Using Bokeh in the Foreground and the Background

One of my favorite photographic tools is Bokeh. You can use it to clean up messy backgrounds, messy foregrounds, or to just straight up isolate the subject of the image. The thoughtful application of bokeh can be very helpful in directing the attention of the audience.  In this article I’ll be discussing how I’ve worked to integrate Bokeh into both the foreground and background of my images.

An Extreme Example

Water Front Lights

I made this image during the Christmas Season. The highlights in the bottom left corner are passing cars, the tree near the center of the frame was wrapped in white string lights, and the Bokeh balls in the foreground are string lights on a different tree. In order to get the circular pattern I wanted in the Bokeh I used an older manual lens: the 58mm Helios 44-7 which is known for producing this effect.

Thinking more specifically about the layering of Bokeh in this image there are three variables I had to consider: distance to the foreground, distance to the background, and the character of the lens. There are two ways to control the balance between the foreground and the background: the focus point and the physical position of the camera.

To throw both foreground and background out of focus in this image I had to get right up on the lights in the foreground. I was well within the minimum focusing distance of this lens. At the same time my focus point was just ahead of the minimum focusing distance of this lens to get the kind of character I wanted from the background Bokeh.

Practically this leaning on the tree and playing around with the focus point in Liveview mode for a minute until I was confident that I was pulling the best image I could out of this scene and this lens. It’s also worth noting that I shot this image with the aperture of this lens wide open at f/2 with the intent of getting the bokeh balls to be as circular as possible and not hexagonal.

This image uses foreground and background bokeh not to isolate a subject but rather to convey a complex and yet decidedly abstract scene. I consider this image an extreme example given that there isn’t a single object that’s in focus in this image.

For Enhancing Subject Isolation

Winter Berries

In this image the foreground is on the right-hand side of the frame and includes the white berries that oppose the subject of the image. Here I’m using Bokeh in the foreground to obscure the specifics of a compositional element because I wanted its color and shape but not its detail.

In the background I’ve aligned the subject so that the Bokeh’ed twigs act as leading lines. Obviously these berries are rather small and while I wasn’t using a macro lens to create this image I did pair a 10mm extension tube with a Nikkor 70-300mm VR lens and shot wide open at f/4.5.

Through the use of these three layers of focus I’ve worked to isolate the subject of the image while demonstrating the pleasing qualities of this lens’s Bokeh. It’s worth noting that often times the way a lens will render out of focus objects in the foreground is different from how it will render them in the background. Case and point the foreground Bokeh is smooth while the background Bokeh is busier in this image.

Natural Framing and Foreground Bokeh

Athlon X4 880K in Flowers

Placing foreground elements outside of the lens’ focusing range is a technique that I relied on in the first image and I’ve used it again in this product shot. Here its purpose is to frame in the left and top of the image. I’ve then opposed that by leaving the bottom and right side clean and empty. Isolating the subject was my end goal in this image.

Working with plants can be challenging at times. In this shot I placed the subject at the intersection of a set of branches in a horse-sized bush. This intersection was useful because it immediately gave me a set of leading lines to build the image around. It also allowed me to play with the dappled lighting that was coming through the outer edges of the bush.

I imagine that I looked pretty strange to people walking by as I shoved my camera into this blossoming bush but I’m still very pleased how things worked out.

Conventional Isolation

Resting Place

In this image we have a more conventional use of depth of field to support the isolation of the subject. But rather than obliterating the background I stopped the lens down so that while specific details of are long gone the color and shape of the environment remain. There’s no mystery in this image; you’re looking at a fallen tree in an evergreen forest and at least that much is clear.

The reason that I’ve brought this image up is to look at how foreground Bokeh can be used not only to isolate the subject but also as a compositional element. Thanks to the curvature of this tree trunk, field curvature of this lens, and the close proximity of the camera to the subject I was able to build this image around leading the viewer’s eye through the image and along the plane of focus which extends from corner to corner.

Thus I’ve not only isolated the subject but used the plane of focus as a leading element to draw the audience into the image.

Foreground Bokeh in Macro Photography

Hard Drive Platters

Macro photography is a pretty popular genre at the moment but one of the elements that I rarely see used is foreground Bokeh. Often when I do see it in popular images it’s not there intentionally rather it’s included as a by-product of the lens and camera combination that were used to create a given image. Because of how much I enjoy utilizing foreground Bokeh on a personal level when I see Macro shots where it could have easily been included I think of it as a missed opportunity.

In the image above I’ve used both foreground and background Bokeh to isolate and frame the subject of the image which are the edges of these three hard drive platters.

Actively and intentionally using foreground Bokeh as framing tool for the subject of the image is what I’m striving for these days. It’s a personal preference obviously and there’s nothing wrong with other ways. But hopefully in my discussion of these photos you’ve picked up on why they’re my focus at the moment.

Published by

Thomas Ryan

Thomas August Ryan is a map maker, freelance technology writer, and photographer. Hailing from Seattle you can now find him living in Austin.