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50mm Lens + DSLR=Beautiful Backgrounds+Bokeh

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Now you can take beautiful portraits, product shots and so much more and get interesting Bokeh too!

The term comes from the Japanese word boke , which means “blur” or “haze”, or boke-aji, the “blur quality”. The Japanese termboke is also used in the sense of a mental haze or senility.

Mirror Lens For Nice Bokeh

Years ago most photographers would purchase a 35mm SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera that came with what they called a normal 50mm f1.8 or F1.4 lens.

I remember having a wonderful 500mm mirror lens that was short and lightweight and utilized internal mirrors to take the photos.  At that time we didn’t realize that these mirror lenses actually produced very nice Bokeh that was soft, out of focus and had circular aberrations in the backgrounds.

From my article on our site about Alien Skins Bokeh software I wrote this about my Mirror Lens:

“I even had a 500mm Soligor Series 7 mount mirror lens that I used on the beach in Belmar, NJ, to photograph all the pretty girls each summer. This lens was an F5.6 or F8, fixed lens so you could only use it on the beach because, it needed so much light for a decent exposure (I was to shooting at 250th second). I do remember the great bokeh on that mirror lens. Those early beach photos, taken with this lens, had a very cool circular pattern in the background soft areas, which was caused by the mirror reflecting in the lens.

Many of these and other early photos I shot then, had a soft blurring look with creamy highlights(“Bokeh”). Of course back then there was no Japanese term for the soft, out of focused areas on the outside of our lenses depth of field.”

Other zoom lenses that depended on the glass alone, were usually very heavy, expensive and not that sharp, so we learned to use our normal lenses on our cameras to produce some pretty amazing results. One other reason was the film available for our cameras were usually pretty slow and that meant you would shoot with 100-200 ASA film that need a very fast lens.

Definition: When we say a lens is Fast it means the lens, due to lens design, optics and mechanics,has the ability to accept a great deal of light when the lens is wide open.

You will want to shoot at 125 to 250 of a second to

Beautiful soft background

prevent camera shake you need these fast lenses that won’t need as much light to give you a good exposure.

Today, we have digital cameras that can shoot at 3200 ASA or higher and even though the results might be noisy (we use to call that grain with film), we deal with it.

Manufacturers of cameras and lenses figured out they could sell you a more expensive zoom lens, even it it was slow (F4.5-5.6) and you would be fine.

The problem with a zoom lens is they are much heavier then a fixed focal length lens, require more light and higher speeds to record the images properly. Hand holding them in a low light condition and trying to focus on a particular point on your subject can be a challenge. Although you can get beautifully soft backgrounds in the images you shoot too, it is far easier working with a moderate telephoto, called a portrait lens or the great 50mm f1.8 or f1.4 lenses.

The soft backgrounds with beautiful out of focus points of light is called Bokeh. As we also know many narrow depth of field shots, with blur in the front and rear of the point of focus are also considered photos with nice bokeh. For the sake of this article, we will be talking about achieving both the soft focus backgrounds in your photos, and also trying to produce nice Bokeh in your photos as well.

To achieve beautiful soft backgrounds I like to use my 50mm, f1.8 Nikkor lens.  You can of course use  of faster lenses and even use a zoom lens, but for now, we will focus on the benefits of the inexpensive 50mm lens.  Remember that Bokeh is not just the soft background but rather the nice out of focus light elements in the backgrounds or the aesthetic quality of the backgrounds.  These are often caused by lens aberrations or other elements in the photos and you can view a number of good ones at this link.

Inexpensive 50mm F1.8 lens

This introduction to soft focus and the benefits of using a 50mm lens or even a mirror lens is simply meant to open up a new world to you and new capabilities with your digital DSLR cameras.  Everyone is so concerned with lens sharpness and not looking at the potential of going the other way, soft, so I hope you will find this article an eye opener.

I am going to tell you the steps to take amazing shots like my samples with these inexpensive lenses and save your back from carrying around a heavy camera with a large zoom lens.

If you don’t have a decent Digtial SLR that will allow you to change your lens, you need to get one.

There are many excellent cameras available today and if you are just upgrading from a point and shoot digital camera you can purchase a great new DSLR from about $400 for the body up to thousands. I would say spending about $600-$800 will give you a really nice camera.

1. If you are purchasing the camera, you will only need to purchase the body only, unless the zoom lens they pack with it is so inexpensive it doesn’t pay to buy the body only. They usually give you a modest zoom lens like and 18mm to 55mm lens which you really won’t need if you get a small, lightweight fixed focal length 50mm lens. Some will come with a more powerful zoom, it is a decision you will have to make based on your needs and wallet.

Great Camera, Love It

2. You will want to purchase your camera manufacturers 50mm or similar F1.8 (lowest cost) or their F1.4 lens. There are others available from Tamron, Tokina, Sigma and other manufacturers, but in checking they actually have some more features but cost more then the simple 50mm lens from the company that made your camera. I have a Nikon D90 and bought the Nikkor 50mm F1.8 lens for about $125 and I love it.

3. Now assuming you have your DSLR and your fast 50mm lens you want to start to shoot some

See lens aberrations in background - Bokeh

portraits or other subjects where you intentionally want the background to go soft and out of focus. People love the nice Bokeh on their photos, so see if you can find some points of light when you shoot.  They can be street lights, spot lights or other lights that will become soft points of light in the finished photos.  See  the sample of the wedding couple (my son and his beautiful wife) and how they stand out from the background because they are sharp and the background is soft and out of focus and note the points of light in the background as well.

4. You will be setting your camera to shoot in the “A” mode with is aperture priority mode. The reason to shoot in this mode is we want to have the lens opened all the way to maximum lens opening or aperture of F1.8 or F1.4 depending on the lens you own. If the lens is open all the way, you will have the smallest depth of field, in close-up shots, only a few inches total.

5. Set the focus on your lens and camera body to the manual setting instead of leaving it at automatic (AF) setting.

Lights in background create interesting Bokeh

The reason for this is that your Depth of Field, the distance beyond or in front of the sharpest focus point that will still be in focus will be quite shallow. If the lens is open all the way to F1.8, and you are focused on your subjects eyes (an example) then you may start to see the photo get soft in a couple of inches to the front of his eyes to the back. Look at this sample of Levi a beautiful Great Dane and you will see I focused on his eyes which are sharp and if you beyond the eyes, you will see they are already out of focus and now give me a nice Bokeh.

6. Practice with you lens and be sure to keep the focus sharp on the point in the photo you want to be sharp. If you are shooting a scene and need a little more depth of field, then close the lens down from F1.8 or either F2.8 or F4 and see if that works better for you.

Soft focus, makes simple shot look pro

The higher the F number the less light is getting into the camera through the lens and the larger the depth of field.  If you need a longerDOF, then simply adjust the lens opening of the camera.  Remember that as you change your lens opening you need to change your shutter speed.  For each stop you change your lens opening you also have to change your shutter speed to keep these two constant.  Since the proper exposure is determined by two factors, a combination of lens opening and shutter speed based on the  ISO or ASA setting on your digital SLR.  Lets try it this way,  If I allow twice the amount of light to enter my lens, then I have to cut the time my shutter is open to half.  Thus this combination of lens opening and shutter speed always stays constant for that ISO setting and the light hitting the sensor is exactly the same….right?

An example might be at an ISO of 200, in daylight your camera reads 125 /sec shutter speed at f5.6.  You want to get nice bokeh (or blur) and would like to shoot at  f1.8. Then you have to open up your lens, from f5.6 down to  f1.8 (3 f stops). By doing so your shutter speed with have to be three times faster since your lens opening is allowing three times more light into the camera. So in this example, your new shutter speed at F1.8 would now be 1/500th of a second or 3 times faster, thus allowing 1/3rd the light hitting the sensor, but since we have increased the amount of light through our lens by three times, the net result is still the same amount of total light hitting the sensor.

7. If you really want to impress other photographers with your knowledge of photography, when you see a nice photo with good Bokeh, tell them that. They will look at you like you are speaking another language, unless they are pros too 🙂

You can read an extensive article I wrote on this subject using software to produce Bokeh. You will see samples of my work and how I took these shots that now look like they were shot with a 50mm lens.

Wide open at F1.8 or 2.8 will mean a very shallow depth of field. Note, only inches from the sharp eyes goes soft.

Your camera will set the proper shutter speed for the correct exposure in the A mode, so you won’t have to worry about getting the proper exposures.

You can determine where you want the photo to start to go out of focus using your lens openings to change the DOF.

When you review your images on your DSLR, enlarge them to see what is in and what is out of focus. It is hard to do on some of these small screens, so just click on the button that allows you to enlarge the images in the review mode.

Try to include lights or other elements in the backgrounds that will add nice Bokeh to the photos. They will go soft and out of focus but will add interest to the backgrounds and give you nicer Bokeh.

You should be fine with an F1.8 lens which should cost about $125-$150, if you go for an f1.4 lens or faster the price goes way up and can add another $200 or more to the cost. Unless you are a pro and price doesn’t matter, stay with the F1.8 lens

Hand held, available light 50mm f1.8 lens

Note: You can also get Bokeh from a zoom lens, but you will need have to shoot, where the background that you want to go soft, will have to be far in the distance. Remember the smaller your aperture on your lens the wider the Depth of Field is. On a lens shooting at f5.6 or f8, you may have to be a quite a distance away from your subject to have that background go soft because the DOF could be 20 feet or more. On a 50mm F1.8 lens, you could go to a soft background that is literally inches away from the point of sharpest focus.

Remember that a fixed focal length lens (50mm vs. a zoom like an 18-135 or similar) means you will have to move in and out to frame your shots, a zoom will do that for you in the lens. So expect to do this with your 50mm Lenses.

Since I travel and write many reviews for the IPA web site, I love taking my 50mm f1.8 lens with me. Every close up of food, small items and evening shots I try to use my 50mm lens.  It makes a simple glass of ice tea at my lunch table or a laundry bag and slippers look like professional product shots.  So if it is Bokeh you are looking to achieve or simply great soft focus background shots, get yourself an inexpensive 50mm lens and have fun.




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