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If you’ve just asked the question “what does boca mean in photography?” I need to stop you right there for just a sec and become the spelling police… sorry about that… it can be a little confusing. The spelling of ‘boca’ and its pronunciation has gone through a few of changes over the years. It was Once spelt ‘boke’; however, has more recently been spelt ‘Bokeh’). According to Mike Johnston of Photo Techniques Magazine 1997, “it is properly pronounced with bo as in bone and ke as in Kenneth, with equal stress on either syllable”.
So now that you know how to spell and pronounce this strange word, what does it mean to the photography world?
So what actually is Bokeh?
Put simply, bokeh is the blurred effect generally found in the background of a photograph. The interesting thing is that the amount of Bokeh, and its it’s general ‘look’ can be controlled and manipulated depending on a varied number of factors all working together including:
- Focal length of the lens being used
- Distance between subject and the the out-of-focus background
- Size of lens aperture
So how do I take a photograph with some sweet sweet bokeh?
This is where things get pretty fun. Experimenting with different photographic techniques is where you really begin to learn how to take great photos every time. There are actually a few ways to get the most bokeh you can out of the camera and lens that you have.
Getting Sweet Bokeh on a phone camera
OK, so I am going to assume you have a modern phone here. Maybe a recent iPhone release or an android option. If this is the case, there is a fair chance you can first of all use the camera app feature called ‘portrait mode’ to emulate or fake the bokeh effect. In some instances it can be very convincing, but a trained eye can spot it in an instant, particularly when there are objects that are relatively level with the subject that become blurred out due to the software algorithm.
There is; however, a way to push any camera phone to show some kind of bokeh effect, but it is generally either when taking close up (also known as macro photography) type shots where there is a good distance between the subject and the background (a few feet). The trick is that you tap the subject to make the camera focus on the subject up close which will send the background out of focus.
The Zoom Compression Method
If you wanted to take a portrait photo of a person or persons, you would need to have a very long distance between the subject and the background you want to have the bokeh effect on while taking the image relatively close to the person (just a few feet away from them). A good example of this might be a photograph of someone at the beach. You achieve this in the same way by tapping on the subject that is close, and therefore compressing and sending the background out of focus.
Getting Sweet Bokeh on a DSLR
This goal is a whole lot more achievable with far less thought and effort, and is the reason that many people still go out and purchase a DSLR or a Mirrorless DSLR option instead of just relying on their phone camera. In this case, it is helpful (but not entirely necessary) to have a basic understanding of the exposure triangle, and the three key controls used to expose an image correctly – ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture.
The basic step involved is to make your aperture as wide as possible. For this I would suggest setting your camera dial to the ‘aperture priority mode’ (AV on canon and Sony or just A for Nikon) and dropping the f-number as low as possible.
Aperture is the hole that the light comes through and If the hole very large it will have a lower f-number (backwards I know!) such as f1.8 which is fairly common for most inexpensive 50mm lenses. Otherwise, just drop it as low as it will let you take it.
The same rules apply here though as with the phone camera. Maybe you only have a cheap kit lens (18-55mm f3.5-f5.6) you may need to consider using the Zoom Compression Method mentioned earlier If you cannot get the bokeh you are looking for.
Simply do the following:
- find a space where the background is off in the distance
- Move as far away from the subject as you can with your lens fully zoomed in
- Compose the image with the subject as large as you want them
- Set the camera to Aperture Priority
- Drop the aperture (f-number) as LOW as possible, letting as much light into your lens as it will allow
- Take that sweet sweet bokeh’ed up shot
- Post it on instagram and watch your friends smash that like button
What types of bokeh exist?
This stunning technique involves using vintage lenses that lack some of the specific glass coatings that are present on most modern lenses. You can see in the image below, that the lens has created a swirling motion in the bokeh, resulting in a beautiful effect. If you want to try this out you would need to purchase one of the two main lenses that can achieve the effect. The image above was taken on the cheaper of the two which is the Helios 44-2, which is a 58mm f2 lens.
The other lens option to create the swirly bokeh effect is to use a Petzval lens. They are also a 58mm lens but are capable of an aperture of f1.7 which makes them an even better option to really push this effect to the limits.
- Polygon Bokeh – A feature of lens apertures that have less blades and therefore creates an effect that is less circular
- Sweet Sweet Bokeh – ok, so maybe this is made up, but its a term I like to use when you get that beautiful buttery out of focus background that just makes the subject literally pop out of the frame – just like in the image below.