hat beautiful out of focus background with beautiful light patterns in photos is called Bokeh
Shallow Focus is a technique that selects the small portion of your subject to be in sharp focus and letting the remainder of the subject go soft.
You will learn how to use these methods to produce beautiful photos in this article.
Early Film Cameras and Lenses
Years ago most photographers would buy a 35mm SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera that came with what they called a normal 50mm f2.8 or F1.4 lens. Zoom lenses were usually very heavy, expensive and not that sharp, so we learned to use our Normal lenses on our cameras to produce some pretty amazing results.
Today with the advances in camera and lens designs, zoom lenses have become the trend and I shoot many of my photos with a Tamron 18-270mm All-In-One Zoom lens and a 10-18mm Tamron Wide Angle Zoom, but still have my trusty Nikkor 50mm f1.8 normal lens as well.
Years ago the popular films were the finer grain films that required more light. You would shoot with 100-200 ASA film for daylight or well lite subjects and would need that fast 50mm lens to capture the image properly.
The Digital Revolution
Today’s digital cameras can shoot at an 6400 ASA or higher and even though the results might be noisy (we use to call that grain with film), we deal with it in order to capture very low light subjects or very fast action.
Because of this new digital technology and better chips to capture the images, lens manufacturers could now design and sell more expensive zoom lenses, even if it was slow (F4.5-5.6-6.7) and you would still be able to capture action and low light images.
Understanding Selective (Shallow) Focus and Bokeh
Zoom lenses are much heavier than a fixed focal length lens and they require more light and higher speeds to record the images properly. Trying to get selective focusing on a zoom is also difficult because of the lenses size and weight.
Getting beautiful soft focus shots some with beautiful bokeh using a zoom lens usually means shooting your subject at a greater distance and then zooming in to the primary subject. By doing so, you than have the proper depth of field to throw the background out of focus or achieving a shallow focused shot.
Fashion photographers use this method when shooting their models, you will see photos of the photographer at a great distance from the model using a huge zoom lens.
Photographers that shoot using the Shallow focus method, as I have done for many years, especially when I travel, find this method rewarding and appreciated by their subjects or clients. The shallow focus method is a technique that incorporates a small depth of field. In this method one area of the image is in sharp focus while the rest of the image is out of focus.
You can see this effect in our selection of photos and of the one I shot of Georgie who keeps me company every day at my computer. I have used my 50mm f1.8 lens, opened all the way to f1.8 in most of these shots. The photo of the flamingo, however was shot with a zoom lens, opened wide to throw the background out of focus and soft.
You can see in this method clearly in many of these photos. In most the point of my focus is sharp and everything in front and behind of it is out of focus or soft and in some cases this can be an area that is only an inch or so that is sharp. This takes a steady hand or tripod in some cases to pinpoint the specific area you want in focus. In portraits it is always the eye or eyes that you want to be as sharp as possible.
Depending on the pose you may want the head to be in sharp focus or as you can see in some of my baby photos, I chose to be in sharp focus on the eye closest to the camera and the other eye starts to go soft. See the 3/4 head shot of Gabe below.
It is up to your creative view on how to use this information. There is no right or wrong, the only thing that is constant on portraits is keeping the eye or eyes sharp.
Now these photos really don’t have any interesting bokeh, but as you will see in my other gallery, these images do contain beautiful bokeh.
So instead of using a zoom lens, you just might want to resort to your 50mm, f1.8 or faster lenses. You see doing this will enable you to open the lens up wide, this has a very narrow depth of field, focus on the main subject (be selective here) and watch the rest go out of focus or soft and since the lens is light, it will be easier to focus and hold that focus on the exact spot you want to be sharp in the finished image.
Steps To Shooting Photos With Great Bokeh
Assuming my readers already have a Digital SLR lens, here are the steps to achieve shallow or selective focus and beautiful Bokeh.
- If you are purchasing the camera, you will only need to buy the body only, unless the zoom lens they pack with it is so inexpensive it doesn’t pay to buy the body only. Some cameras will come with a zoom, if the cost with the lens is reasonable, then by all means get the kits, they will offer you the ability to shoot with your zoom lenses as well.
You will want to buy your camera manufacturers 50mm or similar F1.8 (lowest cost) or their F1.4 lens. There are others available from Tamron, Tokina, Sigma and other manufacturers, but in checking they actually have some more features but cost more than the simple 50mm lens from the company that made your camera. I have a Nikon D7000 and bought the Nikkor 50mm F1.8 lens for about $125 and I love it.
- Start by shooting some subjects where you intentionally want the background to go soft and out of focus. You can see from all the sample images, I love to shoot people and stationary subjects with my camera and lens, so I can pinpoint the area of focus and hold my camera steady. When I shoot flowers or some other objects I will try to use my tripod.
- Set your camera to shoot in the A mode with is aperture priority mode. We want to have control the lens opening based on the subject matter and how much depth of field we want. If we open it all the way to F1.8 or F1.4 depending on the lens you own, we will have the smallest depth of field. When shooting a close-up or a portrait be aware your area of sharp focus may only be a couple of inches or less at this setting.
- Set the focus on the lens to manual now instead of leaving it at automatic. The reason for this is that you want to be able to focus on that spot you want to be sharp in your final image. Look at this sample of Levi a beautiful Great Dane and you will see I focused on his nose which is sharp and if you look at his eyes, you will see they are already out of focus and have gone soft.
- Practice with you lens and be sure to keep the focus sharp on the point in the photo you want to be sharp. If you are shooting a scene and need a little more depth of field, then close the lens down from F1.8 to either F2.8, F4 or F5.6 and see if those lens openings work better for you. The higher the F number the less light is getting into the camera and the larger the depth of field, so if you need a longer depth of field, then simply adjust the lens opening of the camera.
- Most cameras will set the proper shutter speed for the correct exposure in the A mode, so you won’t have to worry about getting the proper exposures. Since we shoot with digital cameras, I always check my work before I take my next shot and try various points of sharp focus to get exactly what I want. If shooting for bokeh, I will try a number of settings or lens openings to get the best looking bokeh.
- When you review your images on your DSLR, enlarge them to see what is in and what is out of focus. It is hard to do on some of these small screens, so just click on the button that allows you to enlarge the images in the review mode.
- As we previously discussed, you can also get Bokeh from a zoom lens, but you will need have to shoot where the background that you want to go soft will have to be quite a long way in the distance. Remember the smaller your aperture on your lens the wider the Depth of Field is. So on a lens shooting at f5.6 or f8, you may have to be a block away to have that background go soft. On a 50mm F1.8 lens, you could go to a soft background that is literally inches away from the point of sharpest focus.
- Remember, using a 50mm of other fixed focal length lens means you will have to move in and out to frame your shots. With a zoom lens you can zoom in or out, but the trade-off is the fast lens, light weight and low-cost of the 50mm lens vs. a zoom.
article and photos © Len Rapoport 2014, any use or reproduction of any of this content is forbidden without prior authorization.
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