The word "bokeh" comes from a Japanese word meaning ”blur” or ”haze” and refers to the part of the image that you have intentionally blurred by using a selective depth of field.
This affect is used a lot in photography to focus the eye on a specific subject within the frame (particularly in portrait photography to isolate the person from a background, but really for ANY subject) and just to create a more pleasing image. I personally LOVE me a bit of bokeh in my images!
Before we dig into the tips, a couple of things to note:
If you aren’t already familiar with how to intentionally blur your background, have a look at this earlier post on how to get a blurred background -it's written with beginners in mind with step by step instructions to get your started, so you will find that much more helpful if you are just starting out.
Secondly, if you don’t have a DSLR or camera where you can manually change your settings, you will likely have a ”portrait” mode - use this setting and the camera will blur the background for you, and you can still use some of these tips to help maximise that blur.
Alright, without further ado, here are the steps for getting good ”bokeh” - the creamy, dreamy kind that makes your subject pop off the background!
1) Shoot at a Low Aperture
If you only follow one rule - let this be it!
Use a small F number to give you a wide aperture and throw your background out of focus. I would suggest using F2.8 or lower - I will shoot at quite low apertures, such as F1.8 or F2.0. However, please note it will take practice to use lower F stops and still get your intended subject all in focus!
If you only have the kit lens that came with your camera you might want to invest in a lens that goes to lower apertures - the Canon 50mm f/1.8 is an affordable example, and so is the Canon 85mm f/1.8.
Primes lenses are probably best for bokeh because they go to lower apertures than their zoom counterparts, but zooms will also work well, especially those with a longer focal length and fixed aperture. You can see these lenses (with example images) on What's In My Camera Bag?
All that being said, you can still get good bokeh at higher aperture numbers, depending on your distance from the subject and the distance of your subject from the background.
If you are not 100% sure what aperture settings you should be using when, then be sure to download my FREE manual settings cheat sheet, as it details it ALL for you (plus shutter speed and ISO so you're full covered😀)
2) Separate Your Subject From The Background
Put as much distance between your subject and the background as you can. The further away from the background they are, the more the background will blur. (If your subject is up against a wall you won’t get much bokeh, no matter what you do!)
3) Get Close To Your Subject
Stand physically closer to your subject as the depth of field will be much shallower. Just be careful not to get too close and mind the minimum focusing distance of your lens.
4) Use A Longer Focal Length
You will also see more dramatic blur using a 135mm lens than you will using a 50mm lens.
If you are using a zoom, zoom all the way in to the longest focal length (but be aware than on some cheaper zoom lenses the image quality can drop off at the highest zoom range) or put on a longer length prime.
The blur is magnified with a longer length lens, making it look more out of focus (this is due to something called Lens Compression - although it's not often discussed this can make a HUGE impact on how your final image turns out. You can read all about it and see some examples on this post on Understanding Lens Compression.
5) Think about your Background
To get really pleasing and pretty bokeh, look at the background that will be blurred out. If you have a dark background with no points of light the tones of the background will fade and merge into one another. This can be made even more beautiful if you have a lovely range of tones in the image.
If you have light in the out of focus area these will be seen as small circles of light - higher quality lenses will result in smoother circles.
I hope you enjoyed these tips for getting good "bokeh" - if you did I'd love it if you took a moment to pin to your boards on Pinterest - thank you so much if you do!