Ask The Coach: Bokeh & The Basics of Film Photography (Part 4)

I keep hearing the term bokeh and not quite sure what it means or how to achieve it in my images.  Any help?

~ Carli – SD

Bokeh!  I LOVE bokeh!  It is one of the most popular subjects in photography. The reason why it is so popular, is because Bokeh makes photographs visually appealing, forcing us to focus our attention on a particular area of the image. The word comes from Japanese language, which literally translates as “blur”. So this is intentional blur in your images.

Basically, bokeh is the quality of out-of-focus or “blurry” parts of the image rendered by a camera lens – it is NOT the blur itself or the amount of blur in the foreground or the background of a subject. The blur that you are so used to seeing in photography that separates a subject from the background is the result of shallow “depth of field” and is generally simply called “background blur”. The quality and feel of the background/foreground blur and reflected points of light, however, is what photographers call Bokeh. Take a look at the following image:



The girl is in focus and sharp (which means that it is inside the depth of field), while the background is out of focus (which means that the background is outside the depth of field). The small or “shallow” depth of field is the result of standing relatively close to the subject, while using a large aperture. Remember, the lens, not the camera, renders bokeh. Different lenses render bokeh differently due to unique optical designs. Generally, portrait and telephoto lenses with large maximum apertures yield more pleasant-looking bokeh than cheaper consumer zoom lenses – all due to differences in optical designs of the lenses. Again, I am not just talking about the background blur; all lenses are capable of producing out of focus blur, but not all lenses are capable of rendering beautiful bokeh.


So, what is a good or beautiful bokeh? A good bokeh pleases our eyes and our perception of the image and therefore, the background blur should appear soft and “creamy”, with smooth round circles of light and no hard edges. Christmas trees and lights are great for this. Here is an example of beautiful bokeh:


That’s exactly what you would call good bokeh!

How to get good Bokeh?

So, how do you get a good bokeh in your images? As I have pointed out above, bokeh depends on the type of lens you are using. Fixed (prime) lenses and most professional zoom lenses with fast apertures yield good-looking bokeh. Do you know if your lens produces good bokeh? Let’s test it out!

BOKEH – in 6 easy steps:

1) Use a large aperture

Set your lens aperture to its lowest value, also known as “maximum aperture”. You can do this by changing your camera mode to “Aperture Priority” and setting the “f” number to the lowest value your lens will permit.

2) Minimize the distance between yourself and the subject

The closer you stand to your subject, the blurrier the background will get. This happens because when an object is very close, the lens will focus closer and the depth of field will be the smallest.

3) Increase the distance between your subject and the background

Remember, depth of field is not just a hard line after which everything is supposed to be completely out of focus – it gradually transforms from sharp to out of focus. Therefore, in order to get a pleasant-looking bokeh, you should try to put your subject away from close background objects.

4) Use longer focal lengths

Given that the distance between the camera and the subject remains the same, increasing the focal length of the lens decreases the depth of field.

For example, if you have a 70-300mm zoom lens, shooting at 300mm focal length will isolate the subject the most (which is what you want for the best-looking bokeh), while shooting at 70mm will bring more objects in the background to focus.

5) Use a long lens

Since increasing the focal length means decreasing the depth of field, the longer your lens is, the better the bokeh you will get.

6) Use a fast lens

And last, but not least, use the fastest lens you have, since aperture impacts the depth of field.

DSC06713 lo

Is there an article that covers the basics of film photography for someone used to dslrs? I just got an old Minolta SLR and I feel like a fool!


ISO (or ASA) is the indication of how sensitive a film was to light. In Digital Photography ISO measures the sensitivity of the image sensor. It was measured in numbers (you’ve probably seen them on films – 100, 200, 400, 800 etc). A film with an ASA of 800 is very sensitive to light, while a film with an ASA of 25 is not very sensitive to light. The lower the number the lower the sensitivity of the film and the finer the grain in the shots you’re taking, thus film speed is generally inversely proportional to image quality.

Higher ISO settings are generally used in dark settings (This is part four of the basics of film photography. Part one, part two, part three)

The first month we talked about correct exposure. So how do we get that? Part of the correct exposure comes from one third of the exposure triangle: the Film Speed (or ASA or ISO).

What is ISO?

In traditional (film) photography ISO ker situations to get faster shutter speeds (for example an indoor sports event when you want to freeze the action, concerts, art galleries, churches and blowing out birthday candles) – however the cost is grainier shots (or noisier with digital). 100-200 ISO is generally accepted as ‘normal’ and will give you lovely crisp shots (little noise/grain).

Here’s an example of how grain/noise appears with a higher ISO for us visual people:

ISO 100 - low noise

ISO 100 - low noise

ISO 6400 - noise

ISO 6400 - noise

And here’s  an ISO definition for the geeks:

Typically, ISO numbers start from 100-200 (Base ISO) and increment in value in geometric progression (power of two). So, the ISO sequence is: 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400 and etc. The important thing to understand is that each step between the numbers effectively doubles the sensitivity of the sensor. So, ISO 200 is twice more sensitive than ISO 100, while ISO 400 is twice more sensitive than ISO 200. This makes ISO 400 four times more sensitive to light than ISO 100, and ISO 1600 sixteen times more sensitive to light than ISO 100, so on and so forth. What does it mean when a sensor is sixteen times more sensitive to light? It means that it needs sixteen times less time to capture an image!

ISO Speed Example:

ISO 100 – 1 second

ISO 200 – 1/2 of a second

ISO 400 – 1/4 of a second

ISO 800 – 1/8 of a second

ISO 1600 – 1/16 of a second

ISO 3200 – 1/32 of a second

In the above ISO Speed Example, if your camera sensor needed exactly 1 second to capture a scene at ISO 100, simply by switching to ISO 800, you can capture the same scene at 1/8th of a second or at 125 milliseconds! That can mean a world of difference in photography, since it can help to freeze motion.

When choosing the ISO setting I generally ask myself the following four questions:

1.      Light – Is the subject well lit?
2.      Grain – Do I want a grainy shot or one without noise?

Side note: Noise or grain can also be your friend if you intend to get creative at some point. Many black and white images can have their mood greatly enhanced by adding grain or noise to them and most editing software even has the ability to add noise. So learn to control noise and either remove it or increase it depending on what effect you need.


3.     Tripod – Am I using a tripod
4.     Moving Subject – Is my subject moving or stationary?

If there is plenty of light, I want little grain, I’m using a tripod and my subject is stationary I will generally use a pretty low ISO rating.

However if it’s dark, I purposely want grain, I don’t have a tripod and/or my subject is moving I might consider increasing the ISO as it will enable me to shoot with a faster shutter speed and still expose the shot well.

ISO is an important aspect of photography to have an understanding of if you want to gain more control of your camera.

So overall, the main thing to remember is that your camera has 3 main controls for adjusting the amount of light in your images – your exposure triangle – in laymen’s terms (as I explain to my students):

  1. .                 Shutter Speed – the higher the number the less light
  2. .                 Aperture – the higher the number the less light
  3. .                 I.S.O – the higher the number the more light

Now that we have discussed all three, what they do, the effects they achieve and when to use each one effectively, we are the experts!  Well, no, not quite, but getting there, because next we have to concentrate on our composition and subject matter, which is the other half of great photography!

So here we go!  More questions?  I’ve got more answers – except when it comes to poetry.  I don’t do poetry.

Email your questions to [email protected], or post them in the comments section below!

Dawn Sanborn is a photographer, teacher, life coach, mom, horse lover, goatherd, entrepreneur and all around Renaissance woman. She’s got an obsession with food photos but splits her photographic passions into many categories. She lives on a farm in SE Minnesota with her extended family of humans and dozens of animals.


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