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Bokeh: Photographic background blur

A gorgeous Halloween pennant, Celithemis eponina, tees up on a conspicuous snag. These colorful dragonflies are often easy to approach, fairly common, and irresistible photo subjects. I made this image yesterday in Erie County, Ohio, while surveying for the Ohio Dragonfly Survey. All that is required for the survey is an identifiable photo, but if the subject cooperates as did this pennant, I invariably try and create the best image that I can.

This photo was made with my current favorite dragonfly rig, the Canon 5D IV and Canon's amazing 300mm f/4 telephoto lens. I sandwich a 25mm extension tube between camera and lens to allow for closer focusing. A 600 speedlite provides nice fill flash. Typical camera settings, and those used for this image, are f/16, ISO 200, 1/200. For the other dragonfly photo below, I changed to f/10 but all else remained the same.

BOKEH: A Japanese word meaning "blur", and when applied to photography it refers to the quality of the out of focus background of a photograph. When I made the image above, I knew I wouldn't particularly care for the bokeh, but this shot made when I was still trying to ensure I got a photo to document the insect. I'll explain why I didn't like the bokeh and how I could improve on it below.

This was the situation, a stark earthen bank along a pond, liberally peppered with contrasting white rocks. The dragonfly was perched on a small broken branch jutting right out of the middle of those rocks, a few feet up from the water's edge. For my first documentary shots, I was shooting down at it, and thus the rocks and bare earth formed the backdrop as seen in the image above.

Thanks to Amy Didion for snapping this photo and the next with her iPhone!

After getting decent images to ensure adequate documentation, and with the dragonfly's cooperation, I went for better material. I wanted to get the dirt and rocks out of the background, and the only way to do this was to go low. It wasn't particularly comfortable to do so, as it was about 86 F when I made these shots, and the ground was like an oven. Uncomfortableness comes with the turf, though - I'm always on the ground or in weird places to get good angles on subjects.

This is the change in bokeh wrought by going low. Now the distant greenery of the trees on the far side of the pond create a soft even olive-brown blur that doesn't distract from the dragonfly, and complements its colors. Scroll back up to compare with the first image. A major improvement, at least to me, and all by just changing the camera's perspective by a few feet.

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