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Bokeh Photography for Portraits

December 12, 2018

By: Laura Tillinghast

Portrait photograph of a dark haired woman with dark eye makeup and a large purple and green flowered headband - trees in the background are blurred

Natural light portraiture can be a lot of fun and these days one of the most popular techniques for outdoor shooting is to create bokeh portraits. ‘Bokeh’ is a Japanese word and in the photography community it has come to mean a lovely blurred effect. This look can be very effective with portraiture as the enhanced blurring effects help the subject to stand out, as well as serve as an artistic element.


Lens Considerations

The first thing to consider with bokeh portraits is which lens to choose. You want to go with a faster lens that can open up to the wider f-stops like f/2, f/1.8, f/1.4, etc. These apertures will allow you to keep your subject in focus while the foreground and background become beautifully blurred.

Side-by-side comparison of the same woman photographed in a front of green bushes and trees - her hand is posed touching her neck with her loose braid swept to the side - f/4 clear background vs f/1.4 blurred background

You begin to create this look using f/4 but the even wider apertures will result in a more dramatic effect. In the example above, the portrait on the left was captured at f/4 while the portrait on the right was captured at f/1.4. While the background is blurred in the first portrait, the much shallower depth-of-field of the second portrait creates more of a mood and helps the focus of the portrait to be on the subject and not a busy background.


Choosing the Best Background

Speaking of backgrounds, what you choose for a bokeh portrait matters a lot. When working outdoors, there are lot of natural surfaces to use like bushes, trees and flowers. These work well for a bokeh look because the texture and multiple surfaces allow for lots of light reflections. However, you need to keep a few things in mind.

When choosing an area to use as a bokeh portrait background, look at how much light is present. Rather than even shade, you want to find an area with patches of bright light. Each reflection of light behind your subject is what creates the beautiful round bokeh ‘circles’ so you want to look for an area that is not too evenly lit.

Side-by-side comparison of woman against dark background and the same woman against a bright background

In the example above, the portrait on the left was taken in an evenly lit shady area, while the portrait on the right was taken with more light falling in the background. I like the increased contrast and dynamic range of the portrait on the right but how you use this technique comes down to your own personal preferences.


Setting the Scene

Once you have chosen your background, the distance between your subject and the background is another important factor. In order for the bush or trees behind your subject to fall out of focus, they need to be far enough behind to be out of the focal range. Usually your subject should be at least 3-4 feet in front to have adequate distance and the further you move them away, the more blurred the background will be. You don’t want to be too far in front though, as objects too far behind your subject will be too far out of focus to create the bokeh look.

Side-by-side comparison of woman one foot from the background vs 12 feet from the background

Looking at the example above, the portrait on the left was taken with the subject about 1 foot from the background while the portrait on the right was taken at about 12 feet from the background. The increased distance on the right served to better ‘pop’ the subject out from the busy background.

In addition to your subject’s distance from the background, you also need to consider the distance between the camera and your subject. The closer you are to your subject, the smaller your focal range will be and as you back up, more of your subject’s body will be in focus.

Side-by-side comparison of woman with the camera close vs ther camera taking the shot far away - further away puts the silver jagged necklace in focus which is more desirable for the photo

In the example above, both portraits were captured at f/1.4. In the portrait on the left, the camera was about 3 feet from the subject while in the portrait on the right, the camera was about 10 feet from the subject. The increased focal distance of the second portrait resulted in the necklace being in focus while in the first portrait it is too out-of-focus. The increased focal distance in this case added more detail in the background as well.


Getting Creative

Once you get a hang of bokeh portraits, it can be fun to really start getting creative. To do this, I like to place my subject in an area with flowers or leaves in the foreground. Positioning the camera close to the foliage and shooting through it creates a bokeh look in the foreground of a portrait as well as in the background. I like the dreamy look that this creates but different objects will result in different effects, so I encourage you to try your own bokeh techniques to learn what will work for you.

Side-by-side example of bohek photographs - the woman has her braid swept to the side in front of one shoulder is holding her arms and looking away from the camera - the flowers are out of focus creating a bokeh look in front and behind the subject

One of the best things about bokeh portraiture is that you never know quite what you are going to get. If you can embrace the experimental nature of this genre, then you will have a lot of fun creating beautiful bokeh portraits.

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