Disclaimer: I have only had my camera for 3 days. Before that, I thought Bokeh was an Indonesian cultural dance. I’m lying, 3 days ago, I’d never heard of Bokeh and I’d never taken a picture with a dslr. With that said, you WILL be able to grab some tips from this post to create some Bokeh in your shots, however, I am so far from being an expert, I should be ashamed of myself for even trying to attempt to help someone else. Don’t let this post be your last stop in researching how to create Bokeh with a kit lens, instead, use the information I share to give you an overview of what you need to research further.
What is Bokeh?
You should know, that before writing this post, I didn’t type “Bokeh” into the Google search engine. So really, the question I should have asked is, “What do I think Bokeh is, so far?”
So far, I think Bokeh is a style of photography or an effect that photographers intentionally create. Bokeh is a popular effect for shooting portraits but as long as there is a background to manipulate, you can get some Bokeh in your shots.
Bokeh, when you see it in a shot, is the blur around everything but the subject being shot. It isn’t the same blur you see when someone shoots movement, nor is it the same blur you see when you take a longshot handheld and the camera shakes. That blur is actually called camera shake and quite frankly, it’s ugly. The Bokeh blur is soft, beautiful and sophisticated; a compliment to any subject in your shoot.
The Dreaded Kit Lens: 18mm-55mm
The kit lens is the lens your camera comes with. As I mentioned, 3 days ago, I got a camera. If you don’t believe me, you should read My New Old Cannon RebelXT: A New Hobby. As a matter of fact, and this I just noticed, you don’t even have to read it because as you can see from the title, the day I got the camera, I didn’t even know how to spell the manufacturer of the camera I have. It’s spelled Canon. At the very least, you can check that post and see the pictures I took for the very first time and compare it to how far I’ve come in 3 whole days.
The lens my camera came with is the most basic lens ever. As a matter of fact, there are plenty of cameras that are outfitted with kit lenses far more sophisticated than the one my Canon Rebel XT has, but if I am not mistaken, my camera is about 10 years old.
Ask a professional photographer how to create Bokeh with an 18mm-55mm camera and prepare to get slapped with a blank stare. Professional photographers actually throw their kit lens in the garbage when they upgrade even when their kit lens is better than the one I have. Kit lenses do not specialize in Bokeh at all and getting the Bokeh effect in your shots takes a little bit of know how and a little bit of knowledge that is not common to someone just starting out in photography, like me.
Photography Jargon for Bokeh
There can be no talk about Bokeh without talking about Depth of Field, which I will refer to here on out as DoF. There can be no talk about DoF without talking about aperture. There can be no discussion about aperture without mentioning ISO or at the very least light. I am going to make it out of this post without covering shutter speed, although, in order to do so I have to mention it while covering Aperture Priority mode. I forgot, somewhere in all of this, I will be mentioning zoom, distance from the subject, and ‘f‘ I am going to make this as understandable as I can, which should be easy because as I mentioned, I am no expert.
DoF and Aperture
You ever noticed how sometimes you look at a shot and the entire picture is sharp – meaning, you can see everything in the shot/scene clearly? That is what you call a deep DoF.
Sometimes, though, you see a shot and the only clear/sharp thing in the photo is the subject being shot, where everything in front of the subject and everything in back of the subject is a blur or blurred. Unless of course the background is the subject, as in the example below. That is what you call a shallow DoF.
DoF, whether it is shallow or deep is controlled by the aperture of the lens. I repeat, “… of the lens,” for aperture is controlled by the body of the camera, but what is being controlled is in the lens. This is important to know because manipulating DoF or having full control of DoF has to do with the quality, technology, and capabilities of the lens, not the camera. The larger the DoF your lens can control: The more expensive your lens will be.
Aperture is simply a hole. It is a hole inside of the lens that opens and closes. The wider the hole, the larger your depth of field will be. The smaller the hole, the smaller your depth of field will be. However, and this is where it gets super confusing: The larger the aperture, the smaller the f-increment is. The larger the f-increment, the smaller the aperture. Right now, I want you to think about gauges. Gauges are those really cool earrings that aren’t called earrings but they are called gauges because instead of the ear being pierced the ear is stretched? If you do not know what I am talking about, think of what really cool punk rockers and hipsters wear in their ears. If you still do not know, you have to google it.
The relationship between gauges and the numbers used to represent the size of the hole in the ear is exactly the same relationship between aperture and the f-increments used to represent the size of the hole in the lens. When you get gauges in your ear, you start at 0.4 and then you go to 0.6 and before you know it you are at a 00 which is a hole so big, you can see straight through it. Aperture of my lens stops at f/5.6 when I am fully zoomed to 55mm and if I am shooting wide on 18mm then it becomes f/4.0 or somewhere around there. As long as you shoot on the right setting, your aperture will adjust to your zoom and your shot won’t be super different, but the changes will have a subtle change that absolutely will make a difference no matter how much alike they are. There are plenty of videos that will show you this as an example.
Aperture Priority Mode
Canon and Nikon use different symbols to represent Aperture Priority Mode. Canon uses the symbol “Av” and you cannot take my word on this because I do not know for sure, I just think I heard, Nikon uses “A”. When you set your camera to these settings, you are shooting in Aperture Priority Mode which means you control the Aperture or the size of the hole in the lens and the camera will chose the best shutter speed and ISO or amount of sensitivity to light by its own self. If you want to play around with Bokeh, then you want to shoot in this mode. Whether or not any other mode creates Bokeh, I don’t know. What I do know is I have been watching hours of YouTube and have read pages and pages and pages over the past 3 days and I haven’t seen anyone suggest or even speak of a different mode. If you come across this kind of information, be sure to let me know in a comment.
Also, you should know that your camera’s LCD display does not show an ‘f’. You have to Google a tutorial that will show you how to read your LCD to find the number representing aperture. If you are on a kit lens, look for 5.6, 0.8, 16 and also try to distinguish it from the numbers that may be in the thousands or as low as 1″ … these 2 sets of numbers, most times are right next to each other, but the latter represents shutter speed. If you can distinguish the two, you won’t have to Google a thing unless you want to. Know that one of them is shutter speed and that number can go as high as 4000 and the aperture on a kit lens probably doesn’t go past 32.
Zoom, ISO, and Other Concepts
When you see 18mm-55mm or 20mm-70mm this is talking about the natural zoom of the lens. Most times when you are looking to buy a camera, you will see specifications that say 18mm-55mm, f/5.6 – f/32. Even though I have only been at this for 3 days, I can already see why this is very important. I wondered on my very first day, why none of my backgrounds had the blur (before I know the blur was called Bokeh), as that was an effect I knew I wanted to create and control. After doing some research, I learned that Bokeh may be out of reach on my kit lens because the aperture or hole inside of the lens doesn’t get as large as I need it to get in order to get the effect I need.
The reason it is so hard to create Bokeh … wait, let me clear that up, right now, because it isn’t hard at all … The reason creating Bokeh with a kit lens is challenging is because the aperture is super limited. The hole doesn’t get big enough so there isn’t enough light and you can always raise the ISO, but that isn’t recommended because high ISOs produce noisy or grainy shots (“noise” is jargon for grain. If someone calls a shot noisy they are saying it is grainy. Use it and someone will think you know what you are talking about).
Since you are trying to go for a large depth of field because the background being their is very important for the Bokeh effect, it would be smart to to shoot at the widest zoom your kit lens has and opening the hole in your lens as wide as it would go. However, with the kit lens, depending on your distance from the subject you are shooting, it may be as sharp a shot as if you had shot it a f/0.8 which is a great aperture to start with for those who are confident enough to step out of Auto mode which is always represented by a thin green rectangle on the mode dial. When you open up aperture to it’s widest setting, more light is going to reach the sensor. So at 18mm with your kit lens’ aperture opened as wide as it can go, it sounds to me like a clear, sharp, nicely exposed shot. As a matter of fact, if you take a shot like this and it is too bright, it may even be over exposed which is totally not Bokeh.
This is part of the reason I wanted to share these tips. You can create the Bokeh effect with your kit lens. You have to know what to shoot and where to shoot it at.
Steps To Bokeh
- First, find a place where the background is very, very far away.
- Next, find an item that is relatively small. Anything handheld will work just fine. I believe, though I haven’t tested this, the smaller the object the more Bokeh you can get.
- Place your subject in front of the background you are working with and make sure, again, that the background is far, far, far back. Go to the park and stand on the outside of the park. Place your object on the ledge surrounding the park and shoot the park as your background.
- Set your camera to Aperture Priority Mode and zoom all the way in.
- Walk all the way up to your object and I mean get so close you have to bend down or something.
- Frame your shot. You want your entire object in the photo, but shoot it at an angle which does two things: It will satisfy the rule of thirds which every photographer knows and you will be able to still see a nice chunk of your background even though you are zoomed all the way in on your object. You are not going to see a lot of background. A lot of it got chopped when you zoomed, so here is your chance to play with angles and familiarize yourself with the rule of thirds I mentioned.
- If you know how to use the functions inside of your camera that help you focus, use them and focus on your object.
- Take your shot … Actually, what am I saying, take a whole bunch of them, upload them to your computer, clear your camera and do that shit again. Practice makes perfect.
Do not allow your kit lens to discourage you, in the same way I am not letting mine discourage me. Let me rephrase that because it isn’t very accurate – Do not allow your kit lens to discourage you in the same way I WILL NOT let mine discourage me (since it’s only been 3 days, I can’t really say I haven’t been discouraged as I haven’t had any obstacles besides this one to get over). I have what feels like a first generation Canon Rebel with an 18mm-55mm lens and, yet, I feel like I have a whole new lease on life. The camera isn’t going to make you a great photographer and neither is your lens. You make you a good photographer so push what you have to it’s limit.
I genuinely hope this has helped. If it has please take a moment to let me know. If it hasn’t, please tell me more I can add. If you have experienced any challenges or if you have any questions, do not hesitate. Follow my photography page on instagram to see my favorite shots and follow my journey.
Oh .. and this is a bonus: This morning, before I left my house to shoot the sunrise, I watched a video that really helped me out. As a matter of fact the technique I used to take the shots I will show you came from this video and the steps I’ve shared to create Bokeh with your kit lens did too. This guy is really good. I watched hours of videos and took over 50 shots trying to get even a little Bokeh. It took me watching this video one time and look at what I got. Please watch the video here, it isn’t long at all but he packed it with a lot of valuable information that you will see immediately in your shots.
Here’s Some Bokeh Proof From This Morning! With the help of the Starbuck Siren and some EDM, I’ll show you I know what I am talking about.
**I hope you like … uh, I need validation (I hate to admit), so comment if you do.**
And a little more Bokeh, in case you still don’t believe you can accomplish this technique.