The Ultimate Guide to Learning Photography: Bokeh Background

All About that Bokeh: How to Shoot a Bokeh Background

Sure, a good photograph is all about the subject — but what about the background? What’s behind the subject (and what’s in front) can either give a detailed sense of the scene, or put more emphasis on the subject by blurring the distractions into dreamy shapes and colors known as bokeh.

Bokeh is created by using a wide aperture to render a busy background into a soft expanse of color, turning small points of light into soft circles. his establishes a shallow depth of field which causes the background to blur. But, there is such a thing as "good" bokeh and "bad" bokeh— so what’s the difference and how do you get that blurry background effect? Here’s what you need to know to shoot a bokeh background just as artistic as the main focal point.

In this guide you will learn:

  • What is Bokeh and the difference between good and bad bokeh?
  • How to shoot background bokeh
  • How to troubleshoot background bokeh

What is bokeh?

Bokeh (pronounced bok-uh or bo-kay) is all about the blur in a photo, and, more specifically, the quality of that blur. The term comes from the Japanese word boke, which means blur.

Bokeh can sometimes refer to background blur in it’s entirety, but the term is also often used to refer to the circular orbs created by out of focus light. Sometimes, this light is obvious, like unfocused Christmas lights, while other times the lights may be more subtle — sunlight filtering through leaves or even reflecting off a surface can also create circular bokeh. Background bokeh is common, but bokeh can also sometimes be in the foreground of an image as well.

The more the background (or foreground) is blurred, the more likely it is that you’ll capture circular bokeh. Shooting with a fast lens with a wide open aperture helps to create bokeh, but so does getting up close to a subject and keeping the focal point far away from anything else in the background.

So what’s "good" bokeh?

You may have heard photographers ask, how good is the bokeh? or say look at that amazing bokeh — but what makes bokeh good? Aren’t out-of-focus circles just out-of-focus circles?

While the subject may be the star of the photograph, bokeh determines just how much that object (or person) stands out from the background. Good bokeh is generally considered as a soft background. Those orbs created by light points will have smooth edges that slowly fade, instead of ending abruptly.

— Photo: Casey Cosley

Circles with harder edges tend to be less visually appealing, since they distract more from the subject. Bokeh can even be awkwardly shaped — the number of aperture blades the lens has determines the shape of the bokeh, if there’s only a few, that circle will actually look more like a hexagon.

Most newer lenses create a circular bokeh with a higher number of aperture blades — but even with new lenses, all bokeh is not created equal. Prime lenses tend to have better bokeh than zoom lenses because they typically have wider apertures. Even within prime lenses though, some options are better than others. Most lens manufacturers have a general prime lens and a pro or art lens. That high-end lens tends to have special lens coatings and optics designed for a softer background — some of them even reach apertures wider than f/1.8. These lenses tend to be pricey, however, and for enthusiasts and beginners, basic prime lenses are often an affordable way to get that background bokeh.

How to shoot background bokeh

Once you have a fast lens and know what to look for, capturing bokeh is simple — and fun.

First, pay attention to your background as you shoot. Look for small light sources. Shooting directly into an unobstructed sun will not create bokeh, but the sun filtering through or even reflecting off the leaves of trees will create bokeh. Water droplets also tend to grab some of that light to create bokeh when out of focus.

Man-made light sources can also be perfect bokeh material. A city skyline in the distance, traffic and street lights will all work as well. Bokeh can even be added to studio set ups using string lights or even by lighting up a crumpled piece of tinfoil. Anything that makes a small pin point of light, with the right lens, will work to make bokeh.

Remember, anything that effects depth of field will also play a role in creating that soft bokeh. That means if you shoot up close to your subject and keep the background farther away, you’ll get a softer background.

Tip: Want to test your scene for bokeh? Simply turn the camera to manual focus and adjust until that background is completely out of focus. (These shots also make fun wallpapers).

Once you’ve found your small light sources for bokeh, turn your camera to aperture priority mode (or full manual mode if you prefer). To get the most bokeh from the shot, use the widest aperture you have available.

Then, just put your focal point on your subject, focus, and shoot.

Troubleshooting background bokeh

If you take a look and the background bokeh just isn’t there, what then? First, if you’re not already on the widest aperture setting, go as wide as you can (or use a different lens with a wider aperture). In bright sunshine, you may need a neutral density filter in order to shoot that wide and still get a proper exposure. Neutral density filters will block out some of that bright light so you can use a wide aperture and still get a proper exposure. Or, if you don’t have a filter, you could try waiting until towards the end of the day, when the light isn’t so bright.

If aperture isn’t the issue, you can also move closer to the subject or move the subject farther from the background. Sometimes, finding brighter pinpoints of light helps too. For example, it’s easier to get bokeh with Christmas lights than it is to get it from light reflecting off tree leaves.

Whenever you shoot with a lens wide open, check to make sure the subject is sharp. At wide apertures, just slight movement can throw the entire subject out of focus. If you’re finding great bokeh but a not-so-great subject, make sure that focal point is exactly where you want it — using the single point autofocus area mode will also help. If you’re shooting macro, you may need to narrow down the aperture a bit, since the depth of field increases dramatically the closer you are to the subject. The closeness will already create lots of blur, so you don’t need to be quite so wide to get that bokeh effect.

Bokeh is often the deciding factor between a good lens and a great lens. The best lenses will render the background into soft, dreamlike shapes — while the best f/1.4 lenses cost a big chunk of change, an affordable 50mm f/1.8 prime will often create good bokeh as well.

But, bokeh isn’t just about having the greatest lenses. By picking a background with small light sources, getting up close to your subject and shooting wide open, you can likely still get some decent bokeh out of the lenses you already have in your kit. Learning how to shoot bokeh draws attention to the subject — by paying attention to the background.