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Creating Portraits with Beautiful Bokeh

Bokeh is a word that carries a lot of weight in modern photography circles and can, surprisingly, breed heated conversations, but what does it really mean and how does it apply to portrait photography? As an introduction, consider the word—which is derived from the Japanese term for “blur” or “haze”—to mean the aesthetic quality of the out-of-focus parts of an image surrounding an in-focus subject. It is not simply something not in focus, it is a product of shallow depth of field and can be quite beautiful on its own, but also lends to the beauty and effectiveness of the overall composition. Bokeh is most often noticed when points of light, either direct or reflected, are blurred and create a dappling effect in the background of an image, but bokeh is more than just soft spots of light, and the quality of bokeh is a product not only of light and photography technique, but of the type and quality of the lens one uses.

Before we can discuss bokeh, it’s important to understand the idea of depth of focus or, as it’s more commonly referred to, depth of field. When we focus on a subject within our frame we can control how much of the overall image—foreground to background—is in focus. In a wide depth-of-field image, everything is in focus, from the items in the foreground to the primary person or subject of the photo, to the background. Think, for example, of a well-lit image of a person in front of distant mountains, in which the person and the mountains remain in focus. Shallow depth-of-field focusing is when one aspect of the image is in focus and the rest is slightly blurred. In portraiture, the aspect in focus is usually the face of the subject or even just the eyes, while the rest of the frame is in progressively softer focus.

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