How To Do Bokeh Photography

Ever seen photos with sharp crisp subjects, and beautifully blurred backgrounds? Do you wish you could create photos with the same effect? You can! That effect is called “Bokeh”, and in this article, I’ll show you how to do bokeh photography. Yes, you can create photos with that magical blurry background!  Once you understand a few basic tips, you’ll realize there’s not some top-secret setting in your camera, or a bazillion dollar lens required to achieve the effect.

You don’t necessarily need ALL these things, but here’s a rundown of tools and techniques to achieve the bokeh effect:

  • A “fast” lens with a really wide aperture–(f/2.8 or wider)
  • A camera with a full-frame sensor (although a cropped sensor camera will work just fine)
  • Lots of space between your subject and the backdrop
  • Zoom your lens all the way in (if you have a zoom lens)
  • Open your lens’s aperture as wide as possible

What About SmartPhones?

Modern smartphones can create a nice bokeh effect, and there are even some free smartphone apps that can help create the effect, but in this article, we’ll focus on how to do bokeh photography with interchangeable lens cameras, like DSLRs.

I shot this photo with an iPhone X–so it is possible to achieve bokeh with a smartphone

If you’d like me to write an article explaining how to achieve this effect with a smartphone, drop a comment down below, and let me know!

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So, what is Bokeh?

Wikipedia defines Bokeh:  “In photography, bokeh (/ˈboʊkeɪ/ BOH-kay; Japanese: [boke]) is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by a lens. Bokeh has been defined as “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light”.” A less nerdtasic way of putting it might be like this: “Bokeh is the blurred background effect in photography.”

Here's a photo of a shell on the beach with a very shallow depth of field, resulting in lots of bokeh.

Basic Ingredients You Need to do Bokeh Photography

You don’t necessarily need all these ingredients, but more you have or do, the better your bokeh will be:

  • A “fast” lens with a really wide aperture–(f/2.8 or wider)
  • A camera with a full-frame sensor (although a cropped sensor camera will work just fine)
  • Lots of space between your subject and the backdrop
  • Zoom your lens all the way in (if you have a zoom lens)
  • Open your lens’s aperture as wide as possible

A “Fast” Lens, With a Wide Aperture of f/2.8 or Lower

Ok, what on earth is a “fast” lens? To put it simply, it’s a lens with a really wide aperture. Wide apertures let in more light to the camera’s sensor. Due to the extra light, your camera’s shutter opens and closes really “fast” to capture a properly exposed image. That’s where the whole “fast” thing comes from. A “fast” lens is simply a lens with a wide aperture.

How “open” or “closed” an aperture can be is measured with “f/numbers”. A low f/number opens wide. A high f/number, is more closed. So, a lens with an f/1.8 aperture opens wider than an f/3.5 lens.

You may be wondering, “Alright, why is this guy nerding out on all this geeky f/garbage? Why should I care?”

Here’s the secret:  The lower a lens’s aperture f/value, the creamier the background bokeh.


Nerdy Gobbeldygook

Let’s read the alpha-numeric gibberish written on your lens: “18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6”. Canon prints those numbers around the front of the lens. Nikon lists them on a little plaque on the barrel.  

See the numbers after the “1:“?  Those are the aperture f/values.                

This lens’s aperture opens as wide as f/3.5 at 18mm, and f/5.6 at 55mm

If you’ve got the 18-55mm kit lens, your lens opens as wide as f/3.5 when the lens is zoomed out to 18mm, but less wide at f/5.6 when zoomed in to 55mm.  Ok—well, those aperture values aren’t horrible, but they’re not low enough to generate the bokeh effect you hoped for.  What can you do?  

Prime Lenses

Check it out! This lens’s aperture opens to a massive f/1.8!!!

Invest in a “prime” lens like the 50mm f/1.8.  See how low that aperture number is?

So how much do 50mm prime lenses cost?  

The Canon version of that lens happens to be Canon’s lowest priced lens, at only around $125. [Amazon Link].  

If you’ve got a Nikon DSLR, the 50mm prime costs a little more, (around $197 as of this writing).  [Amazon Link]

Alternatively, you can save money and buy a quality used or refurbished lens–or consider a less expensive off-brand lens. Two trustworthy sites I recommend you check for used camera gear are KEH Camera, and MBP.           

A Camera With a Full-Frame Sensor

Now–I’m not telling you to ditch your Canon T3i, and run out spend $2,300 on a professional Canon 5D Mark IV just to do bokeh photography. While that would be awesome, (I’m personally saving up for a full-frame camera), your cropped sensor camera will work just fine. In fact, the photo of the clam shell on the rocky beach up above, was taken with my Nikon D5600. The photo of the model train down below was shot with my Canon 80D. Both are cropped sensor cameras. I just used lenses with wide apertures to capture both images.

The reason I mentioned full-frame cameras at all, is because full-frame sensors do the whole bokeh thing a little easier than cropped sensor cameras. That doesn’t mean cropped sensor cameras can’t produce bokeh effects. I only brought it up because it’s one more thing that can aid in bokeh photography.

This model train was photographed with a Canon 80D, and a lens with an aperture of f/2.8!

Lots of Space Between Your Subject and Background

This tip is simple. It doesn’t cost money, and it’s not a jumble of nerd facts about lens settings. When you’re taking a picture of someone, just make sure they’re not backed up against a wall. Simply have them move away from the wall several paces. If you’re outdoors, don’t pose them right up against a hedge or tree. If possible, make sure there’s at least 15′ or more of empty space behind them. The farther away from the backdrop your subject is, the better the bokeh!

Zoom Your Lens All The Way In

Here’s another tip that doesn’t involve settings or f/numbers: Zoom your lens all the way in before you take the shot. Even if all you have is a kit lens, this tip helps with bokeh. With your lens zoomed in you’ll have to back away from your subject in order to properly frame your subject. If you’re indoors, backing up might be difficult depending on the situation. In those cases, zoom out to where the image is correctly framed, and just go with it. It’ll be OK.

When you combine both the “zoom in” and “pull your subject away from the background” tips, you should see a nice improvement in your bokeh.

Use the Lowest Aperture Your Lens Allows

We kind-of already covered this already, but it’s worth mentioning. If you’re on a quest for amazing blurred background bokeh, always make sure to open up your lens’s aperture to as wide a setting it will allow. The lower the aperture value (f/2.8, or f/1.8), the better your bokeh effect will be. There are some lenses out there (really expensive ones) that open even wider than f/1.8!

Now You Know The Secrets!

So now you know how to do bokeh photography with amazing blurry backgrounds! Go on and practice what you’ve just read! To practice, you don’t need fancy setups, or amazing subject material. You can practice on something as mundane as salt and pepper shakers in your kitchen if you want! Check it out:

I took this photo with my Canon 80D, and 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, in my kitchen! I zoomed in, backed up, and opened the aperture to f/2.8 (the max for that lens)

Let’s recap real quick:

  • Invest in a prime lens! With a “Nifty-50”*, or even a 24mm f/2.8* or 35mm f/1.8* attached to your camera, your photography will quickly rise to a whole new level!
  • Get a full-frame camera…or maybe not…I mean, they’re pricey. If you’re like me, and don’t have piles of cash just laying around for new lenses and cameras, this may not be an option. No problem!
  • Pull your subjects away from the background, zoom in, back up, and make sure to keep your aperture as open as possible.

Your friends and family will be mesmerized by your amazing, magical blurry background bokeh photography! 

Do you own a Canon DSLR? Want an affordable lens with a wide aperture? I wrote about Canon’s MOST AFFORDABLE LENS in my post, Review: Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM. Be sure to check it out!

Now get out there and shoot! And remember to have fun!!!

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