The Beauty of Bokeh with Fajar Kristiono
Bokeh is one of the most popular topics in photography. Whether it’s online, in magazines, or on YouTube, professionals and hobbyists alike have been sharing their know-how on the subject probably since the first photos were taken.
But What is Bokeh?
Pronounced “bo-kay”, the word first came into use in the photography world in a 1997 issue of Photo Techniques magazine. It’s a Japanese word that literally translates to “blur” or “out of focus”.
Technically speaking, it is the out-of-focus, “blurry”, parts of the image created by a camera lens—not the blur itself, or the amount of blur in the foreground or the background of a subject.
The beauty of bokeh is how it draws the viewer’s eyes to the subject.
Alpha 7R III | FE 85mm F1.4 GM | 85mm | 1/8000sec | F1.4 | ISO 500
It is the sweet girl in the dreamy forest, that slice of cake popping out from a table full of sweets, or that wide-eyed kitten staring at you from a cozy lap.
Good bokeh is pleasing to the eye. The contrast of a sharp subject against a soft, out-of-focus background gives the image depth by creating layers. The background blur should appear soft and “creamy”, with smooth round circles of light and no hard edges. Bokeh is great for strengthening an image’s mood, creating a particular aesthetic using colors and flashes of light in the background, or “hiding” unpleasant or crowded backgrounds.
So, Why is Bokeh Important?
Alpha 7R III | FE 85mm F1.4 GM | 85mm | 1/200sec | F1.4 | ISO 160
The easiest way to understand the aesthetic value of bokeh is to think about how a human eye naturally sees things: Through the three dimensions of length, width, and height. In order to see things as three-dimensional, the human eye compares the foreground to the background of the subject, or what is in front and behind the subject.
Without bokeh, an image becomes flat or two-dimensional. There is little or no separation between the foreground and background, and the lack of “layers” can make an image either uninteresting or overwhelming.
So, How Do You Achieve Good Bokeh?
The biggest challenge in achieving creamy bokeh in your shot is finding the balance between what is sharp and what is out of focus. This is because using the widest aperture available to you usually limits the area of sharp space you will have.
Alpha 7R III | FE 85mm F1.4 GM | 85mm | 1/400sec | F1.4 | ISO 400
There is also the challenge of lighting and space. Shooting indoors could mean a lack of light and space, whilst shooting outdoors exposes you to crowds, unpredictable weather, and missed timings, such as golden hour.
Here’s the Secret... It’s DOF
AKA “depth of field”. The shallower your DOF, the larger your image’s out-of-focus areas will be. Conversely, a longer DOF will keep more of the image in focus and give you less out-of-focus regions.
Alpha 7R III | FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM | 27mm | 1/1250sec | F2.8 | ISO 80
Basically, the more distance between your subject and the background, the more blurred the background will be. Plus, the closer you are to your subject, the shallower your DOF, which means a creamier background.
To create dynamic backgrounds, try using highlights behind the subject to help it really pop.
When trying to create natural-looking images, consider these factors:
- Open up your aperture to the smallest F-stop
- Focus closer to your subject then the background
- Use a fast lens (2.8 or greater, 1.9, 1.8)
- Situational lighting
Another Tip—Choose the Right Lenses
Ever noticed how some images have subtle, pentagon-shaped out-of-focus highlights, and others have rounder, more circular ones? It’s all thanks to your lens.
Bokeh is created by camera lenses, not your camera. Different lenses have a different number of aperture blades. The more blades the lens has, the more circular the bokeh will appear. Depending on your aesthetic, you may prefer one or the other. Generally, portrait and telephoto lenses with large apertures will produce more pleasant-looking bokeh than zoom kit lenses.
Choosing lenses with wide bokeh gives you the option to play with your DOF and bokeh. Sony G Master has a wide range of lenses with amazingly wide bokeh including the SEL24F14GM, SEL135F18GM, and more. But my personal favorites are the SEL85F14GM and SEL70200GM.
Alpha 7R III | FE 85mm F1.4 GM | 85mm | 1/2500sec | F2.8 | ISO 500
At its widest, the SEL85F14GM is the perfect portrait prime. It widens up to F1.4 which gives me breathtaking bokeh and sharpness. It has a circular 11-blade aperture that creates soft, circular highlights which helps me achieve dreamy images easily.
Alpha 7R III | FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS | 198mm | 1/2000sec | F2.8 | ISO 100
When shooting outdoors in large spaces with distant backgrounds, I prefer to use Sony’s SEL70200GM. With its longest focal length of 200 mm at F2.8, it is possible to render smooth bokeh and amazing compression. The lens is also incredibly versatile and allows you to move closer or further away as needed.
There’s No Right Way to Capture Bokeh
The most important thing to remember when creating your ideal image is to have fun. There are many ways to apply bokeh to bring your images to life. Explore, try new things, and remember to enjoy the process too.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of Sony Singapore.
Alpha 7R III
FE 70-200 mm F2.8 GM OSS
FE 24–70 mm F2.8 GM