Making the Most of Your Photo's Bokeh

Photographers spend a lot of time eliminating blur from their photos. Auto-focus, vibration reduction, tripods... all of these things help us get sharper images. But blur can be good too--especially in the background, so we can lead the viewer's eye back to the subject in the foreground. Last week, in "Perfecting the Blur in Your Photos with Bokeh," I explained that blur itself comes in different flavors. This quality, known as bokeh, makes some blur more aesthetically pleasing than others. This week, let's wrap up the discussion of blur and bokeh with some tips on how to vary and improve the blur in your own photos.

Bokeh Refresher

As I explained last week, bokeh refers to the character of the blur itself, which generally means the shape and crispness of the blurry elements. The blur in your photos is affected by the lens--primarily, the design of the optics and the aperture.

The result is that you can actually see the shape of the lens aperture in your blurry backgrounds (especially in light sources and reflections). Of course, lenses tend to be round, so these blurry spots are generally round as well--but they can be geometric, depending upon the number and arrangement of blades in the lens aperture.

Varying the Bokeh

Of course, you've probably figured out by now that you can't do much about the overall quality of the bokeh created by your lens. Your lens is constructed a certain way. It has a given number of blades, for example, and the blades have an unalterable shape that contributes to the bokeh (as well as the optics of the glass elements). You can't open up the lens and change the blades to modify the look of the blur.

The image on the left was shot at an f-stop of f/16; the one on the right was shot at f/5.6.
That said, you can affect the bokeh by your choice of aperture. The relative size of each blurry element in the background is determined by your f-stop. Choose a wider aperture, and you'll get more blur, and hence, more bokeh. Compare these two images, shot with different f-stops (you can click the thumbnail to see the full-size version).

Your choice of background also plays a role. Bokeh is significantly more pronounced when you shoot bright lights, so including lots of contrast in your background--with lights and reflections--will give you a more noticeable effect. (I should point out that more is not always better. I'm explaining how to vary the effect, but it's up to you to decide how much of it you want to get in your photo.)

Want to get different--or "better"--bokeh in your photos? If you have a digital SLR, you might shop for lenses that produce nicer bokeh. In the last few years, I've noticed that reviewers have put a lot more emphasis on the quality of the bokeh in lens reviews, so keep an eye out for that.

Simulate Bokeh

But rather than spending a ton of money on a new lens, here's a much more practical option: Just fake it. After all, this is digital photography we're talking about, where you can have Nixon shake hands with Bigfoot and put your kids in Apollo moon landing photos. So it should come as no surprise that it's a snap to dress up the bokeh in your photos.

If you are serious about tweaking your backgrounds, look no further than Alien Skin's Bokeh 2, a special-effects plug-in for Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop Elements, and Corel Paintshop Pro. Bokeh 2 gives you tremendous power to fiddle with the blur in your photos.. Here is what the program looks like, ready to enhance your blur.

Remember when I showed you all those different kinds of bokeh last week, such as five-blade, nine-blade, and catadioptric effects? I'll fess up: I simulated all of those effects in Bokeh 2, since I don't actually have access to a warehouse full of lenses. Bokeh 2 doesn't stop there, though; you can also apply other shapes, like three-blades aperture and even hearts, as you see here.

You can also boost the brightness in light sources to emphasize the bokeh effect, and apply other tricks like swathing your photo in a gentle vignette.

Bokeh 2 costs $199, which is more than many photo editors--but it's well worth the investment if you want to fine-tune the look of your photos. You can try it free for 30 days.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Apocalypse" by Bogdan Grigore, Bucharest, Romania

Bogdan writes: "The water, the air, the sky... everything was magic. It was like I was at the end of the world. I was soaking wet, but i stayed and took the picture. This was in Foz de Iguazu, Argentina, and I used my Sony R1. I later edited it by converting the photo to black and white and increasing the contrast."

This week's runner-up: "Rust In Peace" by Bill Laycock, Kalama, Washington

Bill writes: "I shot this with a Canon EOS 30D near the North Cascade mountains in Washington. I saw an old Chevy sitting in a farmer's field and took this picture from the side of the highway, using a fencepost for support. I added a black and white layer and slowly reduced the opacity until I got the effect I was looking for."

To see the January winners, visit our Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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