts, circles, etc. The more defined the shape is, the better results you will get. Using a craft knife works best. Try to avoid any raggedy edges because they will show in your bokeh. You can trace shapes or draw them free-hand, whichever is easy for you.
Once you have your shape cut out and the paper securely attached to the end of your lens, you are ready to start experimenting!
You may have to use a higher ISO because you are allowing very little light in your lens. Find and play with different sources of lighting and have fun with it! You can also create multiple lens covers with different shapes.
In the examples below, a heart was used to create beautiful heart shaped bokeh in the background. The top of a jar was focused on with the lights source in the background at a good distance away. So instead of your lenses natural shape due to the blades, you can create any shape you want! If you were to take a photo of a lit up Christmas tree using this technique, you would have a tree full of hearts. There are so many fun ways to play around and experiment with hand made bokeh shapes!
When you are looking for a fun and creative way to add more appealing effects to your images, start looking at the bigger picture. Using bokeh to your advantage can take that blurred out background from blah to beautiful! It is always a good thing to give your viewers more reason to really scan over your images and appreciate them as a whole and notice every beautiful detail from corner to corner.