Boke(h) explained, a bit

Ice and bokeh

A popular monthly photography magazine recently ran a brief article with the header: ‘What does ‘bokeh’ actually mean?’ The magazine’s answer was: ‘Bokeh is the effect that’s created by blurred lights in out-of-focus areas’. This is not strictly correct, although a common misconception. So I thought I might spend today’s post on the subject of boke(h).


The reason for the bracket is that the word, in the original Japanese, has no ‘h’: the ‘h’ is there so that non-Japanese speakers do not pronounce it like broke but without the ‘r’. Here’s how defines bokeh: ‘the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photographic image, especially as rendered by a particular lens’. So, bokeh is not just discs of light like those in the images above. It is also the smooth background in the picture below.


If you are trying to create bokeh, your results are going to depend on a number of things including your lens. On the whole, good quality prime lenses produce smoother, better quality bokeh. In the picture below, the nine-sided (really, I counted them!) highlights behind the kittiwake are the result of the lens picking up the sparkles in the sea beyond the cliff.

bird in Northumberland

At first sight the bokeh lights make a pretty background. But let’s take a closer look at those nonagons.

Not so nice! That would not make a very pretty print. My 70-300mm zoom lens does not make great bokeh.

On the other hand, my 100mm macro lens, a beautiful little prime, does rather nice, creamy bokeh.

Ah, that’s better.

Also, your choice of aperture will affect bokeh lights. In the shots below, the one on the left is at f2.8 and the one on the right at f5.6.

demonstration of aperture effect on bokeh

Equally, the distance from your focal point will change the bokeh. Below, the aperture is f2.8 in both shots but look at the difference in the bokeh lights when I move closer to the flower in the second shot.

effect of distance on bokeh lights

If you want the science, there is a website that explains it all. Good luck. In the meantime, here are some random thoughts about bokeh. Bokeh is good if you want a nice uncluttered background that does not distract from your subject. Let’s compare two shots of damselflies mating.


Wow. I got them in full mating pose here, making a ring. But that background is fussy. It detracts.

mating damselflies

Here, the amorous couple is only in half-hold position, but the background is less distracting. It is a better image because I am communicating to the viewer rather than simply making a record. (Mind you, the camera club judge still complained about the light bit of bokeh top right – you can’t please everyone all of the time!) Of course, you have to balance using an aperture wide enough to throw the background out of focus but not so wide that only part of the subject is sharp. But then no-one said it was going to be easy and that’s all part of the fun.

As for those ubiquitous bokeh lights, I prefer them when they are not distracting, or if they are made to be part of the image, as in the first shot in this post and the not-hugely-brilliant-but-suitably-illustrative shot below.

dandelion seed

One final thought. Bokeh is not limited to backgrounds. The shot below exploits the impact of out-of-focus areas in front of the focal point.

web and refraction

It can be effective deliberately to focus past objects to add a soft, dreamy look,

pyracantha blossom

or the feeling of having just happened upon the subject, by peeping through the undergrowth.


That’s enough bokeh from me. Do you have a favourite bokeh shot or tip? Perhaps you find the term slightly irritating, or is that just me? Feel free to share in the comments.

Macro economics


I have found that people often assume that they will not be able to do macro photography without expensive kit. Certainly, I now enjoy using Canon’s 100mm L IS macro lens on the full-frame 5Dii, hardly inexpensive equipment. However, looking back through my macro shots I was surprised how many, fairly decent, images I had achieved before I bought my current kit.


Most of the shots in today’s post were taken using my 400D, a fairly old, entry-level DSLR with only 10mpx at its disposal. All of them, except the last one, were taken using the Sigma 50mm f2.8 EX DG Macro, a nice little lens that you can pick up for £250 or less.


True macro lenses have a fixed focal length. They are prime lenses and, therefore, usually produce higher image quality than a zoom.


A 50mm prime has many uses beyond macro. 50mm is a nice length for portraits, for example. So your macro lens is a good and versatile purchase.


I recently read in a photography magazine that anything less than 100mm was too short for shooting insects. Hopefully, this post proves otherwise.


Another item often touted as essential for macro work is an expensive flash, usually a ring flash for insects. Not so. All of my macro work is done in natural light.


If you are not yet ready to buy a macro lens, there are other options. Extension rings, dioptres, or reverse mounting a regular lens, all achieve good image magnification although handling them well takes some practice.


Finally, do not assume that without dedicated macro equipment, close-up work is out of reach. This final shot was taken using a 24-105mm zoom lens.


Outdoor macro photography is my favourite genre. You can do it at almost any time of day and it is best when the sun is not shining. Perfect for those of us who live in a country the sun has forgotten and whose other commitments prevent them spending hours waiting for the light at sunset and sunrise.
Are you already a macro fan, or are you thinking of taking it up?

The best camera


“The best camera is the one that’s with you.” It’s such a well-known phrase that I couldn’t find anyone to attribute it to, although I did discover that Chase Jarvis has used it as the title of a book (and an app!) about iPhone photography. I didn’t know about that before I conceived the idea for today’s post! Undaunted by the discovery that I am following an already well-trodden path, I will carry on regardless (and then I will go and read Jarvis’s book!).
So, I was thinking yesterday about the first camera I ever owned, a little 110-cartridge film camera. Those of you of my age may remember the little cameras where the case folded back to become a handle? Several years later I moved on to a Minolta compact 35mm camera. I remember still how luxurious it felt by comparison. That little camera saw me through my backpacking years, surviving Egyptian sand, Chinese rain (boy did it rain!) and then every other tricky condition nature could throw at it during my round-the-world tramp. Then I got a proper job, ironically finally earning enough to be able to buy my first SLR just as my travels became limited to four weeks a year. I was seduced to the dark side, aka Canon, by the advert at Balham tube station for their new EOS 1000. A fairly nasty bit of plastic but what did I know? Luckily, the chap in the camera shop, a family-owned local store (remember them?), did know and he persuaded me to get the 600D. I still have it. It’s a great camera and did sterling work for many years. It is still in perfect working order, with a half-exposed film inside (must finish that!).
I was not convinced by digital. Didn’t want to try it. Not proper photography, I thought. Then my husband bought me a 400D for Christmas 2007 and I was hooked! I now use a 5Dii with assorted very nice lenses. But a recent injury has meant I can’t handle a heavy camera very much or often. Luckily, the iPhone 4 has a nifty little camera and it is always with me. So, at the moment, it is my best camera. I do firmly believe that photography is, or should be, composition, composition, composition. Having 21 megapixels at my disposal had made me lazy, able to rely on cropping to improve average composition. Now I will have to think a little more before I shoot and that can only be a good thing.
All of the pictures in today’s post were taken with my iPhone.