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Step by Step Guide to Beautiful Bokeh

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Related course: Wow Factor Photography

Bokeh refers to a soft out-of-focus background that you get when shooting a subject. It comes from the Japanese word boke, which means ‘blur’.

The key to achieving good bokeh is using a fast lens at its widest aperture. If you’re interested in creating ‘bokeh’ in-camera, keep reading.

Photo of a street at night
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What Is Bokeh?

According to its official definition, “bokeh is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out of focus parts of an image produced by a lens. Bokeh has been defined as “the way the lens renders out of focus points of light”.

To make a custom shaped bokeh, you are going to change “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light”.

In other words, the aperture shape. To help you understand this technique, let’s study how bokeh is formed.

A custom made bokeh lens cap

How Do You Get the Bokeh Effect?

When you use manual focus mode and start turning the focus ring to out of focus, the subject will become blurrier. When the subject is a point of light, the result is what we call “bokeh”.
refraction diagram to show how bokeh photography is formedAbove, the image shows the simple physics refraction model of how being out of focus makes an image become blurry.

Light passes through the lens and then converges on to the camera sensor. If the point of convergence can hit on the sensor, the image is sharp.

On the other hand, when the subject is placed too far away or too close, making the point of convergence fail to hit the sensor, images become blurry.

Why Is Aperture Important for Bokeh?

Bokeh is almost entirely down to the lens you use. A bokeh lens, if you will.

It is the lens design that determines blur, and the aesthetic quality of this blur. Portrait mode won’t help you here, and there’s no such thing as bokeh mode.

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 background blur will appear in your image.

Macro photo of a hand holding a DSLR camera lens with blurry grey bokeh background

Why Is Distance Important for Bokeh?

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. In addition to aperture, distance also plays a significant role in blurring parts of your photograph.

The distance relates to the camera and the subject as opposed to the subject and the background.

You can achieve a large amount of great bokeh 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.

Dreamy portrait photo of a girl looking towards the sea at evening time with bokeh background

How Do You Balance Distance and Aperture?

There is a way around fixing the photo above, and this is where it pays to have a better quality lens.

By stopping down your lens to a narrow aperture, the creamy bokeh characteristics become much more appealing.

You can work out more of the shape, without risking bad bokeh.

Finding a bokeh which suits your photo is all about finding a balance between aperture an distance. Here, we used an aperture of f/8.

A photo of a tree branch in focus, with bokeh background of autumn trees

Which Lens Is Best for Bokeh Effect?

The quality of your lens will always affect the quality of your aperture. This is purely because of the number of aperture blades that are used to produce an aperture.

Higher quality lenses have more blades, so they can better reproduce a circle aperture shape.

For example, my Canon L lenses each have 8 blades, whereas my kit lens and 50mm f/1.8 only have 5.

There are lenses out there with more aperture blades. The Nikon 105mm f/1.4E ED has nine, and so does the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 and Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4.

Here’s what this bladed aperture looks like inside a lens.
A graphic of a camera aperture for bokeh effect

Why Is Lighting Important for Bokeh?

Of course, one of the most important parts of producing great bokeh is how your photo is lit.

If you’re in controlled conditions where you can adjust your light and want to experiment, then you may find that opening your aperture wide works best.

Remember, this is going to have the smoothest results, and produce the largest bokeh.

A water splash surrounded by colorful bokeh lights on black background

Or perhaps the light is breaking through some leaves of a tree in the background, and you want to capture this with a smooth bokeh blur.

The light source doesn’t have to come from behind the subject, like in the photo above. It can just be incidental light creeping through a well-lit scene, like below.

You always have to pay attention to the environment of your subject. It’s your job to spot it and use it to your advantage.

How to Create the Bokeh Effect in 4 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 bokeh 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 colors.

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 the day, an 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 -how to create a bokeh 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 Bokeh 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. Set the lens to 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 for bokeh effect. If not, get closer to the subject in capturing that shallow depth-of-field.

Mysterious street 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 Bokeh 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

Conclusion

I often find that working with lights at night produces the coolest bokeh effects. I would suggest going out in during the golden hour, and working into the evening to capture bokeh lights in the distance.

This works really well in a city where there’s lots of cars and shop/street lights. Get out there and try creating a bokeh background for yourself.

You can even create a blurred bokeh 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.

Before you go, check out this cool video on creating in-camera bokeh.

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