Here Are The Secrets To Capturing Beautiful Bokeh Photography

bokeh photography guide
Photo by Adam Birkett

If you’ve been looking at photos online for inspiration, chances are you have been envious of the subject matter, but also the background. A particularly captivating background tends to be one that is thrown out of focus. Usually with beautiful patterns or shapes of light diffused in Here Are The Secrets To Capturing Beautiful Bokeh Photographya soft dreamy way behind the subject. It’s a common technique applied in portraiture, but also in every other genre of photography from product and commercial, to wildlife and macro.

I often get asked how to do this, with photographers complaining they are unable to replicate such a style in their own work. However, it’s really quite simple when it comes down to it.

What is a Bokeh Photography?

Despite being fairly difficult to pronounce on paper, the concept of bokeh is simple:

‘The aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by a lens.’

bokeh photography guide
Photo by Eder Oliveira

Bokeh is essentially a way to describe the look and feel of the background of your image. Specifically when referring to the designs and patterns created by the out of focus areas. Consequently, you’ve probably heard photographers refer to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bokeh. Different lenses have a different style when it comes to the bokeh they create. That depends on a range of factors, including the number of blades that form the aperture window. But you don’t need to worry about that.

Any lens can create a bokeh effect. Even if you’ve got a small compact camera, it’s still possible. You just need to understand all of the ingredients that make up the recipe for a good bokeh style. These are the main factors that contribute to your bokeh:

#1 Use a Shallow Depth of Field

Maybe this one sounds obvious to more weathered photographers, but using a shallow depth of field is absolutely key to achieving the bokeh effect you’re looking for. To do this, you need to use a low f-stop value on your lens to create the widest aperture possible. As well as letting in a lot of light, this will give you a shallow depth of field and throw a lot of the scene out of focus.

bokeh photography tutorial
With only a couple lines of text in sharp focus, this image has a very shallow depth of field. Photo by Romain Vignes

If sharpness in your photos is something you struggle with, you may find that this makes it a little harder for you to achieve a properly sharp image. It isn’t difficult to overcome, though. Just make absolutely sure you are focusing on exactly the right part of the scene (such as the eyes when photographing people or animals).

bokeh photography guide
Photo by Mi Pham

#2 Use a Longer Focal Length

Whilst you can technically achieve a good bokeh on any lens, the longer the focal length the easier it will be. If you’re shooting portraits, why not try a 200mm lens to get all up in that detail and soften the background at the same time? For some genres, such as wildlife photography, even longer lenses are appropriate and carry the added benefit of a consistent bokeh being achieved across a range of apertures.

Don’t panic if you’re restricted to one particular lens. There’s no need to rush off to your local camera store and start splashing out cash. The first two points are just some of the factors that make life easier for you when achieving a bokeh in your photos, but unless you’re confined to a 10mm lens with a minimum aperture of f/10, you’ll be just fine with what you’ve got!

#3 Increase Distance Between the Subject and the Background

If you’re understanding correctly what I’ve said about using a shallow depth of field, then this point may be fairly obvious to you. The further away your subject is from the background of the scene, the further it is from the plane of focus in the image. That means that it’s thrown even further out of focus, rendering those soft details we’re looking for.

Be careful, though – if your background is too far away you won’t get any swirly shapes or patterns that you want because they’ll merge into one giant blur. You can, therefore, use this as one of a number of tools when it comes to controlling the final result.

#4 Increase the Distance Between Your Camera and the Subject

Contrastingly to ingredient number 3, you’ll see a softer bokeh when your camera is closer to the subject. This is because you are narrowing the apparent depth of field even more just by moving your position. Simply moving your camera, rather than buying a whole new setup, will work wonders for your bokeh… and your budget! Use #3 and #4 together to maximize your bokeh effect.

Remember: You Need Detail in the Background for Patterns

If there’s no objects or other details in the background of the scene, chances are your bokeh will be a solid block of colour. If you want dappled light and other nice features, pay attention to what the background actually is before you press the trigger.

bokeh photography guide
Photo by Ben White

Christmas lights are a perfect example of this. It’s a totally cliché photo to take too, but it doesn’t make them any less beautiful. Focusing on a Christmas present in the foreground, allowing the lights on a Christmas tree to form bright out of focus circles, forms the ultimate holiday bokeh.

If you’re doing a portrait shoot by the beach, waves crashing can form a nice bokeh, especially if there is light hitting the water as it will create dappled highlights. Other examples could be street lights, beds of colourful flowers, or even things like falling snow!

Think About Colours and Light

Following on from above, think about the colours and lighting available in the background. Highlights will pop out as really obvious shapes as soon as they are thrown out of focus. This could be anything such as dappled sunlight hitting some leaves or even actual lights.

If you’ve got heavy areas of shadow in the background, the highlighted areas will form the bulk of your bokeh. So make sure they are not in distracting positions. You can just as easily ‘ruin’ a photo with a distracting background then you can improve it with a nice bokeh.

Use a color wheel (above) to determine which colors work well together. Using colors opposite of each on the wheel is a common color theory application among photographers.

At the same time, if you find that the lighter areas in the background fall on coloured areas, you’ll see nice pleasing variation within your bokeh – it doesn’t all have to be white lights after all. Think about how the colours compliment your subject in the foreground. I’m no fashion expert, but some colours just don’t go together; the same runs true in photography. Ben actually touched on color theory in one of the weekly theme posts not too long ago. Check it out here: How To Use The Color Blue Effectively In Your Photos

For complimentary colours, just look to the colours directly opposite of each other. If you can have one of those colours making up a good portion of the background, and the other in the subject, then you are onto a winner!

Get Clever With Bokeh Photography

If you want to really ‘wow’ people, don’t focus solely on getting the soft, diffused background. Think about how you can use it to show something and add depth to the photo. Here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about:

Photo by Scott Webb

You can see that the focus is on the ring, whilst the bokeh clearly shows two figures madly in love with each other. The eye is immediately drawn to the area in focus, with the background subsequently providing depth and embellishing on the story behind the shot (see my previous article on how to create a story with your photography).

Do you have a favorite shot where you absolutely nailed the bokeh look you were going for? Why not share it with us in the comments below and let us know how you shot it!

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About the author

Will Nicholls

Will is a professional wildlife photographer from the United Kingdom. He has been behind the camera since 2007, and is also a trained zoologist. Will runs photography blog Nature TTL alongside his full-time business as a freelance photographer & cameraman.

  • Amar

    Nice article Will . Thanks for sharing 🙂

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