Photography: Subject Isolation With Bokeh

Orange-winged Amazon Parrot

Orange-winged Amazon Parrot

The experienced photographers following this blog know about bokeh. This information is more pertinent to “Newbie” photographers who might still be confused by photography terms. “Bokeh, pronounced bo (like bow and arrow) – ke (like kettle), is always separated into two distinct sounds bo-ke. The term comes from the Japanese word boke which means blur.” Many photographers, even experienced photographers, mispronounce this very useful word.

“Bokeh is the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photographic image, especially those rendered by a particular lens.” When photographers discuss the ability of a lens to produce pleasing bokeh this is what they’re talking about. Depending on the type of photograph being taken bokeh can be an important part of the image, and photographers will take great care to select a lens that will produce a desired effect. Different lenses produce different qualities of bokeh.

Anna's Hummingbird

Anna’s Hummingbird

Bokeh is used to isolate a subject so that the eye of the viewer isn’t distracted by the background. People usually react favourably to a pleasing bokeh, but don’t always know what they’re reacting to. Most images taken with a smart phone or fixed lens point & shoot camera will not exhibit bokeh to any great extent. A pleasing background blur is achieved by combining the proper focal length (FL), aperture, and distance from the subject to the background.

Generally a longer focal length, a larger aperture (smaller f/number), and a greater subject-to-background distance produces the best bokeh. Primarily we use bokeh to isolate the subject from the background, and this is especially true when taking portraits (human or animal). Great portrait focal lengths start at about 85mm and range up to 200mm, and the best apertures begin around f/1.4 and stop around f/4. One of the most popular lenses for this kind of result is Canon’s EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM telephoto zoom lens priced at $2,000 USD.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM Zoom Telephoto

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM Zoom Telephoto Lens

It’s a great lens to be sure, but very expensive and heavy. For wedding photographers and sports photographers it’s a must have, but I have achieved outstanding results with the much less expensive (and much lighter) Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM telephoto zoom lens priced at $600 USD. Image quality (IQ) of both L-lenses (pro-level) is superb (with the very slight edge maybe going to the f/4L based on many tests), but for flexibility and bokeh the nod unquestionably goes to the f/2.8L with its greater ability to capture light.

Why can’t a smart phone or fixed lens point & shoot camera replicate this technique? Usually those cameras shoot at wide-angle focal lengths (24mm to 35mm) to keep a larger part of the scene in focus, by increasing the depth-of-field (DOF), and because their aperture settings are smaller (larger f/number), also an attempt to maximise DOF. These shooters are (for the most part) automatic, and you don’t have the ability to change settings like focal length, aperture, and shutter speed.

Canon PowerShot G16 Pocket Camera

Canon PowerShot G16 Pocket Camera

If you’re becoming more serious about your photography I would suggest taking a step up from your smart phone or non-adjustable point & shoot camera. If you’re not ready to make the leap to a digital SLR consider a camera like *Canon’s PowerShot G16. I use its predecessor, the Canon PowerShot G15, as my backup shooter (as do many professional photographers). It’s an outstanding little shooter, and is completely adjustable. It will do almost everything my big pro-level camera will do. The G16 is currently priced at $500 USD, but I’ve seen it on sale at $380 USD at Amazon.

Note: I don’t receive any remuneration whatsoever for anything I endorse on this site. The only things I get paid for are my photography articles for Northrup Photo.

Antigua Steve WEB

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer and World Traveller

Lima, Peru


2 responses to “Photography: Subject Isolation With Bokeh

    • I enjoy my little G15 (and it’s easy to keep with me). It even shoots RAW files when I want (which is almost always). The zoom range is about 28mm to 140mm (unassisted) so that’s pretty good, and the aperture will open up to f/1.4 for low-light. It will do most of what my Big Boy camera will do (Canon EOS 5D Mark II full-frame) albeit with a smaller sensor. You get a lot of camera for $380 USD. Have fun B, always good to hear from you.

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