You did it. You splurged, and bought a DSLR camera. It came with a lens—probably in the range of 18-55mm. You happily snapped photos of everything you saw, and giggling with anticipation, popped the memory card into your computer, and stared at your masterpieces. Generally speaking, the image quality in each photo was miles better than your smartphone, but the photos didn’t have the special blurry backgrounds you’d seen in photo magazines and websites.
So how do pro photographers achieve that magical blurry background? Is there some top-secret setting in your camera? For that matter, what’s that effect called?
Wikipedia defines Bokeh: “In photography, bokeh (/ˈboʊkeɪ/ BOH-kay; Japanese: [boke]) is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by a lens. Bokeh has been defined as “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light”.”
What’s the secret? Can you produce amazing bokeh photos like the pros? Yes. And you don’t need lenses that cost bazillions of dollars either.
Here’s the secret: The lower a lens’s aperture F-Stop value, the creamier the background bokeh.
Alright! Armed with that knowledge, you read the alpha-numeric gibberish written on your lens: “18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6”. Canon lenses print those numbers around the front of the lens–Nikon lists them on a little plaque on the barrel.
See the numbers after the “1:“? Those are the aperture F-Stop values.
Your lens’s aperture goes as low as f/3.5 when the lens is zoomed out to 18mm, but only as low as f/5.6 when zoomed in to 55mm. Ok—well, that kind-of explains why you didn’t get that creamy bokeh. Those aperture values aren’t horrible, but they’re not low enough to generate the effect you were hoping for. What can you do?
Invest in an inexpensive “prime” lens like the 50mm f/1.8. See how low that aperture number is? The Canon version of that lens only costs around $125. If you’ve got a Nikon camera, you’ll pay a little more at about $180. If that’s too steep a price, you can save some money and buy a quality used or refurbished lens–or consider a less expensive off-brand lens.
So if prime lenses are so good, why are they so cheap–erm, I mean affordable? Well, there are a few tradeoffs to consider:
Prime lenses don’t zoom. If you need to zoom, you “zoom with your feet”.
Prime lenses don’t have an image stabilization function. You’ll either need to increase your shutter speed—or consider mounting the camera to a tripod to get really sharp shots.
With a “Nifty-50” attached to your camera, your photography will rise to a whole new level! Your friends and family will be mesmerized by your amazing, magical blurry background bokeh photography!