How To Create Stunning Bokeh In Photography | 11 Easy Tips

What is this mysterious Bokeh Effect I keep hearing about? Do I need to use it? How do I make it? How do you spell and pronounce it anyway?

These are all questions you probably asked yourself about Bokeh in photography at one point or another.

Well, look no further! we are here to offer you a ‘complete and concise’ walkthrough of bokeh.

A girl in red shirt posing against a bokeh background.
Bokeh helps you separate your subject from your background. Plus, it is visually pleasing.

What is Bokeh in photography?

The photographic term bokeh refers to the aesthetic quality of blur produced by the out of focus points of light in an image. In layman’s terms, it is the little circles of blurry light in an image.

The word bokeh (pronounced BOH-Kə or BOH-kay) comes from the Japanese boke (ボケ), which means ‘blur’ or ‘haze’. In the same semantics, boke-aji means ‘the blur quality’.

How do I pronounce Bokeh?

You should pronounce it as Boh-Kay

A birthday celebration with bokeh background

Bokeh is visually pleasing, gives you a sense of depth, and helps you emphasize & frame your subject beautifully

An Rolleiflex camera against a beautiful bokeh background
A Rolleiflex with holiday lights in the background creating a pleasing round and soft bokeh.

How Do You Get the Bokeh Effect?

There are several factors that come into play when creating bokeh. Each of these factors affects the bokeh’s intensity and quality.

1. Open up Your Aperture

The opening hole of your lens that allows light through to the camera sensor, otherwise known as your aperture, controls your depth of field.

When your aperture is wide, you have a narrower depth of field. In other words, the focus plane of your image is thin.

A figure explaining the depth of field concept
Depth of field refers to the depth of the focus plane. A smaller f/number gives you a narrow depth of field.

Having a narrow depth of field increase the chances of your background being blurry. Which yields a bokeh effect if there is a light source in the background.

Observe how opening up your aperture (left to right) get more bokeh effect.

Small f stop number = narrow depth of field = more bokeh

2. Increase the Distance Between Subject and Background

The more distance you can have between your subject and the background, the more bokeh effect you will get.

Two before and after images comparing the effect on bokeh when the distance between the subject and background is increased.
To get more bokeh effect, simply put more distance between your subject and the background.

This is especially helpful if you have opened up your aperture all the way but still need more bokeh effect.

The reason is simple, with a smaller depth of field, the further the background is, more out of focus it will be. Improving the quality of your bokeh.

A girl drinking a cup of coffee with background bokeh created by holiday lights

3. Get Closer to Your Subject

As you move the camera closer to your subject, the bokeh effect will intensify.

Bokeh effect taken with camera closer to the subject.
As you move the camera closer to your subject, the bokeh effect will intensify

This is because as you move close to your subject, you capture less background in your frame. Which means out of focus background highlights will be enlarged, giving you more bokeh effect.

Photo by Eder Oliveira

4. Use a Longer Focal Length

All else being equal, a longer focal length will give you more apparent bokeh effect. That is why portrait and wedding photographers use longer focal length lenses such as 85mm or the 70-200mm.

four images showing the apparent bokeh effect increase as you increase your focal length.
As you zoom in on a subject, the apparent bokeh effect will increase

The apparent increase in the quality of the bokeh is due to the zoom effect. Larger focal lengths capture a smaller background area (enlarge it). Thus giving the appearance of more bokeh effect.

A man holding an umbrella on a rainy day with background lights producing pleasing bokeh.
Photo By Todd Diemer

5. Use a Lens with Better Bokeh Quality

comparison between the diaphragm which makes up the aperture of two lenses. One has a polygonal shape and the other has a round shape.
Quality of your bokeh also depends on your lens design. A lens with more blades in the aperture diaphragm will give you round bokeh.

There is no beating around the bush on this one. The better quality the lens, the better the bokeh. What makes a good or a bad bokeh? Simply put, a good bokeh will be soft, creamy, and round. A bad one will have hard edges and look like polygons, creating visual distractions.

Perfect circular shaped bokeh through a rain covered glass window.
Perfect circular shaped bokeh. Photo by Denise Johnson

The shape of your bokeh depends on the number of diaphragm blades that makes up the aperture. The more diaphragm blades there is the more circular shape the aperture is. Resulting in more round-shaped bokeh.

6. Use a Good Background

A great background is essential to maximizing your bokeh. A plain background without interesting light sources will simply result in an out of focus blur.

A women posing in front a of a series of holiday lights which created a pleasing bokeh.
A background with scattered light sources create the best bokeh effects

In order to get pleasing background bokeh, make sure you have scattered light throughout your background. Preferably in different colors and intensity.

Photo by Ryan Pouncy

Street lights, golden hour, and urban night photography naturally lend to colorful background light sources.

7. Use Foreground Bokeh to Isolate Your Subject

We have shown you a lot of examples of background bokeh now. You can take this a step further by introducing foreground bokeh elements in your photos. Doing so will further isolate your subject to draw attention.

Make sure you use a shallow depth of field. Then focus on your subject so that both foreground and background fall out of focus. Obviously, you would also need light sources in your foreground. Look for lines of lights and place your subject in the middle.

Photo by Milan Popovic

8. Correctly Expose Your Subject

Creating bokeh involves shooting towards a light source. This can make it a bit challenging to correctly expose your subject. For example, if your subject is in a dark spot, the bokeh will be overexposed and wise versa.

To properly expose your subject, change the camera’s metering mode. Doing so allows you to set the area from which your camera determine the correct exposure.

girl posing next to bokeh holiday lights

Another tool to get the perfect exposure in your bokeh shots is to use the camera’s exposure compensation setting. For example, if you want to silhouette your subject, try a -1 or -2 exposure settings.

Silhouette boke. Photo by Varshesh Joshi.

9. Know When to Use Bokeh

Is there such a thing as too much bokeh effect in an image? It’s subjective and belongs to your personal artistic choices.

What you need to know is that the purpose of using bokeh is to create a visually pleasing background that emphasizes & frame your subject. It is here to give a sense of depth to your image.

A bokeh effect in a christmas party
Use bokeh to frame or isolate your subject.

You will most likely find bokeh is best used in portrait photography, product, or still photography. But it does not mean you can’t use it for landscape photography. However, most photographers would prefer to keep the background tack sharp in their landscapes.

Photo by João Victor Xavier

There are no rules! If you decide it would make a landscape image incredible, then give it a go.

Lavender photographed with beautiful bokeh in the background.
Bokeh helps you achieve a sense of depth in your frame.

10. Know When Not to Use Bokeh

With that said there really isn’t much point in using bokeh when you need everything tack sharp. It is also very difficult to use a shallow depth of field in street photography, where you would miss a lot of action, probably lose sharpness and would not achieve the necessary scene layering (interesting foreground, middle, and background).

Key is to decide if the background details are important. If not, then use bokeh to eliminate distractions.

11. Create Bokeh Patterns

When it comes to patterns, there are options beyond the perfect round and the polygonal bokeh shape. You can find creative ways to shape bokeh further.

Two images comparing the bokeh effect of polygonal and round shaped apertures.
Depending on the number of blades in aperture diaphragm, your lens aperture may look polygonal or circular. lenses with less number of blades produce polygonal-shaped bokeh (left photo)

You can also create your own bokeh shapes with bokeh kits of shapes (hearts, stars, etc) or DIY shapes (have a look at #2 of these photography hacks)

Heart shaped bokeh patterns.

The swirly bokeh

This is actually becoming a thing. Older lenses from Leica or Helios, for example, can create a very unique swirly bokeh effect around your subject, an ethereal frame.

A dog portrait taken with swirly bokeh background.
Swirly bokeh can help you frame your subjects.

It has the benefit of framing even more than regular bokeh. Although it actually is a technical flaw of the lens, these old school lenses are sought by connoisseurs for this particular effect

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About the author

Helene McGuire

Helene McGuire is a portrait, street and landscape photographer. Originally from Paris (France), she now lives in the NY-NJ area with her husband and three children. Born and raised in a family of artists and intellectuals, she went to Law School, traveled the world, worked for NGOs and Public Health before going back to her artistic roots. Her style blends in her life story, with a fascination for people and a love of old school black and white.

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