Bokeh!

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, your DSLR photos were miles better than your smartphone, but they didn’t have that special blurry background you see in photo magazines and websites.      

So how can you create photos with that magical blurry background?  Is it even possible? Is there some top-secret setting in your camera?  Or do you need to buy a bazillion dollar lens to achieve the effect? For that matter, what’s that effect called?

Bokeh

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 photos with bokeh like the pros?  

Yes!  (And you don’t need lenses that cost bazillions of dollars either!)

But you do need a new lens. And to complicate things, there seems to be no end to the number of lenses available! Which lens then??? To figure it out, you could scour the internet with search terms like, “What lens should I buy?”, or “What’s the best lens for my camera?” But I’ll save you the trouble!

Here’s the secret:  The lower a lens’s aperture F-Stop value, the creamier the background bokeh.

Alright! 

Wait… What’s “Aperture”, and what does “F-Stop” mean?

Let’s 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.                

Nikon1855kitlens.jpg
This lens’s aperture opens as wide as f/3.5 at 18mm, and f/5.6 at 55mm

“Aperture” is the opening in your lens that lets light into your camera. How wide a lens’s aperture can open is indicated by those f/numbers. If you’ve got the 18-55mm kit lens, you’ll notice its aperture opens as wide as f/3.5 when the lens is zoomed out to 18mm, but less wide at 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?  

Canon50mm.jpg
Check it out! This lens’s aperture opens to a massive f/1.8!!!

Invest in a “prime” lens like the 50mm f/1.8.  See how low that aperture number is?

So how much do these wide aperture lenses cost?  The Canon version of that lens* only costs around $125–which in terms of lens prices is VERY affordable.  If you’ve got a Nikon camera*, the 50mm prime costs a little more, (around $216).  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.           

You might be wondering, “If prime lenses are so good, why aren’t they super expensive?”  Well, there are a few tradeoffs to consider:  

  • Prime lenses don’t zoom. They stay permanently locked in at the telephoto range the manufacturer produced.  A 50mm prime will always be 50mm. A 35mm will always be 35mm. And so on. If you need to zoom, you have to “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. 
  • If you shoot “wide open”, (using the widest aperture possible), your focus point will be about the only thing in focus in your photo. For example, let’s say you take a portrait of someone, making sure to focus on the nearest eye, which is considered best practice. If you’re shooting at f/1.8, you might notice the rest of the portrait begins to fall out of focus real quick–their other eye, the far side of their face–it’ll be all out of focus! Just be aware that the focal plane is VERY shallow when you have a lens with a wide aperture (f/1.8 or wider). Check out the model train photo to “see” what I’m saying.     
This model train is only about 10″ long. Notice how crisp the front is (where I focused), but how quickly the focus falls off! And my aperture was set to f/2.8!

Now you know the secret! So what do you think? Do you want create photos with amazing blurry backgrounds? Then invest in a prime lens! With a “Nifty-50”*, or even a 24mm f/2.8* or 35mm f/1.8* 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! 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. When I share Amazon product links, I do it for your convenience–so can quickly see pricing info, read other reviews, and check the details without wasting time having to hunt for the info. Clicking the links doesn’t cost you anything–and if you make a purchase, I earn a small commission. I’m disclosing this to you because I believe in transparency, and want to earn your trust!  

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