Tutorial: How to Shoot the Bokeh Technique in Photographs

I’ve played with this lighting technique as part of bokeh photography as a way of adding a background that correlates with the subject of the photo. I first learned about using this technique in bokeh in a blog post I came across earlier this year. Since then, I’ve used it for Valentines Day and St. Patrick’s Day.

With the first day of autumn (Sept 22) just around the corner, I thought this “fall colors” photo, along with a tutorial on how I took it (as part of the DIY How I Took It contest), would expose other photographers to the technique, and show how simple it is to execute.

092112 Bokeh-Scarecrow

Canon 60D | 50mm lens | 1/60 | f/1.8 | ISO 400 | Canon Speedlite 430EX II

Step 1 – Gather the necessary Supplies

  • Sheet of cardstock (can be any color, but it will be easier to work with if it’s thicker)
  • Shaped punch – be creative (most shapes will do, but make sure the punch isn’t so small that the subject can’t be seen through the lens)
  • 50mm lens with UV filter (this lens allows a shallow depth of field, which allows the light sources in the background to be out of focus, thus take on the shape of the punch; the purpose of the UV filter is noted next)
  • Putty (which is used to attach the cardstock to the UV filter)
  • Strands of holiday lights (you can vary the color of the lights to fit your desired background; you can vary the quantity of strands, but for this photo, I used two)
  • A subject (the subject can be pretty much anything you want it to be)

Step 2 – Punch and Prepare the Lens

  • Start by punching the shape into your cardstock (I usually fold an edge of the paper in about 1/4″ to allow the punch to be far enough from the edge that it can be in the center of the lens when I cut it out.
  • Place the UV filter on the cardstock with the punched shape centered in the circle.
  • Draw a cut-line around the filter, allowing a roughly 1/4″ border, then cut out the circle.
  • Using putty, attach the cardstock to the UV filter and attach to the lens.
  • Attach the lens to the camera body (you can adjust the punched sheet with the shape as needed so it’s right-side up, or oriented as you would like.

Step 3 – Setting up the Scene

  • String the lights across a cord, stick, or other item that will allow the lights to hang freely (if you place them against a solid object, the object will be illuminated and not provide the darker background).
  • Place your subject roughly 10′-15′ in front of the lights (you can adjust this distance as desired, but this is a good starting point)
  • Place your camera 1.5′ to 3′ in front of the subject, with the lights directly behind the subject. (the closer you are to the subject, the larger the shapes will appear; in the sample photo above, I was closer to 3′ away from the subject).

Step 4 – Setting the Camera and Taking the Shots

  • Set the camera to manual mode so you have better control.
  • Set the aperture to the lowest number possible (in this case, a 1.8)
  • Adjust the shutter speed to allow for the exposure of the subject you want. I used a flash to illuminate the subject, which allowed me to keep the shutter speed fast enough for handheld shooting.
  • Shoot a few photos at various focal lengths and settings until you get the look you want. Adjust as needed.

Here are a few other outtakes from this photo shoot to show how slight adjustments can change the photo outcome. 

If you give this a shot, post a link to your photos below. It’s always fun to see how others implement certain techniques.

~signed, Carltonaut

2 Replies to “Tutorial: How to Shoot the Bokeh Technique in Photographs”

  1. not what I have learned or seen as bokeh, I thought that was where the bg was totally or almost totally out of focus and only your main subject was sharp, perhaps the pic of the three in a row would b an example of some bokeh

    1. I understand bokeh to be the same way, but I guess you could say the shaping of the lights is a technique within bokeh. The leaves in the background of the photo are simply lights that are out of focus, but that take on the shape of the “filter” I put in front of the lens.

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