“How do you get your images looking so soft and dreamy?” — This is a question I get asked numerous times so here is a little insight on exactly what I do. It’s so easy to do when you know how!
It goes without saying, but 99% of ‘softness’ comes from in camera, or lens, to be exact.
Firstly, lets just go over a common misconception. Bokeh & DOF are DIFFERENT.
There are three main factors to creating beautiful, shallow DOF:
1. A lens with a wide aperture
2. Manipulation of available space
3. Focal length
Now let’s see what lenses I have in my camera bag…
1. Canon 85 f/1.2 II L
2. Sigma 50 f/1.4 ART
3. Canon 70-200 f/2.8 II IS L
I am shooting with a Canon 5D Mark III.
Notice how these 3 lenses all have a wide aperture ranging from f/1.2 – 2.8? This is the first contributing factor and easiest way to control the DOF. The lower the number the better! A lens with a wide aperture will help you achieve that creamy/shallow DOF resulting in a soft background while the subject remains sharp. This also creates a 3D effect and helps to isolate the subject from the background.
A lens with a long focal length can create creamier ‘blur’ than a lens with a shorter focal length and a wider aperture. So for example, at 200mm f/2.8 the blur can be far creamier than a lens at 85mm f/1.4, especially if you get super close to your subject. This can give the illusion of a softer background. Remember I said that DOF & bokeh depends on 3 factors. So, so far we have factored in aperture and focal length, but what about available space? There is no point in trying to achieve shallow DOF if you have your subject up against the wall or have limited space behind them as everything will mostly be in focus, even at a wide aperture! You need space BEHIND the subject. Lots of space. So that the lens has a chance to make that space into blurry-ness. That is essentially how it all works.
So let’s clarify…
200mm f/2.8 (f/2.0 would be even better!) with LOTS of space behind the subject can create more compact/tighter/smoother/prettier blur than a 85mm f/1.4 or anything shorter. Point being made is that it doesn’t always just depend on the aperture number. But a 50/85/135 at a wide aperture can also create beautiful and creamy bokeh/blur.
Take a look at this image taken with a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II IS L lens
@f/2.8 – 200mm — LOOK AT HOW SMOOTH THAT BACKGROUND IS!
How did I do it? I got nice and close, zoomed to 200mm and set at f/2.8. I also had a huge space behind the little girl so this helped to blur it even more. So tip #1: Get nice and close to your subject, zoom in as far as your lens will allow (even if it means stepping back to reach full zoom) and make sure there is a lot of space behind the subject. The more space the better. If I would have taken this image at 70mm/100mm/150mm, even at f/2.8, I still would not have results like this. See below.
Now look at this one taken at f/2.8 and zoomed in to only 123mm
Do you see the difference in DOF&bokeh? It’s still nice but it isn’t as smooth as when zoomed in at 200mm despite it also being at f2.8.
A long focal length will help create better eye-popping ‘blur’. This is why I always try and shoot my sessions at 200mm because I usually go to a park where there is lots of space behind my subjects. I am no expert on how this happens but it is to do with the compression and optics, etc.
To sum it up….
Zoom as far as your lens will allow (in my case 200mm) > Use the lowest aperture possible > Get as close to your subject as you can > Make sure there is plenty of space behind the subject.
With that being said, shorter focal lengths (50/85) can also create beautiful blur, it would just be different (and in my opinion, not so eye-popping). But even with primes, the same principle applies. Get close to your subject, lots of space behind them, low aperture number, and swoon over that DOF!
Don’t forget to create bokeh/blur in the foreground!
SOOC (except for temp change) – Canon 85mm f/1.2 II L @ f/1.2
I got as close as I could to the bottle and had the camera as far down as possible to create even more DOF in the foreground.
Of course, to achieve this you are going to need something in front of your subject (in this case, it was ruffles in my duvet cover). Do you notice how it is totally blurred? This is straight out of camera! I had the camera almost touching the duvet cover with the ruffles touching the bottom of my lens so that it was in the shot. If I had of lifted the camera further up, I wouldn’t have any foreground blur, and if I had stopped down the front blur (duvet) would have been more in focus creating deeper (more in focus) DOF.
Now that we have established getting it right in camera… let’s move onto post!
While you can create blur in photoshop it can end up looking fake and unnatural hence why I prefer to get it right in camera. Plus let’s not forget to mention it’s incredibly time consuming! You could try decreasing the contrast or adding a haze, reducing the clarity, etc.
However if you are anything like me and like to enhance your already bokehlicious images I have created a couple presets to do just that. Mainly ‘Dreamy & Whimsy’ and ‘Dreamy & Whimsy v2’ (my favourite!) from the Halcyon Lightroom Preset Pack (currently 55% off!). http://lt-photography.org/halcyon/
Take a look at the example below. I used ‘Dreamy & Whimsy v2’ on the right image. You can see the result is subtle, but still noticeably dreamy/dreamier bokeh. Created to give a little extra pop with a creamy finish.
If you have any questions feel free to leave a comment and I will answer the best I can! But for now, I hope you have learnt something from this post.