Use bokeh to emphasise subjects and remove distractions

Photographers love to rave about bokeh, that dreamy out-of-focus nothingness that creates pleasing backgrounds, emphasising subjects while removing distractions. I won’t lie, I’m a big fan of bokeh too and over the last few years have worked intensively with shallow depth-of-field in my wildlife photography. Bokeh is a great way to produce perfect portraits, but there are a few things to think about if you want those clean and simple shots.

One of the main factors that will affect the nature of the bokeh within your images is your selected aperture. For dreamy out of focus backgrounds and foregrounds you’ll need to use a wider aperture. Portrait photographers rave about 85mm f/1.4 and f/1.8 lenses that allow for ultra shallow depth-of-field, but of course for wildlife, the relatively short focal lengths make them far from perfect.

One major benefit for us wildlife photographers is that longer focal lengths also play a role in creating smoother bokeh, meaning a lens with a larger aperture can still be used to make pleasing bokeh-filled shots without needing the ultra fast apertures of some of the shorter primes.

Of course, for the most pleasing effect you’ll want a lens with the widest aperture-to-focal length ratio. 300mm f/2.8 and 500mm f/4 lenses make for stunning bokeh, but the high cost may be prohibitive to many. Canon’s EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM, for instance, currently retails at £7599. For a great compromise, something along the lines of a 70-200mm f/2.8 or 300mm f/4 will still give you pleasing bokeh, and without the massive overdraft. Sigma’s excellent 70-200mm f2.8 EX DG HSM will set you back just £729.

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In terms of getting the perfect shot it’s all about distance and eye-level views. Being close to your subject, with distance between it and the background, will give smoother bokeh, with elements behind your subject being rendered fully out of focus. If the background is too close, you’ll likely start to see detail in the background, especially if you’re working at f/5.6. A general rule I try to stick to for creating pleasing bokeh is that the background should be at least triple the distance between you and your subject. 

Another element that plays a major role in getting the best bokeh is being eye-level with your subject. As with all wildlife photography, eye-level images always create a greater connection between viewer and subject, but when looking to create great bokeh, being eye-level also has the added advantage of limiting the focal plain.

Picture the scene - you’re shooting a puffin on the side of a sea bird island. If you’re looking down on the subject, the focal plain is likely to also include some of the surrounding rocks. However, if you lay on the ground and look across to the subject, the focus will only be on the bird and the ground directly below it, rendering everything else out of focus for a simple and uncluttered image.

Now that you’re eye-level with your subject, you can advance the technique further by shooting through other objects to add foreground interest. Shooting through small gaps in foliage, for example, or through tussocks of grass can help to render additional areas fully out of focus to emphasise your main subject.

Using bokeh is a fantastic technique to get to grips with, and one that can be utilised in many situations to create mesmerising portraits of animals or plants.

Tom Mason is one of the UK’s most exciting young wildlife photographers and conservationists. He leads workshops and seminars and writes a monthly blog for the RSPB. See more of his work here