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How to Take Photos with Gorgeous Bokeh

Updated on September 27, 2012
Photo of a beautiful woman with a soft (blurred) background otherwise known as bokeh. A large aperture lens was used to produce this image.
Photo of a beautiful woman with a soft (blurred) background otherwise known as bokeh. A large aperture lens was used to produce this image. | Source

There’s something magical about sharp portraits with a nicely blurred background. Your subject just pops out before you from a soft backdrop -- whether natural or otherwise. This kind of effect is desirable for wedding photos, family portraits and other personal ‘people photographs’. With a little background knowledge and practice of technique you’ll be taking awesome portraits as these in a variety of situations with an assortment of equipment.

Large Aperture and Shallow Depth of Field

The soft background that you see which is known as bokeh is actually the result of a large aperture. Large apertures produce a shallow depth of field, which means that the lens will focus within a narrow distance. Say for instance that when using a large aperture you choose to take a photograph focusing within the central region of a scene that you see through your viewfinder or LCD, the central region will be sharp while the foreground and background will be soft. The region that is sharp is the field in which your lens focuses.

Lenses for Portraits

To get a nice bokeh effect it’s best to have a lens that can has a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8. While you can achieve a reasonable bokeh with a lens that has a smaller value for it’s maximum bokeh of say f/3.5, it will be significantly create more of a challenge for you to achieve the desired effect. Portrait lenses with a focal length that is close to the natural focal length of the human eye are high on the recommended list. Lenses with focal lengths of 35mm, 50mm and 85mm are common lenses used for portraits. Typically these lenses have won’t go smaller than f/2.0, which is quite wide. Other than that, you can also utilize telephoto lenses that are actually awesome for long range portraits. They can be on the pricey side especially if you choose one that has a maximum aperture of f/2.8, and this is the recommended type.

Steps for taking sharp portraits with soft background

So once you have your D-SLR and lens in check, you know need to manipulate your D-SLR to get the shots you need. Check out these basic steps:

  1. Set your camera to Aperture Priority (AP or A) mode. This is a widely used mode for portrait photography, and it allows you to set the aperture value of your choice while the camera compensates with automatically selecting the Shutter Speed value.
  2. Select the smallest Aperture value. The smallest Aperture value means that the lens is open at its absolute widest, giving you the opportunity to to take sharp photos with a shallow depth of field.
  3. You can opt to use partial metering or spot metering as you manually select an Autofocus (AF) point that zones in on an eye of the person. This is a rule of thumb amongst portrait photographers, because we are naturally drawn first to the eyes of a person so it makes all the sense to focus your lens on an eye.

Additional Tips

There are yet other tips to help you produce these kinds of pics, and it may involve you moving closer to your subject, or using maximum zoom in the case of using a telephoto. There may be other variables to deal with such as when you may need a little fill-in light or you may have to deal with white balance issues, but for the most part these steps can get you along your way. Lastly, you can get more advanced by using the Manual mode to do all of this, and you may just find that images may suit your liking even more since you can fine tune your camera’s settings.

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