ISO 125, 70mm, f/2.8, 1/800s
Normally what grabs our attention in a great photo is what is in focus. But have you ever looked at a photo and noticed how beautiful the out-of-focus areas are? Sometimes the out-of-focus areas might look like a gorgeous soft mass of blurriness. Other times it may seem as though an endless dazzling array of sparkles is filling the scene.
“Bokeh is is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image” (from Wikipedia).
In this article we’ll look at several different techniques for getting better bokeh in your photos. One thing to keep in mind is that often the best bokeh results from combining techniques!
ISO 160, 35mm, f/1.6, 1/800s
1. Shoot Closer to Your Subject
The closer you are to your subject the more the background will be out of focus.
Now the problem is that a camera’s lens usually has a minimum focusing distance (the point where the lens can no longer focus because you’re too close to the subject). What you’ll find is that you can maximize the amount of blur in your background, by shooting as close as you can to your subject without getting closer than the minimum focusing distance.
ISO 100, 50mm, f/1.6, 1/500s
2. Increase the Subject to Background Distance
Your first instinct when shooting people might be to have them stand directly in front of a background (like standing against a wall). It’s fine to take photos like that, but you won’t get much (if any) bokeh, and your subjects definitely won’t stand out much from the background.
You can increase the amount of background blur by having your subjects stand farther away from the background. The more you increase the distance between your subject and the background, the more the background will be blurred.
ISO 800, 200mm, f/5.6, 1/800/s
3. Shoot With Longer Focal Lengths
Longer focal length lenses (like 200mm) give the appearance of greater subject to background separation compared to shorter focal length lenses (like 24mm). This can help emphasize the appearance of bokeh in a photo.
So, if you’re using a zoom lens like a 18-55mm then shooting at 55mm will help maximize bokeh!
ISO 200, 35mm, f/1.6, 1/2500s
4. Shoot With a Fast Aperture
Shooting faster apertures (f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2.8) can help create a more shallow depth of field. The wider your aperture (small f/numbers) the shallower your depth of field will be. Creating a shallow depth of field will allow more of your image to be out of focus – increasing the potential for bokeh.
Now this can be a bit deceptive because just shooting at f/1.4 doesn’t guarantee you’ll have bokeh in your photos. For example if you’re shooting a subject that is very far away (like a mountain) then even if you’re shooting with a fast aperture you won’t get any bokeh. Why is this? Because when your subject is far away, your camera’s lens will be focused at infinity, and everything in the shot will be in focus. If everything in the photo is in focus then there won’t be any bokeh.
Some lenses like kit lenses don’t have very fast apertures. For example an 18-55mm lens might have an f/3.5 -f/5.6 lens. What this means is that when the lens is at 18mm the largest the aperture is f/3.5, but as you zoom in to 55mm the largest the aperture is allowed to open is f/5.6. In this situation the best thing to do in order to get the best bokeh is to shoot at 55mm at f/5.6. The longer focal length of 55mm (even at f/5.6) will be a better job of capturing bokeh then setting the lens to f/3.5 at 18mm.
ISO 50, 55mm, f/1.8, 1/320s
5. Have Something Sparkly In Your Background / Foreground
Bokeh looks the most dramatic when you have a mix of highlights and shadows (e.g sunlight filtering through a tree). Out-of-focus highlights make bokeh that seems sparkly. Having the mix of shadows helps those sparkly highlights stand out. You can easily experiment with creating bokeh if you have a set of christmas lights hanging around. Light through trees and spraying water are also fun subjects to explore.
You can also often find interesting textures and patterns on the ground which make interesting bokeh. This is really useful for portrait photography – being able to quickly create an interesting background wherever you’re standing. The light across grass, rocks, or sand during sunset makes for really pretty bokeh!
ISO 1600, 35mm, f/1.6, 1/125s
6. Find the Balance
Is there such a thing as too much bokeh? Yes!
See, if you combine all the techniques above you can create bokeh that will blow people’s minds! BAM!
But what you need to think about is how bokeh actually adds to your photo. Is it distracting from your subject and totally stealing the show? It’s fine to shoot bokeh for bokeh’s sake, but if bokeh is supposed to be a supporting element in your composition then it’s up to you to find the balance.
When you do find that balance, bokeh definitely adds a bit of magic to your photos!
Recommended Lenses for Bokeh
While you can shoot photos with bokeh with any lens, having a lens with a fast maximum aperture is definitely an advantage. Fast aperture lenses are usually prime lenses (one focal length, no zooming).
A general recommendation for getting good bokeh is to shoot with a 50mm f/1.8 lens.
When using a 50mm lens on a full frame camera you’ll find it’s quite a versatile focal length that can be used in ton of different situations. For APS-C sized sensor cameras 50mm is still an awesome focal length, especially for portraits, but you might find it a bit too long (seems too close up) for general purpose shooting (in this case check out a 35mm lens which will give you the equivalent focal length as a 50mm on a full frame camera).
You can check out our recommended gear page here for more recommendations on photography equipment.
Now get out there and start experimenting with creating bokeh! Happy photographing!
P.S. One final tip: you can actually change the shape of bokeh (heart shaped, star shaped etc.) by creating DIY filters that you attach to the front of your camera. You can check out this article here, or another one here for more info on creating bokeh filters. You can also buy pre-made bokeh shape filters on Amazon.