The technique which I'm about to share with you was really important to me when I first started out. It was a eureka moment. It was the first time I really understood the difference between a point and shoot image and a really creative image. More importantly it was when the apple really fell on my head. This is the technique that made me realise that you can take images with your camera in a way that you would never see them with your naked eye. Ever. Call me a geek, but that got me really excited. I still think the best images are those shot in a way that the naked eye could never see them.
To shoot images like this you need to take some creative control of your camera. The great thing about this is that it's not difficult. It's like driving a car. Once you've learned how to do it, it becomes much easier the next time, and the next until it's an automatic process in the brain. Once you understand what's going on, it's easy - and it will take your photography onto the next level.
Look at the image above. When looking out over my camera my eyes could see a whole colony of birds, all doing their own thing, and all in focus. Had I taken the image the way my eyes saw it, there would have been all sorts of different birds in the background and you simply wouldn't know where to look - it would detract from the subject of the image - the parent and chick. The technique I used to isolate the subjects from the rest of the colony is called creating "Bokeh" (bokeh being the effect of a blurred background, in this case so that the adult and chick really stand out).
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Bokeh is an easy effect to produce and you can control exactly how much the background is blurred. It can be exaggerated like above, or slightly out of focus so you can see what is behind the subject. In the latter case your eyes are still drawn to the subject because it remains in focus, while the background isn't distracting (see the image of Bailey to the right). You can create this effect with some compact cameras as well as a DSLR - for example the photograph of the poppy below was taken on a compact, exploiting the fact that model had an "aperture priority mode" which I'll explain below.
Below I explain how to create the Bokeh effect. I hope it helps you as much as learning this technique helped me. It can take your photography away from taking "point and shoot" shots to taking something that will really impress your friends.
Also imagine - this is only one technique - where would your photography go to if you learned, say, five new techniques. Amazing. Just putting it out there!
How To Create Bokeh - It's All About "Depth Of Field"
"Depth of field" is the term we photographers use to describe how much is in focus both behind the subject, and in front of it. When the depth of field is narrow (say half a meter in front and behind your subject is in focus) you will start to see bokeh - the background and foreground blurring.
Depth of field is controlled by the "aperture" (the size of the hole through which the light enters the camera when the shutter is open). A large aperture produces a narrow depth of field - like the picture above left (which was taken on a compact camera). A smaller aperture produces a larger depth of field where more of the background/foreground is in focus. Compare the light entering your camera to water passing through a hole. If you used a smaller hole you could better control where the water fell. With a large hole the water would splash all over the place - you couldn't focus it well.
To create Bokeh, you simply need to learn how to tell your camera to change the size of the aperture it uses to take your photograph. That's it. Easy.
How Do I Change My Camera's Aperture?
Most cameras will have an "aperture priority" mode - usually symbolised as "A", or "Av". These days many compact camera's have an aperture priority mode - so it's not something which is limited to a DSLR. In this mode the camera will automatically adjust other settings to compensate for the size of the aperture you want to use. The camera dial to the left is currently set to "Auto". If the dial is twisted so that the "A" lines up with the notch, then the camera will be set to Aperture Priority mode. Your next step is to set the aperture.
Apertures are measured in "stops" or "f stops" - each increase in "stop" doubles the size of the aperture. On an aperture of say "f1.4" (if your lens goes that far) the camera will be "wide open" giving you an exaggerated bokeh effect. An aperture of "f22" will be narrow - causing background and foreground to be much clearer - great for landscape shots. All you need to remember is that you need to set your camera to use a small f number e.g. f 5.6.
Now you need to pick up your manual and find how to put your camera into aperture priority mode (assuming your camera doesn't have a dial like the one pictured in which case you won't need your manual). Then you need to consult your manual to find out how to adjust the aperture / f number on your particular model. If you have a Nikon DSLR for example there will be a wheel on the front of your camera just below the shutter release button/button you press to take your picture (see right). When you move this dial to the left or right (when in aperture priority mode) you'll see the f number change on your LCD screen on the top. You need to set the aperture to a low number - you can experiment using various different f numbers to see how your image changes.
There are other things which will exaggerate bokeh, such as a larger focal length (bigger lens), how close the subject is to the background, and how close the camera is to the subject. But for now, just get used to experimenting with different apertures and see the difference. Use a large aperture and you'll get more lovely bokeh; use a small aperture and more will be in focus in front of and behind your subject (more your "landscape apertures").
Now you can tell your camera which aperture to use (and accordingly set the depth of field). You can make beautiful portraits. Why not get your camera and give it a try...
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