5 top tips for taking photos with an aesthetically pleasing and on-trend out of focus background

Beginner

The best cameras come from Japan, so why not the best jargon? Pronounced ‘bow-ka’, bokeh simply means ‘blur’ in Japanese and refers to photos containing a sharp subject set against an out of focus background.

"Bokeh simply means ‘blur’ in Japanese and refers to photos containing a sharp subject set against an out of focus background..."

Ethereal, abstract and on-trend, we now see bokeh shots everywhere. That’s largely because what can be quite a technical shot on a DSLR or mirrorless camera has recently become an increasingly impressive artificially-created special effect on many smartphone cameras. With an understanding of how to manipulate depth of field and keep your subject in focus you can easily create bokeh in your own photographs.

Here are some of our top tips to get you started…

Ladybug and morning dew with bokeh background blur
With an understanding of how to manipulate depth of field and keep your subject in focus you can easily create bokeh in your own photographs. The effect works particularly well for macro subjects (like this shot by Cornel Butan) but you can apply the bokeh look across a whole range of photographic genres

1 Understanding bokeh

Bokeh refers to out-of-focus regions in an image. It can be slight, strong, or somewhere in between. It’s the result of using a lens with a very wide maximum aperture. It’s perhaps at its best when there are bright lights or obvious highlights in the background, which by controlling the depth of field can be made to look like blurred circles or octagons. They look that way because of the aperture blades in camera lenses.

Beloved by photographers and cinematographers because it either softens a harsh backdrop, creates a dream-like sequence, or diverts the attention of the viewer away from the background and directly onto the subject, to create it you need to manually manipulate the depth of field in an image. However, don’t confuse bokeh shots with photos that simply have a shallow depth of field; bokeh is solely about the abstract look of out of focus areas and how the highlights appear.

Bokeh effect with trioplan
Bokeh refers to out-of-focus regions in an image that can be slight, strong (like the image above by Hofhauser), or somewhere in between, but don’t confuse bokeh shots with photos that simply have a shallow depth of field
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Bokeh is a function of aperture. Aperture describes the size of the opening in a lens that determines how much light hits the camera’s sensor. It is expressed in f/stops. The lower the number, the wider the aperture. As an example, a lens that can achieve f/1.4 is letting a lot of light in. For creating bokeh backgrounds, the wider the aperture, the better. Photographers refer to a lens with a particularly wide aperture – such as f/1.4 – as ‘fast’. However, read reviews of lenses to find one which gives good bokeh. 


2 Choosing the right lens for bokeh


Technically speaking, bokeh is the look a lens gives to out of focus points of light, but there’s no such thing as a ‘bokeh lens’. So prioritize learning how to use what lenses you currently have, or have access to, before splashing-out on something specific.

However, once you’ve mastered the basics it’s worth knowing that some lenses are better than others for achieving bokeh. In short, the wider the aperture, the easier it will be. The best lenses for bokeh and a sharp focus are prime lenses with wide maximum apertures. If you’re using a crop-sensor camera choose a 50mm fast prime lens while those with a full-frame camera should opt for an 85mm fast prime lens. Look for apertures of f/2, f/1.8 and f/1.4.

A snail with bokeh background blur
The best lenses for bokeh are prime lenses with wide maximum apertures like f/2, f/1.8 and f/1.4. This photo by Paula Bell was shot with a 60mm focal length and aperture of f2.8
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When it comes to bokeh, just as important as the aperture of a lens and the focal length is the size of your camera’s sensor. Long focal lengths create more intense bokeh and a shallower depth of field is possible on a full frame camera. A crop sensor camera requires a shorter focal length to get the same angle of view as a full frame camera, which means more depth of field – and so a less impressive bokeh. So should you get a camera with a full-frame sensor? Although it’s as much about the quality of the lens you use, a full-frame camera does tend to produce a better bokeh. 


3 Settings for different kinds of bokeh


Bokeh is not one definable ‘look’. In fact, the quality and characteristics of it are hotly debated by photographers. It always refers to a soft out of focus backdrop, but to what degree is down to a few factors.

"The distance your subject is from background objects is really important in determining how much bokeh is possible, as is the lens and how you control your camera’s aperture, ISO and exposure."


The distance your subject is from background objects is really important in determining how much bokeh is possible, as is the lens and how you control your camera’s aperture, ISO and exposure. It’s all about creating a bokeh that works well with the subject and looks aesthetically pleasing. That’s always going to be subjective.

Are you after a soft, subtle suggestion of blur in your background that retains some detail? Or a full-on dreamlike bokeh that obliterates the background altogether? For the former you’ll want a relatively short distance between your subject and the background, while for the latter you’ll need a lot of distance between your subject and the background.

When out in the field it’s a trade-off between both the distance between your subject and the background and the distance between you and your subject.

Adorable Labrador puppy dog portrait with light bokeh abstract background
Bokeh always refers to a soft out of focus backdrop, but to what degree is down to a few factors. It’s all about working out what works well with the subject and is aesthetically pleasing, so it's worth trying different looks. Image by Pakkawit Anantaya
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You don’t want to overdo it. If you have a lens that can go right down to, say, f/1.4 then you risk producing a bokeh that obliterates all detail. So experiment with that aperture until you get the look you want. If you shoot in Aperture Priority mode you can choose the f/stop and your camera will automatically set the shutter speed.


4 Composing a good ‘bokeh’ portrait shot


What makes a great bokeh? It may be a technical creation of depth of field and focus, but the choice to create a bokeh background is essentially one of composition.

"A blurred background draws the viewer’s eye to the sharp subject, but to justify its existence that blur does itself need to be interesting or unusual."

A blurred background draws the viewer’s eye to the sharp subject, but to justify its existence that blur does itself need to be interesting or unusual. So how do you choose a suitable subject and background for a good bokeh shot? Close-up portraits of people or animals with lights in the background are ideal for bokeh, perhaps with out of focus street lights, Christmas lights or vehicle lights that get reduced to abstract orbs. In that way bokeh can help when the background is actually pretty ugly. As always, make sure your subject is tack-sharp, but particularly the eyes.

Portrait with bokeh background blur
A bokeh background can add interest to a portrait shot, but as always, make sure the main subject is sharp. Image by Pan Ioan
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Bokeh isn’t just for portrait shots. You can also combine a shallow depth of field when taking macro photographs of plants, flowers and insects to produce differing levels of bokeh. As with all bokeh shots use the widest aperture your lens offers and find a composition with bright highlights in the background. 


5 Bokeh on smartphones 


It was only going to be a matter of time before smartphones could create bokeh photos. Although smartphone cameras now boast wider apertures, it’s largely a computational technique.

"So popular is the bokeh look these days that it’s increasingly built-in"


So popular is the bokeh look these days that it’s increasingly built-in by default to the ‘portrait’ mode that uses a depth sensor on the phone to make your subject super-sharp while blurring the background. It’s now possible to get smartphones that offer a bokeh-look even on front-facing ‘selfie’ cameras.

So how does a smartphone simulate bokeh? By using AI-based algorithms that segment people from foreground and background, it identifies the subject, and blurs the rest of the image. However, what you can’t do is change the depth, so the bokeh look you get is artificial and fixed. That said, for everyday captures the bokeh created by the latest iPhones are impressive. 

A girl using her iPhone to take a picture of an old roman bridge in Tavira, Portugal.
The bokeh effect is also particularly popular with smartphone photography and many devices include a built-in 'bokeh mode'. Image from Miguel Dias
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Increasingly smartphones can now use ‘time of flight’ sensors that use infrared light to separate objects, create a depth map and then defocus the background. For example, by recognizing that a person is not part of a crowd of people and is, in fact, standing in front. So expect more control in future over how bokeh backgrounds look even on smartphones.