PHOTOGRAPHY BASICS

Bokeh photography tips: a guide for beginners

Nothing beats genuine bokeh! Follow these tips and tricks to create beautiful background blur with our top recommendations for lenses, settings and techniques to try.
Canon Camera

The term bokeh is a Japanese word meaning 'blur' that is used to describe the look of the out-of-focus areas of a photo. Bokeh – widely pronounced to rhyme with OK, although in Japanese the second syllable is a short e as in get – is most obvious in photos with lots of small bright highlights, like street lights at night. But it's not just about bold circular highlights, it refers to the quality of any blurry parts of an image.

Shooting to include these blurred areas is one of the most attractive effects we can employ in our photography. It lets us dissolve distracting clutter, draws attention to the important parts of the image, and transforms unnecessary details into delightfully creamy colours and tones.

A smiling, blonde-haired little boy in a short-sleeved white shirt, fawn-coloured waistcoat and bow tie pictured in the woods.

Simply blurring the background is not enough – you need to choose a background that will look interesting, and ideally bolder, when blurred out. Typically, dappled highlights will create attractive bokeh, like the sun shining through leaves. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/500 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 100.

A cake on a table, with roses and a swan cake topper. Blurred fairy lights illuminate the background.

When out of focus, points of light like fairy lights transform into beautiful circular bokeh. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/10 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 100.

For these reasons, bokeh has long been one of the most potent visual tricks in the photographer's arsenal. These days, dual-lens smartphones are capable of mimicking bokeh, but only through software. The tiny lenses and sensors in smartphones make it impossible to achieve the shallow depth of field you need for natural bokeh. It's an optical effect that can genuinely arise only with the lenses and sensors you get with larger cameras, and nothing beats the look of the real thing. Photographers used to believe you needed a DSLR to achieve a good background blur, but a mirrorless camera like the Canon EOS R6 used here is ideal, and entry-level mirrorless models such as the Canon M50 or EOS M6 Mark II will be just as effective. The lens is the critical element, rather than the camera.

Here we'll look at some of the key techniques, camera skills and kit you need to make your photos even more striking by capturing appealing bokeh. There's more to it than just blurring the background – it's also about including attractive highlights, finding the right light or framing details that will look great when dissolved to blur.

The best lenses for bokeh

A Canon EOS R6 camera with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens.

A lens with a wide maximum aperture like the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM can transform backgrounds into beautiful creamy bokeh. Note also how the blades visible in the lens in this picture produce a rounded opening – this largely determines the shape of the bokeh.

To capture attractive bokeh, you need a 'fast' lens – that is, one with a wide maximum aperture, ideally f/2.8 or wider (lower f-number). This is one of the main reasons to include a fast prime (fixed focal length) lens in your kitbag, even if the focal length is one covered by your kit zoom. A prime lens with a wide maximum aperture like the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens used here lets you blur backgrounds with ease, dissolving details into beautiful points of light. While a kit lens with a maximum aperture of f/4-5.6 or more will allow you to blur the background, it won't achieve the same quality of bokeh. Of course, a wide maximum aperture means the lens lets in more light, which is useful in low-light conditions too, when you can get really creative with bokeh.

There's another factor to consider too, although it's not as critical. Lenses capture blur in different ways, and some produce more pleasing bokeh than others. In general, a lens with more aperture blades results in more attractively circular bokeh, as each point of light mirrors the shape of the aperture. This matters less if you're shooting with the lens wide open – that is, at the maximum aperture (lowest f-number) the lens supports, when the opening will be circular anyway – but that won't always be the case. You can find out how many blades your lens has in the manual that came with it, or look it up in the specifications for your lens on the Canon website. Seven blades is great for attractive bokeh, but nine is even better.

Set the best aperture for bokeh photography

A young boy wearing a fawn-coloured waistcoat and bow tie, standing in front of a blurred wall of ivy holding a ring box.

Let's look at the difference between shooting with an aperture of f/1.8 and f/8. At the wider aperture of f/1.8 the backdrop dissolves into blur. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 100.

A young boy wearing a fawn-coloured waistcoat and bow tie, standing in front of a distinctly visible wall of ivy holding a ring box.

By contrast, when you shoot at f/8 the backdrop is much more detailed and rather distracts from the subject. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/8 and ISO 1250.

Your choice of aperture has a big influence on the look of the bokeh in your photos. The wider the aperture (that is, the lower the f-number), the shallower the depth-of-field, which in turn means the background will become more blurred. So try shooting in either Aperture Priority (Av) mode or Manual mode, and select a wide aperture (low f-number).

The best camera settings for bokeh

The LCD screen of the Canon EOS R6, showing the settings in Aperture Priority mode.

Aperture Priority mode lets you set a wide aperture for shallow depth of field, which is what we need for strong background bokeh.

A smiling young boy wearing a beige waistcoat and bow tie walking between trees in a forest.

Shooting wide open at f/1.8 means our depth of field will be very shallow, so the focusing needs to be perfect. A camera like the EOS R6 really helps here because its Eye Detection AF can automatically detect and lock on to the closest eye. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/500 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 320.

In Aperture Priority (Av) mode you'll also need to set the ISO – try 100 to begin with and see if the shutter speed is fast enough for your needs. Alternatively, in Manual (M) mode with Auto ISO you can set both the aperture and shutter speed, then leave the camera to determine the correct ISO. The key is to choose a wide aperture and a shutter speed that's fast enough to ensure that in-focus areas of the picture are sharp when you hand-hold the camera (try something around 1/200 sec).

Adjust your distance for better bokeh

A vase of pink flowers in front of a blurred brick wall.

The subject is quite close to the background, so even though the background is blurred, you can still make out the shapes of the bricks. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 100.

A vase of pink flowers with a very blurred background, barely distinguishable as a brick wall.

Increasing the distance between the subject and the background results in the background being even more blurred. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 100.

Increasing the distance between your subject and the background will blur the background more. Another factor is the distance between the subject and your camera. The closer your lens is to the subject, the shallower the depth of field. This means that background areas will fall out of focus more quickly. Note how in our flower photos, the front flowers are in sharp focus while the flowers behind are already out of focus. So to blur more of the image, move the subject closer to your camera and further away from the background.

Set the best focal length for bokeh

A garden ornament in the shape of a heart made of glass beads, in front of an autumnal hedge.

Look at the difference here between shooting at either end of the zoom range of a 24-105mm zoom lens. At the wide end of the zoom range (32mm in this case), more of the backdrop is in focus, so the scene looks cluttered. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 32mm, 1/200 sec, f/6.3 and ISO 2000.

A garden ornament in the shape of a heart made of glass beads, with a blurred background.

If you step back and zoom in using the other end of the focal range of the lens (105mm), the perspective is compressed, exaggerating the background blur. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 105mm, 1/200 sec, f/7.1 and ISO 3200.

A longer focal length can result in stronger background blur. This is because the angle of view becomes more acute, so effectively a smaller portion of the background is included in the frame. This is the reason why telephoto zooms can be used to great effect to isolate a subject and transform the backdrop into detail-less blur. So if you want to make the blur stronger and enhance the bokeh, take a few steps back and zoom in (or change lenses) to a longer focal length.

How to create foreground bokeh

A young boy in a beige-coloured waistcoat, standing next to an ivy covered wall, holds open a ringbox.

Shooting close in to the ivy fence here enables us to capture blurred leaves to the left of frame and enhances the sense of depth. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/160 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 100.

A young boy in a beige waistcoat and bright blue wellies running through a clearing in the woods.

A low camera angle like this not only enables us to blur the ground in front of the subject, but also 'pushes' the backdrop further away for stronger background bokeh. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/500 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 100.

We tend to think of bokeh primarily as a background aesthetic, but it can also be used to great effect in the foreground of the frame. By composing to include out-of-focus detail in the foreground, you can draw the eye in towards your sharp subject. This might mean bringing the camera in close to foliage or low to the ground to frame the blurred foreground. Soft details like this add to the sense of depth in a scene, and are a great way to bring bold, blurred colours into your composition.

How to create bokeh in video

Twinkling Christmas tree lights in the foreground and a car's rear lights in the background are all out of focus.

Depth is vital in video composition too, as it helps the viewer to orientate around the scene. Including out-of-focus details in the foreground and background of a scene is a great way to enhance the sense of depth and draw the eye into the frame. What's more, bokeh highlights look just as wonderful in video as they do in still photography, with the added bonus that they can move too. Car headlights, fairy lights and other bright points of light look particularly beautiful when blurred to twinkling points of bold bokeh.

How to add bold bokeh highlights

A photographer dangles a string of fairy lights in front of the camera while shooting a cat on an armchair.

Fairy lights or other shiny objects out of focus in the foreground as well as the background can add a greater sense of depth to your photos.

A portrait of a cat with out-of-focus coloured lights in the background.

Try including fairy lights in the background of your photos for beautiful bokeh highlights.

One of the boldest ways to employ bokeh in your photography is to include small, bright points of light against an otherwise dark backdrop or in low light. It's a captivating effect that you can find in all kinds of circumstances, like the sun shining through a tree, or a busy street after dark, or a colourful fairground ride, or candles on a cake. If you want to try the effect for yourself, try using a set of fairy lights. Position them in the background of your shot, or the foreground, or both at once. When out-of-focus, the fairy lights transform into attractive bokeh circles.

How to create custom bokeh shapes

A blurred image with out-of-focus highlights in the shape of five-pointed stars rather than circles.

When you shoot with your lens wide open (at its maximum aperture), you should get round bokeh in your images, because the opening is round. Otherwise, the shape of bokeh is determined by the number of aperture blades in the lens – in general, the more blades, the more circular the aperture remains as it opens, and therefore the more circular the bokeh. In practice, this usually means bokeh highlights are circular or hexagonal – if you want to see what shape your bokeh will be, simply take your lens off the camera, hold it up to a light and look through it.

But why not get creative and change the shape of your bokeh? You can do this by cutting out a template of any shape and fixing it to the front of your lens. In this video, a simple piece of card transforms the bokeh into a multitude of colourful stars and snowflakes.

Try it now: shoot a bokeh still life

A tabletop with a mirror surrounded by foil, with a lightbox to one side and a Canon EOS R6 set up to shoot a yellow rose.

This is a really simple and effective way you can experiment with bokeh at home, using all the tips in this article.

A yellow rose photographed on a mirrored surface, with out-of-focus highlights around it.

The crumpled foil reflects the light from the lamp as scattered highlights, which when blurred result in beautiful circular bokeh. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/640 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 100.

We've seen that out-of-focus points of light create attractive bokeh if you shoot with suitable settings. Here's a simple set-up you can try at home to create a bokeh-filled still life. Place an object on a mirrored surface, then place a crumpled sheet of foil in the background (not too crumpled – a few scrunches should do it, so it scatters the light instead of just reflecting it). Angle a household lamp onto the foil, and use a second light to illuminate the subject (we used an LED panel, but a simple lamp will work). Position your camera close to the subject, set it to Aperture Priority (Av) mode, use a wide aperture – ideally around f/1.8 – and shoot from a low angle to capture the wonderful blurred bokeh.

Written by James Paterson

Tips for capturing bokeh

  • Use a fast lens (f/2.8 or lower) with more aperture blades.
  • Shoot wide open.
  • Shoot in Aperture Priority (Av) mode.
  • Increase your distance for better bokeh.
  • Longer focal lengths create stronger blur.
  • Get creative with foreground bokeh.
  • Remember that bokeh works in video too.
  • Small bright lights against a dark backdrop create bold bokeh.
  • Create custom bokeh shapes by cutting your own templates.

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