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Bokeh in Photography: Creating Beautiful Background Blur

mastering bokeh in photography

In the world of photography, few things enchant as much as the bokeh effect. It’s the magical touch that transforms the mundane into the majestic.

But what is bokeh in photography? 

Bokeh, a term borrowed from the Japanese language, meaning ‘blur’ or ‘haze,’ stands as a testament to the international appeal of this technique. But what makes bokeh different from just any blur? 

Well, it is a game of aesthetics. Blur can be seen as a rudimentary technicality, while bokeh is an artistic interpretation of the same.

But let me give you more details!

What Is the Bokeh Effect?

So what is bokeh photography? What does bokeh mean in photography? You can think of bokeh as the visual manifestation of a photograph’s blur – specifically, how parts of the photo that are not sharply focused are rendered. 

In photography, you have to decide where to put your focus. And when you focus on a particular subject, the unfocused areas generate bokeh, which can make a photograph appear almost three-dimensional.

But many people misunderstand bokeh.

Portrait photo of a young male with bokeh effect

Notice those multicolored orbs you see on the left section of the photo. They are the product of light bouncing off surfaces and being captured by the camera lens, which results in their round shape.

Most people would consider this to be bokeh. But it’s so much more than that. Essentially, bokeh represents the overall aesthetic and quality of all blurred parts of an image – and not just these spherical light reflections or highlights.

What Is an Example of Bokeh in Photography?

An example of bokeh would be a nighttime portrait where the distant city lights turn into dreamy orbs of light, making the landscape come alive. 

Nighttime portrait photo of a young woman with bokeh effect

And how do you add this fairy dust to your photographs? It’s all about the aperture and depth of field. A wider aperture (lower f-number) equals a shallower depth of field, resulting in a creamier bokeh background. 

Bokeh vs. Depth of Field

But what’s the difference between bokeh and depth of field? 

While they might appear similar, they are essentially two sides of the same coin. 

Depth of field dictates the amount of your image that is in focus. Bokeh, on the other hand, is the aesthetic quality of the out-of-focus areas. The two are intrinsically related yet distinctly different.

More specifically, depth of field determines what’s in focus, while bokeh is the quality of everything that’s not. 

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Factors That Influence the Bokeh Effect

While it might seem simple, in order to achieve bokeh in photography, you have to understand various factors such as aperture, lens construction, the distance from the subject, as well as between your subject and background. It makes the difference in how to get bokeh effect that looks smooth and clean.

Let’s see some of them:

Distance From the Subject

The distance from your subject plays a vital role in creating the perfect bokeh effect photography. In simpler terms, the closer you are to your subject, the greater the blur in the background. That’s because the depth of field decreases when you move closer.

Let’s consider a real-world example. Imagine you’re at a farm that grows tomatos and you want to take a photo of tomatoes, while also hiding the busy background.

To make the tomatoes stand out and the busy background fade into a pleasing blur, you would want to move closer to the tomatoes, blurring out the distraction and emphasizing your main subject.

close up photo of tomatoes growing in a farm with bokeh effect

Focal Length

Focal length is one of the most significant factors that affect bokeh in photography. A lens with a longer focal length (e.g., a 200mm lens) can create a shallower depth of field than a lens with a shorter focal length (e.g., a 35mm lens), contributing to more pronounced bokeh effects.

Usually, portrait photographers often opt for telephoto lenses in the range of 85-135mm because these lenses are great for creating a flattering perspective on the human face, and their longer focal length produces a beautifully soft bokeh, separating the subject from the background.

portrait photo with bokeh effect

The Size of Your Sensor

Last but not least, the size of your camera sensor also impacts the bokeh effect. Larger sensors (like those in full-frame cameras) tend to create a shallower depth of field compared to smaller sensors (like those in crop-sensor cameras), thus leading to a more pronounced bokeh effect.

For example, if you take two pictures with the same lens and aperture from the same distance, one with a full-frame camera and the other with a crop sensor, the full-frame camera will provide a more prominent bokeh effect. 

This is one of the reasons professional photographers often invest in full-frame cameras when shooting portraits or any other subject where capturing bokeh is a priority.

Sony 7C mirrorless camera with Sony 24-70 2.8 G master ii lens. Choosing a camera for product photography.

How to Create Great Bokeh?

Now, you may be wondering how to do bokeh photography and get that creamy background—the kind where the blur looks smooth and buttery.

#1. Choose a Wide Aperture

First things first, you’ll need to adjust your camera settings. When photographers speak of a “wide aperture,” they mean a smaller f-number, such as f/1.8 or f/2.8. 

These settings allow more light to reach your camera’s sensor, giving your photo a shallow depth of field and creating that desired blurred, out-of-focus background.

Wide open aperture on Fujifilm x100v

#2. Get Close to Your Subject

Here’s where perspective comes into play. Whether you’re using a zoom lens or moving closer, getting near to your subject emphasizes the depth of field difference between the object and its backdrop. 

Picture yourself in a flower garden: by getting close to a single rose and using a zoom lens, you can capture the intricate details of the flower while rendering the rest of the garden into a soft, impressionist haze of color.

Close up photo of a rose

#3. Use Other Sources of Light

By incorporating light sources into the background—be they sunspots filtering through leaves, city lights, or even intentionally placed fairy lights—you can create mesmerizing, unfocused specks of light that add magic to your photo. 

Picture a romantic dinner scene with dimmed lights and flickering candles. Capturing a close-up of the wine glasses, the unfocused specks of light from the candles would provide an enchanting bokeh effect, enveloping the scene in an intimate, dreamy glow.

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Good vs Bad Bokeh

A ‘good’ bokeh, one could say, swaddles the focal subject, rendering everything else into soft, ethereal mistiness. It should be smooth and unobtrusive, providing the perfect backdrop for your subject, not competing for attention.

On the other hand, ‘bad’ bokeh is sharp, chaotic, and distracting. Unwanted elements might poke out, attracting attention away from the subject. 

portrait photo of a young woman with lots of bokeh at the background
Example of a good bokeh

FAQs

Yes, you can get bokeh effect Photoshop! However, I advocate creating a bokeh in-camera for an authentic, natural look. Tools like Photoshop or Lightroom can simulate bokeh, but there’s an unmistakable organic quality to bokeh captured in-camera that post-processing can’t quite replicate.

Generally speaking, portrait mode on many smartphones aims to emulate the bokeh effect by artificially blurring the background, bringing the subject into sharp focus. It’s a technological workaround to replicate the bokeh effect typically produced with wide-aperture lenses on DSLR cameras.

Absolutely! A 50mm lens, often called the ‘nifty fifty,’ is one of my personal favorites for creating bokeh. It’s versatile, and when shot wide open at f/1.8 or f/1.4, it produces a deliciously creamy bokeh that gives your portrait exquisite depth and elegance.

For Nikon, lenses like the 85mm f/1.4G or the 105mm f/1.4E can provide the smooth, pleasing bokeh. Remember, the wider the aperture, the better the bokeh.

Bokeh isn’t limited to DSLR or mirrorless cameras and lenses. It’s very much possible to create a bokeh with your iPhone too. It’s all about using the right tools and techniques.

You can use the Portrait mode or third-party apps that allow you to manipulate depth of field for a bokeh effect.

Conclusion

The beautiful bokeh effect is about creating an environment where the main subject is free to shine, with the rest of the scene existing as a smooth and supportive canvas. While it might be a challenge to master, the results can be nothing short of magical.

To enhance the magic even more, learn and follow the other tips we shared here at OhMyCamera!

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Aleksandrs Karevs

Aleksandrs Karevs

Hi, my name is Aleksandrs and I am a full-stack digital marketer passionate about digital photography. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V. Read full story here.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

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Simply enter your email below to receive a FREE eBook filled with actionable tips for immediate photography improvements. 

2,367 Downloads