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How to Create a Bokeh Effect

Bokeh effects are certainly a popular trend among photographers – especially within outdoor shots. But what exactly is Bokeh? Bokeh is a Japanese word that roughly translates to “blur” and, whether correct or not, is pronounced in certain English dialects the same as the word “bouquet.” In photography, bokeh is the smooth, soft part of a photograph that is out of focus, like in the photos below.

This dragonfly was photographed with an aperture of f/5.6 at 105mm.

These sprouts were captured at an aperture of f/9 at 105mm

Bokeh also may consist of soft, rounded circles like in the picture below.

This bokeh was created using natural light, along with a 86mm zoom and an f/4 aperture.

This popular form of bokeh can be created with the camera or within post-processing, using actions and overlays. Check out these fantastic Bokeh overlays by The Luxe Lens, to take advantage of 15 different bokeh looks, without having to mess around with special camera settings.

This picture was enhanced and bokeh was created using Photoshop overlays and actions. This bokeh helps to direct the eye to the subjects of the image and away from the extra space in the image.

Bokeh is effective because it’s pleasing to the eye and it helps to emphasize what is in focus: typically the subject. Bokeh is particularly effective when taking portraits, like the one below, allowing the photographer to make the background behind the person(s) smooth. As you can see, there are many ways of creating and applying bokeh.

This woman was photographed with a Canon 50mm lens at f/1.2, taking advantage of the city Lights for an atmospheric bokeh effect.

In order to understand bokeh, you need to know how to control a camera’s aperture. You can do this using either Manual or Aperture Priority mode. Aperture refers to the size of the lens opening when a photo is taken (refer to your camera manual to learn how to adjust the aperture or watch one of the numerous videos on Youtube that explains how to do this). For reasons that are difficult to understand for people not scientifically inclined (me included!), wide apertures create bokeh because they produce shallower depth of fields, meaning that the range of sharpness is smaller. It can either be very small, such as f/22, or very wide, such as f/1.5 or f/2.8. The diagram below provides a good illustration of aperture size and the blurriness produced, along with the relation to other major camera settings.

To create bokeh, you need to keep the aperture wide and get close to the subject, by either moving closer or by zooming in. Also, try not to have anything close behind the subject, since whatever is, will likely be as in focus—or nearly in focus—as the subject. It’s still possible to use smaller apertures such as f/8 by increasing the distance between the subject and the background. A good rule of thumb is this: the further the background is from the subject, the more out of focus it will be. However, keep in mind that the further you are from the subject, the more difficult it will be to produce bokeh.

Another important factor to keep in mind regarding bokeh is lens speed. A “fast” lens has a wide maximum aperture, like f/2.8, and needs faster shutter speeds; since the aperture is wide, more light is able to enter the lens. A “slow” lens has a smaller maximum aperture, such as f/5.6, and needs slower shutter speeds because less light is able to enter the lens. As a result, the camera needs more time to capture the image. So, it’s still possible to take the same picture with the bokeh effect using a slower lens, you’ll just need to adjust the shutter speed (cameras today are usually very good at doing this if you set them on auto shutter speed). This also means you don’t absolutely need expensive, fast, high-end lenses, which tend to feature wider maximum apertures. However, it should be noted that more expensive lenses do generally produce better quality images.

You should also be aware of the type and age of your lens. Newer lenses typically have rounded aperture blades, whereas older lenses tend to have straight blades. Rounded blades produce the traditional bokeh circles that are generally more pleasing to the eye. However, some photographers may prefer lenses with straight blades that produce distinct several-sided shapes. Neither kind of bokeh is bad per se, it is just a matter of what you prefer.

This image shows bokeh created with rounded aperture blades.

This image shows bokeh created with straight aperture blades.

In terms of lens type, prime lenses (non-zoom) are great choices for bokeh because they have wide maximum apertures. For example, the standard 50mm lens, which is relatively inexpensive, can deliver excellent bokeh. High-end zoom lenses, such as the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8, are also great choices because the maximum aperture stays the same the entire focal length. In other words, you can still keep the lens at f/2.8 when you zoom all the way to 200mm. This is not possible in cheaper zoom lenses, which have a smaller maximum aperture at the furthest focal length. For example, the 18-55mm standard Canon kit lens has a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at 18mm, but a smaller maximum aperture of f/5.6 at 55mm. Again, you can still create bokeh at these wider apertures, you just need to make one or all of the necessary adjustments: get closer to the subject, increase the distance between the subject and background, and decrease the shutter speed.

If you want to be very creative, it is possible to produce bokeh in the foreground and background. You’ve definitely seen these kinds of pictures before, such as a photo of a person posing in a grass field. The grass in front and behind the person is blurry but the person is in focus. The portrait below illustrates this technique.

Here the focus on the subject is emphasized by bokeh in the fore and background. Shot at 35mm with an aperture of f/1.4.

With practice and experimentation, you can control how much bokeh you want in a photo. Once you reach a point where you know how to do this confidently, you can be as creative as possible and even break the rules to capture what you envision. And that’s really the fun part about photography!