With the holidays here, stringed lights have popped up everywhere in creative displays. As a photographer, this presents a lot of fantastic opportunities to practise creating bokeh. In this article, I’m going to reveal the simple trick to achieving a blurry background and pretty bokeh.

before & after:

EXIF for both photos: Focal length: 100mm, aperture: f/2.8, shutter speed: 1/160th second, ISO 1250

Happily, learning to create a blurry background and bokeh are the exact same thing. You might be wondering, “what does this word ‘bokeh’ mean?” Well, bokeh is simply the blurry background you often see in photos. The type of lens you use will determine the shape and quality of the bokeh, but don’t worry about that right now.

A quick lesson about aperture : the 'why'

Most simply put, a larger aperture will give you a more blurry background. Now, when we photographers talk about larger apertures, it can be a bit confusing, because the larger the aperture, the smaller the number gets. For example, an aperture of f/2.8 is larger than an aperture of f/14. 

A larger aperture means your aperture blades are opening up wider to allow MORE light in to your camera's sensor. A smaller aperture means the blades make the opening much tinier and let LESS light in to your camera's sensor.

Just remember:

Smaller number = larger aperture.

Larger number = smaller aperture.

The smaller your aperture, the less light you are allowing in, which means that you will need a slower shutter speed to make up for it. (A slower shutter speed means that your shutter will stay open longer to let more light reach the sensor!) That is why when you see expensive lenses, you'll notice a number like f/1.4 or f/2.8 attached to the model name, while the less expensive lenses may have f/4.5 or f/5.6 attached to their name. The larger the aperture can go on a lens, the 'faster' the lens is.

EXIF for Dogs: Focal length: 200mm, aperture: f/2.8, shutter speed: 1/250th second, ISO 640 

EXIF for Landscape: Focal length: 16mm, aperture: f/16, shutter speed: 1/5th second, ISO 125

Above: an example of how aperture affects shutter speed and areas of the photos that are in focus. Note that the image of the dogs (shot at a larger aperture of f/2.8) has a blurry background and foreground as well as a faster shutter speed, whereas the landscape of the mountains (shot at a small aperture of f/16) is in focus from front to back, with a much slower shutter speed. 

Blurry backgrounds and bokeh: the 'how'

To make this work, take your camera off 'auto' if that's what you have it on, and put it on 'Av' for Canon, or 'A' if you've got a Nikon or a Sony.  Have a look at your aperture, and then adjust it to the largest aperture it'll go to. 

Now, there's a few things to keep in mind if you want to get that background as blurry as your lens will allow:

1: The closer your subject is to you, the blurrier the background will be. If your subject is across the living room, lawn, or wherever you may be, you'll find you won't achieve that blurry effect we're talking about here, no matter how large your aperture is.

2: The further your subject is from anything that is behind them, the blurrier the background will be. So, move your subject away from the Christmas tree, (or whatever if is that you want to make blurry) and bring them closer to you.

Let's take a look at some examples of both scenarios below!

Not so bokehlicious!

EXIF: Focal length: 100mm, aperture: f/2.8, shutter speed: 1/160th second, ISO 2500 (My ISO was up because it was dark and cloudy outside).
 I placed Kona right next to our Christmas tree, and had her face the window. If you want as much of the bokeh effect as possible, it would be better to move her further away from the tree. But, if you want the details a little more in focus, then this is a good way to do it.


EXIF: Focal length: 100mm, aperture: f/2.8, shutter speed: 1/125th second, ISO: 500 (the sun came out and it was much brighter for this shot, hence the change in settings).

This time, I moved Kona much further from the Christmas tree (perhaps 7-8 feet). See how the lights on the Christmas tree became large and round in the background? * Note that the aperture remained the same, which is all that matters for the purpose of getting the bokeh!

The fun part: experimenting!

When I learned about aperture, I found taking photos and looking at the results (so instantly gratifying with digital cameras these days!) so exciting. As you can see in the example above, string lights make for some reallllly pretty bokeh. So does light bouncing off leaves of trees! But if you don't want that sort of bokeh and are looking for a much simpler, clean background, just find a spot outside where the background is way far away, make sure your aperture is larger and your subject relatively nearby, and click away.

Untitled photo

Photo above EXIF: Focal length: 53mm, aperture: f/2.8, shutter speed: 1/640th second, ISO 100

EXIF: Focal length: 100mm, aperture: f/2.8, shutter speed: 1/160th second, ISO: 640

I hope this article helps, and thanks for reading! Please feel free to share your results in the comments.

Is it dark in your house? Check out this article on how to use a flash!

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