There's no background like bokeh. I don't know what it is about multiple points of light set tastefully out of focus, but it's the subject of a great number of articles on how-to pages and youtube channels. The good news is that there is no real mystery to it. All you need to to do is shoot with a reasonably long lens with good compression, shoot on an f/stop that allows for a soft background and keep your subject close to the camera in order to maintain a narrow depth of field. The bad news is that getting great bokeh means shooting with high ISO speeds, and getting sharp images with a subject close to the lens is not easy, particularly when shooting with relatively wide apertures.
Photographers who've gotten the knack for all the techniques that make for good bokeh portraits can get results like this.
Having a stunning model like Miharu Tambo is really what made this photo, but this blog is about photography, not modeling, so I'll focus on techniques I used to produce this image.
First, lens selection. I knew I wanted a close up. It might have been possible to use a 50mm with good results. However, at this range, a 50mm lens will cause a bit of distortion in the centre of the frame, where is right where I've positioned the model's face. Also, while a 50mm would have given me a wider angle of view on the background, allowing for more clouds and ocean, the lights would have been smaller and the band of light across the screen thinner, meaning the lights would have been less soft. So, I chose an 85mm lens, which, on a full frame sensor, produces a nice medium close up if the model is about 6-8 feet away.
An 85mm lens this close will produce a very narrow depth of field, barely enough to keep both eyes in focus (if that's the effect you desire), so it was vital that I focused precisely and kept the model in just the right place. I shot on f/3,2, which gave me adequate sharpness (an f/1.8 lens will be sharpest around f/4), made the depth of field wider than it would have been wide open, but still left the background soft. A 135mm lens would have had similar characteristics and would have made the background larger and softer, but 1) I didn't have a 135mm lens on me and 2) there was not enough space between the wall behind me and the staircase in front of the model to gain the necessary working distance.
The shot was lit with a single speedlight, diffused with a 2x2 softbox, positioned about three feet away from the model's face to the right of the camera. The edge of the softbox was almost in the frame. The box had to be close to the model to get the full effect of the diffusion. At ISO 1600, a bit of noise was beginning to creep into the shot, but this was managed by shooting a bit hot and bringing the exposure down slightly in Lightroom.
One last point before I go on to the other images... One of the aspects that makes this shot work is the fact that the horizon does not line up with the model's eyes. To avoid this, I had to frame the the shot so that the horizon split the photo into even halves, top to bottom. Landscape photographers would call this a no-no, but portrait photographers are more interested in making the subject look her best (in landscape photography, the background often is the subject).
This wider shot was taken with a 50mm prime at f./2.8. I was far enough back that a wide open stop would not reduce my depth of field to unacceptably shallow levels and I the extra two thirds of a stop let me reduce the ISO to 1250. There is still a bit of noise in the photo, but it's within limits. The lights in the background are not "bokeh" because they're identifiable as city lights on the shore and as such are part of the background, None the less, the effect is a good one.
These shots were both 1 second exposures. In the close up, there was very little ambient light, so the model's face was lit only with flash. This meant her movements were frozen. The only potential problem was the black halo surrounding her figure when she moved, which did compromise a couple of shots, but we got enough good ones that I wasn't worried. However, in the wide shot (which was taken at a different location), the model was exposed to so much moonlight (and a bit of reflected street light) that the flash contribution was probably only about 50%. That meant she had to stand very still in her poses. She did, and we nailed it, but not without a few rejects.
In the wide shot, the 50mm lens let me capture the brilliance of the lights in the background as well as wooden fence in the foreground, which lends perspective to the over all image.
The wide shots were processed in Lightroom only and the closeup was edited in Photoshop as well.
One last point I want to mention is not about photographic technique, but rather about working with models. During the shoot, Miharu said "I really like the way you direct me." I'm not sure what it was she liked, but I took it as a compliment. That feedback was nice to receive and it made me feel like she was doing her best and it gave me an additional reason to do my best. Rapport means a lot, and I think it came through in the results.
Thank you for reading.
My simple blog about the art and science of photography.