To Bokeh, Or Not To Bokeh?

This post is more of a cautionary tale really – a mistake I made when I originally got into photography, and hopefully this stop help others from making a similar error.  When I got my hands on an SLR many years ago, the first thing I got really exited about was the way I could control the depth of focus in a way that instant cameras never could –  a simple alteration of the aperture could make the background of a photograph blur away, leaving my subject the sole, pin-sharp focus of my image. Something that I thought made photos look…. well, look ‘professional’.

That lovely blurry background is more commonly known as ‘bokeh’. And it’s great – especially for candid portrait photography. If you’ve got the right lens with a large aperture, then you can even focus sharply on the eyes, and have image looking blurrier even around other parts of the the face, which really makes the eyes stand out, often making for a great, powerful portrait.

That said, when I was first starting out, long before I became a professional photographer, I made the mistake of thinking that the more bokeh I could get on a portrait the better – the more bokeh you can get the more your subject really stands out right? I sort of just assumed that a large aperture, with a lovely, deep bokeh, was the thing that made the portrait. In other words, getting a deep bokeh was my only consideration and so I wasn’t really thinking about lighting, composition, and all the other things that you need to consider if you want to create a truly great image. It’s not that bokeh is a bad thing – it isn’t at all – but don’t become reliant on it when shooting portraits.

As I started to develop as a photographer I realized that bokeh wasn’t the be all and end all of a great portrait shot, and so had to start thinking a lot more closely about all the other elements that make up a photograph. I should have been doing this from the start.  To help me develop my eye I did two things. 1) I started to make use of my phone camera (long before the ‘portrait/controllable bokeh’ option appeared) and 2) fixed the aperture on my DSLR to f/8…   to push myself to find ways to create great portrait shots without the large depth of field that DSLR lens allow. For example, I suddenly found myself thinking a lot more about the light available to me, and the best way to either position myself and/or my subject to really make the most of it.

So, once I’d developed as a photographer in other ways, then the use of bokeh became another tool in my bag, as opposed to the crutch I’d being using the prop up my portrait shots.


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