Why bokeh isn’t just for background (plus camera settings to try with the NIKKOR Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena)

Little ShaoTechnology & Know-how01 Mar 20244 min read
Little Shao Photos for Plena article, Nikon magazine.

The launch of the NIKKOR Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena allows for pleasing blur and artistic effects any photographer can embrace, says sports and action photographer Little Shao

Enter the NIKKOR Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena. Hailed as a ‘quantum leap’ in lens design, this new NIKKOR S line lens offers bokeh consistent from the centre to the edge of the frame on either side of the focal plane. The results? Three-dimensional effects creating phenomenal subject separation, incredible depth of field with beautiful gradient, and bokeh so smooth it’s painting-like.

 

With 11 rounded opening diaphragm blades, a focal length of 135mm and a convex concavo-convex construction engineering to minimise vignetting, this prime makes bokeh its star performance (for the story behind the engineering behind Plena, click here).

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Little Shao
AmbassadorAction and Adventure Photography
What’s in my kitbag?
Little Shao Photos for Plena article, Nikon magazine.

Bokeh is far more than a blurry background. It’s about manipulating light and movement to create a pleasing, attractive effect that adds to an image’s composition. Although bokeh is often used to separate a subject from the background, especially in portraiture, it can also be used to separate the subject from the foreground to create a different type of depth.

 

One of the first to use the NIKKOR Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena, sports and action photographer Little Shao proves bokeh isn’t just for static portraits by snapping photos on the streets of Paris. “Bokeh is important in the background, but it’s equally as important in the foreground as this is often where you have more obstacles to remove, especially in the street,” says the Nikon Ambassador, who went pro in 2012. “With Plena, the bokeh allows you to redefine shapes, and adding this pleasing blur in the foreground ensures a beautiful gradient and full focus on the subject.”

 

Working with a variety of brands, from Red Bull to Nike, the Ambassador aims to make the sport of his subject – whether that’s dance or freerunning – look effortless. “I care about body movement, geometry and motion,” says Shao. As a dancer himself, he appreciates the importance of making his subject the hero of the image and also how bokeh can help to elevate this. Here, he shares his top tips for maximising the NIKKOR Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena.

 

Stay invisible 

Shoot action that happens in real time. “With a focal length of 135mm, Plena allows you to remain inconspicuous as you’re not directly in front of your subject, allowing them to relax,” Little Shao says. “I love wide-angle lenses and fisheye lenses as they suit hip-hop and dancing where the distortion of the body and distortion of the lens blurs, but Plena gives huge depth of field, and shooting at f/1.8 makes a big difference because the bokeh is multiplied. Ultimately, this lens creates painting-like effect and if needed, cropping into the image is easy due to the sharpness and high quality.”

 

Think geometry

With the 135mm focal length providing compressed perspective and a tight angle of view, Little Shao recommends heading to an urban landscape and getting creative. “Add drama to the image by aligning the lines of buildings and the geometry of your surroundings with your subject,” he says. “Previously the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 105mm f/1.4E ED has always been my favourite due to the focal length and wide aperture, but now the new 135mm will work even better and produce even sharper results.”

 

Jump out of your comfort zone

“I love giving myself challenges to leap out of my comfort zone,” the Ambassador reveals. “If I have a new lens, like the Plena, I will challenge myself to photograph just with that lens for a month, even though I normally photograph or film with a variety of lenses. But this is my way of expanding creative possibilities, as I’m forcing myself to work with what I have got.”

Camera settings

Play around with these settings to maximise your bokeh.

 

For creative background bokeh (portraits near water)

Focal length: 135mm

Aperture: f/1.8

ISO: 64

Shutter speed: 1/4000

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Settings for foreground bokeh (still)

Focal length: 135mm

Aperture: f/1.8

ISO: 64

Shutter speed: 1/8000

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Settings for background bokeh (motion)

Focal length: 135mm

Aperture: f/1.7

ISO: 200

Shutter speed: 1/2000

Little Shao Photos for Plena article, Nikon magazine.
Settings for foreground bokeh (motion)

Focal length: 135mm

Aperture: f/2

ISO: 1600

Shutter speed: 1/5000

Little Shao Photos for Plena article, Nikon magazine.

Follow along with Little Shao’s adventures and work here and read Little Shao’s guide to capturing urban sports on the streets of Paris here.

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