Do you want to create amazing bokeh in your photos? The kind of bokeh that looks absolutely gorgeous?
Because this bokeh tutorial is all about creating the best possible bokeh. I’m going to give you a step-by-step guide to ending up with bokeh like this:
And–best of all–you don’t need super-fancy equipment to do it.
Let’s dive right in.
What Is Bokeh?
First things first:
What actually is bokeh?
Bokeh is a pleasing blur that appears in the background of some photos.
Now, technically speaking, all background blur is bokeh.
But it’s also common practice to use the term bokeh to refer to points of light, turned into circular shapes. I’m talking about image elements like this:
So just remember that bokeh can mean a couple of different things. It can refer to the background blur itself, or a specific kind of background blur.
Now let’s take a look at how bokeh is created:
How Bokeh Is Produced
Bokeh is produced when your camera lens renders parts of an image out of focus.
So your main subject, the area of the photo that’s meant to be sharp, can never include bokeh. It’s only something that can appear in the unfocused foreground or background.
Almost every photo ever taken contains some form of bokeh, because there are generally areas of a photo that can be called “out of focus.” But it’s often very difficult to see this bokeh! In fact, the real goal isn’t to produce bokeh–it’s to produce beautiful bokeh that enhances your photo.
Here’s a photo with nice background bokeh:
And here’s an image with good-looking foreground bokeh:
Now, each spot of bokeh is technically produced in the shape of your camera aperture. That’s why you’ll sometimes end up with bokeh that looks like a hexagon, a heptagon, or an octagon:
Look at the top edge of the photo above. Do you see the octagons?
While geometric bokeh looks pretty cool, your bokeh is rarely clear enough to produce this effect.
(To learn how to create this type of bokeh effect, check out the note about specular highlights later on in this article.)
The size and quality of the bokeh is altered by your depth of field–which refers to the amount of the photo that’s sharp.
A photo with a deep depth of field is sharp throughout but has very little (and very low-quality) bokeh. Like this one:
Whereas a photo with a shallow depth of field only has a sliver in focus but has a lot of higher-quality bokeh:
And this bokeh helps the subject stand out from the background.
Landscape and architecture photographers, on the other hand, generally want to keep the whole image sharp. So bokeh isn’t important to them, and they’re willing to use a deep depth of field that basically eliminates bokeh effects.
Related Post: How to Blur the Background of Your Portraits
Capturing Stunning Bokeh: The Step-By-Step Guide
There are a few key steps that you can take to create beautiful bokeh.
Following any one of these steps will get you decent bokeh. Following all four of them together will make your bokeh look gorgeous.
Step 1: Use a Wide Aperture for a Shallow Depth of Field
When it comes to creating stunning bokeh, aperture is the king.
You see, aperture determines your depth of field. It designates the amount of bokeh you’ll end up with, and it also influences the quality of that bokeh.
Now, a wide aperture is written in terms of low f-numbers, like this: f/1.2, f/1.4, f/1.8, etc. So for the best bokeh, you should strive to keep your aperture low. I wouldn’t recommend taking it above f/2.8, with f/4 being the absolute highest f-number you can dial in for a shallow depth of field.
Note that a wide aperture makes for a shallow depth of field, and a shallow depth of field creates a very narrow plane of focus.
So you’ll need to focus your lens carefully to ensure you end up with a sharp photo.
But if you can pull it off…
…you’ll love the bokeh effect.
Step 2: Increase the Distance Between Your Subject and the Background
Using a wide aperture can work magic, but it’s not always enough to create stunning bokeh.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to maximize the bokeh effect:
Increase the subject-background distance.
I’m talking about the amount of space between your main subject (the focal point of your photo), and the objects behind your subject (such as trees, a wall, a mountain, etc.).
If you can ensure that your subject is a good distance from the background, the bokeh effect will be magnified, giving you a wonderful effect.
To achieve this, you can try approaching your subject from different angles: crouching, walking to the left, to the right, or even around to the other side. Because by changing your angle, you’ll end up with different backgrounds (and one of them is bound to be pretty distant!).
Plus, if you’re shooting portraits, you can always ask your subject to move to somewhere with a more distant background.
Note that, in cases where you feel stuck, there’s one more thing you can do:
Instead of increasing the distance between your subject and the background…
…you can decrease the distance between you and your subject.
In other words, you can get closer to your subject. This has the same effect as increasing subject-background distance. Of course, this will also limit your compositional opportunities by cutting off part of your subject, so it’s often better to try to change the background first, before you go for a tighter shot.
But either method works–and you’re free to try both methods in the field!
Step 3: Position Your Subject in Front of Points of Light
The best bokeh often comes from small points of light being rendered out of focus.
That’s how, for instance, photographers get gorgeous “Christmas bokeh” shots. It’s also how you can get beautiful geometric bokeh, like this:
Therefore, getting bokeh like the example pictured above is simple. You just have to position your subject in front of light points!
These points of light can come in a few ways.
First, you can create points of light with actual lights, such as Christmas lights, or even fairy lights.
Second, you can find specular reflection highlights, which are points of light that reflect off of objects. You’ll often get spots of light bouncing off shiny things, such as glass animals, car mirrors, and the metal edges of buildings. These points of light, when maneuvered into the background of your photos, will produce gorgeous bokeh.
Third, you can find specular refracted highlights. These are highlights that come through objects, from behind. I’m talking about sunlight that comes from the backs of trees, like this:
Same with this shot:
The light moves through the trees, is broken up by the leaves, and turns into gorgeous bokeh.
You can choose your particular method of producing bokeh, depending on the quality of the bokeh you’re looking for. If you want discrete, very geometric bokeh, then try using artificial lights or specular reflection highlights. That way, you’ll be able to get gorgeous-looking bokeh shots.
And if you want smoother, creamier bokeh, go for specular refracted highlights that come through objects from the sky (or another light source).
Step 4: Make Sure the Background Is Smooth
Here’s the final step in creating gorgeous bokeh:
Ensure the background is as smooth as possible.
By this, I’m primarily talking about color, not objects. For instance, a background full of green trees is just fine. But a background that has some bright greens, then a sudden transition to bright yellows, then a transition to bright reds…
…is not going to work.
That’s why you need to find a background that is chromatically consistent. Something that is a nice set of green tones (such as a forest), a nice set of blue tones (such as an ocean), or a nice set of white tones (such as a wall).
Of course, you can have some specular highlights in there. Or you can have fairy lights, Christmas lights, or some other form of lights entirely. But you want the main part of the background to feel consistent all the way through.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
Do you see how the background feels…calm? It doesn’t have any harsh transitions.
(Note: While harsh transitions are the worst, you should really try to avoid any and all transitions, unless they’re carefully managed. So simple, somewhat-solid backgrounds are best.)
And because of the consistent background, the bokeh looks stunning.
How to Capture Stunning Bokeh: Next Steps
You should now have a sense of the absolute best ways to produce bokeh in your photos.
Just remember the four steps I’ve given you.
And your photos will look magical.
If you want to produce incredible bokeh, you should follow a few basic steps. First, you should use a wide aperture (in the area of f/1.2 to f/4). Second, you should maximize the distance between your subject and the background (though you can also get closer to your subject, which has the same effect). Third, you can position your subject in front of points of light, caused by reflections, the sky, or even artificial lights. Finally, you can make sure that the background is consistent and lacks sudden changes in color.
Christmas light bokeh is pretty easy to make and photograph. If you want to photograph a main subject with Christmas light bokeh in the background, set up the scene with the Christmas lights behind your main subject. Put your camera into Manual or Aperture Priority mode, dial in a wide aperture, then focus on your main subject (not the Christmas lights!). If you want a shot of Christmas light bokeh all on its own, then dial in a wide aperture, and use your manual focus ring to deliberately focus in front of the Christmas lights. The more you miss focus the larger the Christmas light bokeh will appear, so feel free to experiment with different effects. You can also try out different apertures to create stronger or weaker bokeh effects.
Bokeh refers to two things in photography. First, bokeh refers to a blurry background, which is created through using a wide aperture (and a consequently shallow depth of field). Second, bokeh refers to spots of light being rendered in a geometric fashion.
Bokeh is pronounced in two main ways: Bo-keh (the “Bo” as in Little Bo Peep, and the “Keh” rhyming with “Meh”), and “Bo-KAY,” (rhyming with “Okay”).
Absolutely not! You can create bokeh with any type of camera (though you’ll struggle a lot more to do it with, say, a smartphone versus a DSLR or mirrorless camera). As long as you know the right techniques, bokeh is possible with almost any gear.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.