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Bokeh refers to a soft out-of-focus background that you get when shooting a subject. By using a fast lens, at its widest aperture, you can achieve this bokeh effect.

‘Bokeh’ is a very recognisable characteristic of a photograph. The word itself comes from the Japanese word for ‘blur’.

You can even create a blurred background in Photoshop and Lightroom, as you can see in our article here.

Or, if you are feeling up for a little DIY, you can make your own bokeh filters very cheaply. All the information is in this article.

But if you’re interested in creating ‘bokeh’ in-camera, keep reading.

Macro photo of a rose with bokeh background

Why Is Aperture Important?

Bokeh is almost entirely down to the lens you use. It is the lens that determines blur. By manipulating aperture, you get a focal distance and a focal point.

That’s why the widest aperture of your lens is important. Aperture ranges from f/2.8 at its widest, all the way up to f/22 at its deepest.

If we use an aperture of f/2.8, we get a very shallow depth of field. The depth of field is how much of our scene or subject is in focus. F/22 would be the opposite, placing everything in focus.

The wider the aperture, the more blur will appear in your image.

Macro photo of ahand holding a DSLR camera lens with bokeh background

Why Is Distance Important?

Aperture is the most important area when it comes to bokeh, followed by depth of field or how much of your scene is in focus. Distance is yet another important area in blurring parts of your photograph.

The distances relate to the camera and the subject as opposed to the subject and the background. You can achieve a large amount of blur in a photograph using f/2.8, even if you are far from your subject. This is because the focal distance is very small.

On the flip side, if you place yourself very close to a subject while using a medium aperture, such as f/8, the background will come out blurred. This is due to the background being much farther away from the subject than the camera is.

This is a great tip to know if your lens only drops down to f/5.6, as many zoom lenses do.

Portrait photo of a girl looking towards the sea with bokeh background

How to Create the Bokeh Effect in 3 Easy Steps

1. Find Your Image

First of all, you need to find where you are going to take the image. What you need to be aware of is light, the size of the area, and what the background is going to look like.

Here, we found a field for the experiment.

Photo of grass with shadowy bokeh effect background

2. Find Your Subject

We wanted to keep the theme as natural as possible, so we went with a leaf. Mixed with the field, it will provide a nice contrast in terms of shape and complimentary colours.

Macro photo of autumn leaves with bokeh effect background

3. Set Your Camera to Aperture Priority

Setting your camera to Aperture Priority will make it easier to change just the aperture. If the area is well lit, choose ISO 100. At the height of day, a f/2.8 at ISO 100 will give you around 1/1000 of a second, if not more.

The benefit of aperture priority is if you feel f/2.8 is too shallow, and want to use f/8, then the camera will work out the corresponding shift for you.

As you move the aperture up 3 stops, the shutter speed will drop by the equal amount.

Overhead photo of a DSLR camera lens on pink background

4. Capture

Take the picture. As you can see, the camera is close to the subject, and the distance from the subject to the horizon is much farther. This accentuates the blur, creating more of the bokeh effect.

The image and bokeh effect are enhanced by the dew on the blades of grass. It allows the light to become more prominent.

Macro photo of a leaf on grass with bokeh background

And that’s it. You can take beautiful bokeh photographs in-camera using a wide aperture. It is that simple. You are only held back by your imagination.

But there are a few circumstances where your bokeh might not go as envisioned. Let’s visit a few common problems.

My Background Is not as Blurry as I Had Hoped

This may be down to your aperture not being wide enough. Try shooting at f/2.8 or lower. If you find that your camera lens doesn’t drop down so far, follow these steps.

  1. Put the lens on the widest aperture possible (smallest number).
  2. Bring the camera closer to the subject.
  3. Close that gap and re-shoot.

You should find it much better. If not, get closer to the subject in capturing that shallow depth-of-field.

Mysterious photo of a man at night with bokeh background

My Images Are Too Dark

If you are using aperture priority, your settings should change according to your appointed f/stop. If you still have problems, increase your ISO from 100 to 200, and that should fix things.

Here, you are putting one stop of light into the image, giving your f/stop and shutter speed more room to play with.

Macro photo of mushrooms on grass with bokeh background

Blinking Lights in the Background

You may find that some background lights will disappear and magically reappear within your photographs. Don’t be alarmed, it hasn’t really got much to do with you.

Electrical lights such as Christmas fairy lights may not show up on your photograph at all. This is due to the fact that the lights aren’t exactly constant. They strobe.

They disappear in your image because your image isn’t synced with them. Try using a shutter speed slower than 1/60th of a second.

Atmospheric portrait of a girl with bokeh background

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

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Craig Hull

Craig is a photographer originally from the West Midlands (go Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath) currently based in Budapest. There isn't much photography he hasn't tried, but his favourite photographic areas are street and documentary photography. Show him a darkroom and he'll be happy in there for days. As long as there are music and snacks. Find him at craighullphotography.co.uk and Instagram/craighullphoto