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I get many emails from our readers asking me how they can get good bokeh out of their point and shoot cameras. I first thought about posting a short paragraph in a Photography FAQ post, but then decided to elaborate more on the subject and explain it in detail, rather than providing a short answer. Hopefully those who have point and shoot cameras will understand everything I say, since I will do my best to explain the subject in simple terms.
1) What is Bokeh?
As I explained in my “What is Bokeh” article, Bokeh is the quality of out-of-focus or “blurry” parts of the image rendered by a camera lens. The key word here is “quality”, since bokeh is not the second name for the blurry parts of the image. When you hear somebody say “the bokeh on that image is creamy and beautiful”, they are simply referring to the overall quality and feel of the out-of-focus area, not the out-of-focus area itself.
See the soft out-of-focus area behind this cute boy? That’s what quality bokeh typically looks like. How do you achieve a similar result on a point and shoot camera?
2) How to get background blur in your images
Before we talk about bokeh, let’s see how you can first separate a subject from the background with a point and shoot camera and get blur in your images. Obviously, when I say “blur”, I mean the “out-of-focus” area, not motion blur. Most digital cameras are capable of producing out-of-focus areas when the camera lens is focused at a very close subject with a large lens opening called “aperture“. Here is what you need to do to create some blur behind your subject:
- If you have an advanced point and shoot camera, switch the camera mode to “Aperture-Priority“. If your camera does not have such mode, switch to “Macro” or “Portrait” mode, which also work great.
- Turn off camera flash.
- Ideally, you should do this outside during a sunny day to shoot at low sensor sensitivity or “ISO” and to get lots of light reflections/highlights into the image. If you are shooting indoors, make sure to do it during the day and do it in a well-lit area with large windows behind you. Otherwise, you will need to use a tripod.
- Pick a relatively small subject with plenty of textures to be able to focus on it easily.
- Make sure that your subject is physically isolated from the background. For example, if you are taking a picture of a coke can, make sure that the objects behind the can are relatively far. If you have objects close to the subject, they will be in focus (which is not what you want), while placing objects at a distance will make them out of focus.
- Make sure that the objects in the background have reflective surfaces. Glass and metal surfaces are great candidates for the background.
- Hold the point and shoot camera as close to the subject that you want to appear sharp in your image as possible.
- Focus on your subject by half-pressing the shutter button. Make sure that your subject is in focus.
- Take a picture and view it on the camera LCD, making sure that your subject appears sharp, while the background looks blurry.
- If your camera has an optical zoom feature, zoom in all the way and take another shot.
Here is an example that I shot indoors:
The champagne bottle on the left side was the subject in focus and the flowers in vase at the end of the table appear blurry or out-of-focus. The above shot was taken with my iPhone, which I use as my point and shoot camera. As you can see, you can get blurry backgrounds with pretty much any camera out there.
The above example will be a great way to see the type of bokeh your camera and its lens are capable of producing. If the background blur looks nice and smooth (which basically means good bokeh), you could use the same technique to isolate your subjects in the future.
The background blur in the above image looks nothing like the one in the first one, doesn’t it? Let me explain why.
4) Limitations of point and shoot cameras
As I have demonstrated above, almost any camera is capable of producing out of focus areas when the lens is focused at a very close subject. However, not all cameras are capable of producing good-looking bokeh. There are several reasons for this:
- Point and shoot cameras have very small sensors. The size of the camera sensor is directly related to depth of field (the area of the image that appears sharp or “in focus”) – the smaller the camera sensor, the larger/greater the depth of field. When compared to film or full-frame digital cameras, point and shoot cameras typically have sensors that are 15+ times smaller in size. Because of this, the area that appears sharp is much larger in size than what it would be on a DSLR camera, making it harder to isolate the subjects. That’s why in the above instructions I asked you to keep background objects far away from your subject – if you leave them close, they will be in focus due to the large depth of field.
- The lenses in point and shoot cameras are not optically designed to create good-looking bokeh and are very limited in terms of minimum and maximum apertures and focal lengths. Generally, lenses in point and shoot cameras are wide-angle and have short focal lengths to cover as much of the area as possible, which puts most of the scene in focus. Cameras with optical zoom lenses typically change apertures to a larger number when you zoom in (thus increasing depth of field), making it even harder to separate the subject from the background.
- Most point and shoot cameras are designed to put everything into focus, so that the pictures people take do not turn out to be blurry due to focus issues. That’s why most of focusing in point and shoot cameras is automated, with face and scene recognition systems specifically designed to automatically acquire focus on the right target. This is because typical point and shoot camera users only need sharp images – they do not care about out-of-focus areas and bokeh.
I hope this helps.