Have a blast with bokeh

One of the most accessible Spring subjects is your grass – as long as you haven’t mowed it, writes Andrew James. For this technique we’re going to need a macro lens and some backlighting to get the ball rolling. Here’s my 1 to 5 checklist of what you need to consider…

1 Lighting: You need low, backlighting to get the right look

2 Aperture: We want a lovely circular bokeh to make this look good

3 Exposure: It’s going to be trickier than usual so we’ll need to use exposure compensation

4 Conditions: The grass needs to be damp

5 Lens choice: Simply because we are shooting such a small subject a macro lens is best but you could use a medium telephoto too – it just needs to have a wide aperture. You will get away with f/4 but f/2.8 or wider is best

This is the look we are trying to get with the technique…

This is the kind of image with lots of visible bokeh that we want to achieve.

It’s a really simple shot but let’s break it down into the important components as illustrated in the image below. We’ve used Shade White Balance to warm it up. The focal point in this image is the droplet resting on the diagonal blade of grass. This shot was taken with a macro lens at its widest aperture of f/2.8. This gives a really limited depth of field that means all the other water droplets behind and in front of that point of focus diffuse into lovely circles or bokeh for that dreamy, creative appearance we want.

How do we get the lighting we need and the right shooting conditions? 

If you have a patch of grass or lawn that has natural light falling directly on it first thing in the morning then you are laughing! If it isn’t cloudy and you can drag yourself out of bed to lie on the lawn as the first fingers of sunlight crawl across the damp ground then the little area you’ve selected is going to come to life right in front of your lens. Better still if there is a frost (with clear nights right now that is really possible), because the dew is going to freeze and then start to thaw as the sunlight warms it. These are perfect shooting conditions. Before the sunlight hits you can take shots like this…

There is no direct light hitting the frost-tinged grass so no points of light to create bokeh.

While the frozen blades of grass are quite interesting they lack the mood you will get as soon as the sunlights hits and you are positioned, shooting back towards it. Suddenly you’ll start to get shots like this. Although in this image there isn’t much bokeh because it was shot just five minutes after the first rays of sunlight hit the grass, so although the main droplet of water has formed, the rest of the grass blades are still frozen around the edges.

Taken a few minutes after the sunlight begins to thaw the frost.

What if we don’t have warm natural low sunlight falling onto the grass?
The best thing here is to mimic it. You still want to shoot early, so there isn’t too much competing light but you can add your own continuous directional lighting that is going to be your means of creating the backlit bokeh. I use a simple and inexpensive square LED light but you could easily use an LED torch if that’s all you have. If there isn’t any natural dew or the natural dew isn’t obvious enough, then spray the grass with water. A simple plant sprayer is perfect. Give it a liberal dosing but take care not to oversaturate the area you are shooting or the water will just run away rather than form droplets.

As you can see from the annotated image above, the set up is really simple. I’m looking through the viewfinder but those of you with vari-angle LCD screen won’t necessarily need to even lie down which makes it a lot easier for those of us with advancing year.

Set your widest aperture, pick a point of focus and then monitor the exposure you are getting. Have the light source positioned so it’s not shining directly into the lens but is lighting the water droplets at an angle from behind. A bit of flare from the corner is okay though as it can add additional atmosphere.

You will need to experiment with exposure. Depending how you are lighting add either plus or minus exposure compensation in one third increments. Using Live View can help here as exposure simulation will show you what you’re getting or if you have an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) even better. You will also find that Autofocus is fooled by all that light bouncing around and your lens won’t lock focus properly. If this is the case then switch to manual, it will save you a lot of cursing. When you do, take your time to get the focus right because you are working with such a small area of sharpness it’s easy to mess it up.

Once you have the lighting and water droplets all in place it’s just a case of experimenting with the composition. The tangle of grass blades and water droplets can be a bit messy but the shallow depth of field will help you to simplify it a lot. Pick on a water droplet, focus on it and see what happens to the surrounding area.

Focus on one droplet and make it your sharp point of interest within the frame.

It’s much harder shooting with the camera held upright when you are working close to the ground but it’s worth the extra hassle to vary your composition. If the camera doesn’t feel quite as steady in your hands then increase ISO so you can increase the shutter speed to compensate for any slight movement. Avoid shutter speeds below 1/250sec if at all possible. All the images here were shot either at 400 or 800 ISO. Using a tripod at such a low level isn’t practical but those of you with beanbags should dig them out as they will help a lot. Alternatively roll a large towel or a puffy jacket into a ball and use that.

When conditions are right and you can control the lighting, shots like this are easy to achieve.
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