But, trying to achieve a good bokeh effect might be a little bit tricky for beginners.
For that reason, in this post, you will learn how to take bokeh photos and create dazzling, professional-looking compositions.
Let’s start with some theory:
What is bokeh?
Bokeh refers to the aesthetic quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photo generated by a lens. The term comes from the Japanese word boke, which means “blur” or “haze”.
In other words, bokeh is a creative use of blur in photography to produce a nice visual effect. It is not the same as a blurry background or foreground, and it has nothing to do with the amount of blur either.
Many photographers define bokeh as circular or polygonal shapes created by blurred points of light, such as those formed by street lights at night. But, the term bokeh also includes soft, hazy backgrounds that we usually see on portraits or macro photography.
Need more help to get the idea? Here are some examples of bokeh:
What makes good bokeh?
By definition, bokeh should always look aesthetic and pleasing to the eye. So, when the blurred sections of an image look soft, clean, and they add value to the composition, we talk about good bokeh.
A good bokeh effect produces smooth transitions between the sharp and out-of-focus parts of an image. It creates a creamy look that makes the subject stand out while giving an artistic feel to the shot.
On the contrary, bad bokeh refers to low-quality blur produced by cheap lenses. It is distracting and unpleasing.
That said, if you want to achieve beautiful bokeh in your photos, all you need is a good lens and a solid understanding of the depth of field. Oh, and lots of creativity!
As a general rule, you need a fast lens. The faster, the better.
Prime lenses usually offer better image quality and wider apertures than zoom lenses. Plus, they tend to be lighter, and therefore easier to control and carry around. A classic 50mm f/1.8 lens is an excellent and affordable choice to start if you don’t have the budget to invest in a high-end prime lens.
And what if you don’t have a fast lens? Don’t worry! There are other ways to get bokeh, but we will talk more about that later.
Besides the maximum aperture of the lens, you should pay attention to the number of blades of the diaphragm. A lens with many blades will create circular, soft, out-of-focus highlights— and so, better bokeh. With that in mind, try to look for lenses with 8-9 rounded blades for smoother bokeh.
If you need some extra help to pick a good lens, Digital Camera World made a great list of recommended lenses for bokeh. In there, you can find many options for Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, Sony, and Olympus cameras.
How to use depth of field in bokeh technique photography
Having the right lens is the first step to create beautiful bokeh. But, to truly understand what creates bokeh, you must learn to control the amount of depth of field in an image.
In simple words, depth of field (DoF) refers to the area of a photo that appears sharp and clear. That sharp area will depend on four factors: aperture, focal length, camera-subject distance, and sensor size.
For bokeh photography, we need to use a shallow depth of field. We want to focus on our subject, so we need to make everything else in the shot as blurry as possible.
To achieve that, keep in mind these basic rules:
- Wide apertures produce less depth of field, making your focal point more noticeable while creating more blur.
- A lens with a longer focal length produces a shallow depth of field.
- The closer you get to the subject, the blurrier the background. This is a rule of thumb for bokeh.
- Full-frame sensors are great for capturing silky background bokeh. As they force you to stand closer to your subject, they can increase the background blur in a photo.
Now that we know the technical stuff, let’s move on to the fun part:
How do you get the bokeh effect? – 7 photography bokeh tips
1. Use a wide aperture (f/2.8 or lower)
Shooting wide open is the easiest way to get bokeh in a photo. Use a small f-stop number, such as f/2.8, f/1.8, or f/1.4.
Note that when using a wide aperture, even the slightest movement can change the focus point. So, consider shooting in live view mode and using manual focus for more accuracy. This way, you can also have more control over your images in low-light situations.
Bear in mind that a wide aperture lets a lot of light into the sensor. That is an advantage to get sharp focus because it allows you to set low ISO and a short shutter speed. Yet, it can be a disadvantage when there is a lot of ambient light. When this happens, you can always use a neutral density filter.
See our post here on How to Use Manual Focus on your camera
2. Shoot with a long focal length
Just like we mentioned a few lines above, long lenses are best suited for creamy bokeh in your images.
If your camera has an APS-C sensor, anything from 50mm and beyond will be great for creating bokeh effects. On the other hand, if you have a full-frame camera, you might want to look for longer lenses like 85mm and above.
Short telephoto lenses provide superb image quality and stunning bokeh. They are wonderful for portraits, close-ups, and even food photography.
3. Set your camera in Aperture Priority mode
Shooting in Aperture Priority mode (Av on Canon; A on Nikon) is super useful for creating good bokeh.
In this mode, you only have to set the aperture and your camera will automatically adjust shutter speed and ISO to get a correct exposure.
However, in complex lighting conditions, your camera might get confused. In these cases, you can always switch to manual mode to have absolute control of your images.
Btw, don’t forget to check out our quick guide to understanding camera modes so you can shoot better photos.
4. Create distance between the subject and the background
To maximize the bokeh effect, try to separate the subject as much as you can from the background. Think several meters away, not just a few steps.
Of course, the ideal distance will depend on every situation and the kind of lens you’re using.
Need a bit more blurriness in the background? Get close to your subject. This trick is perfect to increase the depth of field when you are shooting with a short lens, such as 35mm or 50mm.
5. Choose an interesting background
In bokeh photography, choosing the right background is as important as choosing the right lens. Always remember that.
To achieve beautiful bokeh, you must use a striking background that can look interesting when blurred out. Think of street lights, candles, Christmas lights, bushes, flowers, or sunlight coming through some trees. Anything that can help you create eye-catching compositions. Just be careful not to produce unpleasant patches in the background that could blend in with the subject.
6. Don’t forget about the foreground
Many photographers think of bokeh as a cool effect for smooth backgrounds, but it can be in the foreground too.
Including out-of-focus elements in the foreground is a terrific way to add a sense of depth to a photo.
Besides, depending on how you compose the frame, you can also draw attention to the subject more effectively. For example, try to shoot at ground level in a garden full of flowers to form a silky, colorful foreground to frame your subject.
7. Get creative with colors, shapes, and light sources
Last but not least, another way to achieve exquisite bokeh is by adding new elements to the frame that can enhance your composition. Here are some ideas:
- Add objects that reflect light or use contrasting colors to make interesting blurred backgrounds.
- Use fairy lights to create bright circles in the background.
- Use a backlight or a side light.
- Relate a well-focused object in the foreground to a blurry element in the background. Try to “capture” some lights inside a jar, for instance.
- Don’t be afraid to go through objects too! Shooting through a window or a group of leaves can add artistic value to an image.
- Use a DIY lens filter to make custom bokeh shapes.
Can you add a bokeh background in editing?
When it comes to bokeh, it is always best to get the effect on the camera. Nevertheless, you can add a bokeh background or increase the blur in any image using a photo-editing program like Photoshop or Luminar 4.
There are many tutorials online to get creative with editing. If you want to add some highlights to create a dreamy mood in your photo, here is a quick Luminar 4 bokeh tutorial.
The last piece of advice we can give you is to be creative and have fun. Bokeh can make a big difference between a flat photo and a work of art. But, like every other technique in photography, only practice will ensure good results. So, grab your camera and start practicing today!
Thank you so much for reading! If you enjoyed this article, check out our blog to learn more about photography.