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By Martin Edge
Bokeh is a Japanese term used in photography to define the aesthetic quality of the out-of-focus areas of a picture. The background can be deliberately out-of-focus to reduce distractions and to emphasize the main subject. It’s generally agreed that some lenses produce more pleasing out-of-focus areas that enhance the overall quality. The words bokeh and blur are synonymous with each other and I will use them in the same vein.

I discovered the attraction of Bokeh (although I didn’t know it by that term at the time) in 1999 and I’ve continued to experiment with it since then, using all three of my macro lenses (60mm, 105mm and 200mm) to achieve pastel colored bokeh backgrounds. It may feel uncomfortable to stop down to an aperture of f 4 or f 5.6 when we are so practiced at achieving the very best depth of field as possible, but at
f 4 we can still obtain a precise point of sharpest focus – only this time with a greatly reduced depth of field. Not only does the negative space of the subject become a blur, often the entire subject does too.


How best can we use the very limited depth of field?

The narrow band of focus must be reserved for the main feature. Without doubt, this will be the eye of the animal! When using large apertures, there is a need to control the amount of flash illumination. The way in which I tackle this in my own work is to use manual flash power settings in combination with checking histograms.

Overexposure can often occur with larger apertures of  f 5.6 or f 4. When this occurs I reduce my flash settings to low power and if that is still too bright I position them on the same line but further away from the subject.

Since digital, I’ve been experimenting with optimum settings for different lenses so in order to get you started, my own findings may help.


50mm or 60mm Macro lens

I find that an aperture of f 5.6 or f 4 produces a very photogenic quality of blur and when used around the magnification ratio of life size up to 1 to 3 (1:1 to 1:3) there is usually sufficient depth of field for the eyes to be captured pin-sharp.  In my opinion, at f 8 the out of focus areas looks only a little blurred and it’s as though a mistake has been made.  At f  2.8 the depth of field is miniscule and with such a large aperture it’s a challenge to avoid over exposure even with strobes on their lowest settings with diffusers.  In the field I begin with f 5.6 and bracket to f 4. The f 5.6 shots are usually more successful.

105mm macro lens

An aperture of f 8 is optimum for this lens!  I have experimented with f 5.6 and f 4 but had a success rate of less than 3% when shooting at a magnification rate close to life size 1:1.

200mm macro lens

This gives great Bokeh at f 11 and f 8 and when shooting at close to life size f 16 can even work well.
Shooting blur is great fun, challenging and a good discipline to learn but it takes loads of patience and a little practice to develop

All the photographs below were taken with a 60mm macro lens on a Nikon D300 camera, Subal housing and Inon Z220 flash gun, ISO 200 and auto white balance.
Underwater macro photograph of hawkfish
Bokeh Image 1: Taken at 1/250 and f/ 4.8 The effect of the out of focus background created by intentionally using a wide aperture of f 4.8 is not that effective simply because the distance to the subject is too far and the blur effect is hardly noticeable.
Underwater Bokeh Photograph
Bokeh Image  2: A tip for taking macro Bokeh pictures is to try and get as much magnification as possible. This in turn emphasises the lack of depth of field. The difference between this shot the one above it is that I’m closer and the Bokeh is emphasised. It’s no use cropping the photo in an imaging  program – this makes no difference to the effect.
Underwater Bokeh Photograph Of Long Nose Hawkfish
Bokeh Image 3: Using the same 4.8 aperture the Bokeh is again emphasised because I’m even closer to this longnosed hawk fish. Notice the narrow band of focus each side of the eye.
Macro underwater photograph of a lizardfish
Bokeh Image 4: A typical face shot of a lizardfish using an f stop of f 16 and illuminated with two Inon Z220 flashguns.
Macro underwater bokeh photograph of a lizardfish
Bokeh 5. I opened the aperture to f 5.6 and got a little lower to improve the impact on the eye. I always focus on the eyes because this is what the viewer will first seek out.  

Bokeh needs to be practiced to get a feel for both focus and flash power settings. I continually practice on anything I can. Don’t wait until you find the perfect subject – start practicing now



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