How to Create a Delicious Blurry Bokeh Background in 4 Easy Steps

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Blurry backgrounds are nothing new when it comes to photography. The technique of blurring the background to emphasize a subject in the foreground has been used by photographers for decades, and by painters and other visual artists for hundreds of years. Now thanks to the proliferation of digital cameras this phenomenon has exploded in recent times.

Many people like photos with a tack-sharp subject and a smooth blurry background, and even though some might say it’s more of an over-used trend, the truth is that bokeh is here to stay. The trick to using it effectively, is to learn how to use the physical properties of lenses and light to create the look you are going for. While some people turn to creative editing tricks like adding blurry filters or doing Photoshop gymnastics there really is no substitute for the genuine article. If this is something you have always wondered about or wanted to try for yourself, here are four easy steps to get you started.

50mm, f/4, 1/350 second, ISO 400

50mm, f/4, 1/350th of a second, ISO 400

The term bokeh is a Japanese word that doesn’t have a precise English translation, but refers to the type and quality of the out-of-focus areas of an image. In other words, when the blurry parts of a picture look nice, you might say the image has good bokeh. While a thorough discussion of what bokeh is, what causes it, and what affect your lenses and lens elements have on the type and quality of bokeh could go on for several pages, this article is going to be a bit more basic look at how to create visually pleasing blurry elements in your photos. If you don’t want things to get too complicated, and aren’t quite ready for a thorough breakdown of aspherical elements or the circle of confusion, then get out your camera and follow along with these few simple tips to help you get the look you have always wanted.

understanding-bokeh-golden-glow

50mm, f/1.8, 1/6000th, ISO 100

1 – Shoot with a wide aperture

Take a look at the front of your lens, you will probably see a few numbers that look like 1:3.5-5.6, or 1:2.8, or f/4 (read: What the Numbers on your Lens Mean for more on how to find this). These numbers refer to the size of the aperture in the lens itself, and how big the opening can get. Ironically smaller numbers are bigger, and a lens that says 1:2.8 will be able to let in much more light than a lens that says 1:4 or f/4. (Some manufacturers use different schemes to show the aperture size but it’s always the number after the colon, or on the second side of the / that you want to look for when determining the maximum size of the lens opening.)

The smaller the number, the wider your aperture will be, and the less light you will need to take a properly exposed photo. Wide apertures also mean your photos will have a shallower depth of field, and anything out of focus behind your subject will begin to take on a smoother, more visually pleasing blur. In other words, wide apertures help give you more bokeh.

understanding-bokeh-leaves

50mm, f/1.8, 1/4000 second, ISO 100

If you’re itching to get some pictures with the same kind of buttery-smooth background blur you have seen in nature magazines or fashion spreads, put your camera in Aperture Priority mode (on Nikon) or Av (Canon, Pentax, etc.) and turn the control dial until the aperture value number is as close to zero as it can go. It helps if you have a prime lens that doesn’t zoom in and out, since they usually have wider maximum apertures, but even a kit lens can give you decent results if you have enough light. Now go out and find something to photograph, even if it’s just a coffee mug on your office desk.

To put my money where my mouth is, I took my camera to work and literally snapped a picture of a coffee cup on my desk. No photoshopping or magic tricks here, just a wide f/1.8 aperture. 50mm, 1/100 second, ISO 160

To put my money where my mouth is, I took my camera to work and literally snapped a picture of a coffee cup on my desk. No photoshopping or magic tricks here, just a wide f/1.8 aperture. 50mm lens, 1/100 second, ISO 160

2 – Put your subject far away from the background

If you have been trying to get the kind of silky, blurry bokeh you seem to notice in everyone else’s photos you might try this one simple trick and you won’t believe what happens! Simply putting a great deal of distance between your subject and whatever is behind it, can go a long way towards creating the bokeh you have always dreamed about.

understanding-bokeh-flowers-sunrise

50mm, f/1.8, 1/1000 second, ISO 100

If you are shooting portraits, try moving your subjects to a location where there is a great deal of space behind them, or even just repositioning yourself so you are looking at your subjects from a different angle that puts more distance between them and the background. In the photo below, I specifically shot the scene so that there was about 50 meters between the couple and the fountain, which caused it to have a nice blurry out-of-focus appearance that complements the woman and her fiancée quite well. I could have used a bench that was much closer to the fountain, but it would have had a very different affect on the picture, and it would not have given me nearly the same amount of bokeh as you can see in the final image below.

understanding-bokeh-fountain

85mm, f/2.4, 1/2000 second, ISO 200

3 – Get close to your subject

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph there are many different optical elements that come into play when dealing with bokeh and background blur, and certainly shooting with wide apertures while putting a great deal of distance between your subject and the background are critical elements of the equation. Another thing you can do, is position your camera and lens physically close to the subject you are shooting. Combine this technique with the first two, and you’re virtually guaranteed to get good results.

understanding-bokeh-fence

This shot has all the techniques rolled into one: a wide f/1.8 aperture, a far-away street light in the top left corner, and a very short distance between my camera and the fence bar on the right side.

4 – Zoom in, waaay in

If you are trying to get bokeh-licious shots and not having much luck, there’s another technique that could mean the difference between frustration and celebration. Due to how lenses collect, and focus incoming light rays, it’s easier to get blurry backgrounds with longer focal lengths. This is why these types of shots are difficult to get on mobile phones, which generally have lenses with a much wider angle of view. Grab your nearest camera, whether it’s a DSLR or a humble little point-and-shoot, and zoom the lens as far in as it will go. Now use the other tips I have already mentioned: set the aperture to the widest setting, find a subject that’s relatively close to you, and make sure there is plenty of room between the subject and the background.

A golden eagle, taken with my 400mm f/4 lens on a Nikon D7200. A very expensive combination, but it produces outstanding results with silky-smooth bokeh.

A golden eagle, taken with my 300mm f/4 lens on a Nikon D7200. A very expensive combination, but it produces outstanding results with silky-smooth bokeh.

You might not get the photo of your dreams, but with a little bit of practice you should start to see some improvements, as you begin to understand how to use your camera to create sharp subjects with pleasing out-of-focus areas.

Just kidding! I took the first shot with a $150 Panasonic ZS7 pocket camera. All I did was zoom in as far as it would go. This is the same scene with the same camera a few seconds later, shot at the camera zoomed all the way out.

Just kidding! I made that first image above with a cheap Panasonic ZS7 pocket camera, and all I did was zoom in as far as it would go. This is the same scene, with the same camera, a few seconds later – but zoomed all the way out.

Now with all this being said, I have a challenge for all of you dPS readers: What is your favorite picture you have taken that has nice pleasing bokeh? Is it a portrait, a wild animal, or more along the lines of abstract art? Share your picture in the comments section below along with a few tips of your own to help others take similarly beautiful bokeh photos.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as sringsmuth.

  • Those are astounding, Janet. I’m a sucker for good macro shots and I know how difficult it is to get any decent images of bees like that. They just don’t stay still! Very good work, and I’m glad you are enjoying that f/2.8 macro lens! Someday I hope to have one myself 🙂

  • I’m going to add a bit to that saying, Ynglingen. “A good photographer plus good gear produces good pictures in good conditions.” That camera + lens setup is a force to be reckoned with…if it’s in the hands of someone like you who clearly knows what they are doing 🙂

  • Thank you so much, Dea! I’m glad you liked it. Would you care to share any of the images you have made using these tips?

  • This photo makes me smile–not just because it’s a good image, but because of the rabbit’s ears perked way up and the expression on his (or her?) eyes. I wouldn’t imagine it stuck around very long after you took this photo!

  • Everyone I know who has that lens just loves it, and with good reason. This shot is gorgeous and there’s no way I could get it on one of my standard f/1.8 portrait primes. Well done, Jess!

  • Beautiful, Mia. I like how you were able to get some coloring in the sky too. Was this taken in the early morning? Sometimes if I try to get shots like this later in the day it just doesn’t work out.

  • That 60D is a great photo, Imtaz. My friend has a 60D and, combined with that lens and a photographer like you, can produce some astounding images. If I were you I’d get this picture printed, framed, and hung on my wall!

  • What do you mean, #drivebyshooting? Did you take this from the window of your car? However you got it, this photo is beautiful and I really like how the focus is clearly on the white plant on the left but then you see many more of them as your eyes look to the background. Some people pan that 55-200 lens because it often comes as part of a kit when you purchase a Nikon camera, but photos like this clearly illustrate that it can produce some awesome images.

  • Thank you for sharing these, and I appreciate you taking the time to tell a little bit about how you got the shots. I have a 35 1.8 lens but have never heard of that Photix Magnifier before. I’m intrigued! That shot of the rings is amazing and there’s no way you could get that without a macro lens, some extension tubes, or apparently the Photix Magnifier 🙂

    I’m so glad you have found posts like this to be helpful, and by looking at your Google Photos page it looks like you clearly have a talent for photography. Keep up the good work!

  • DJ10111

    Simon the kit is called “Phottix Close-up Lens Filter Kits” .
    They come in a set of 4, 1x, 2x,4x, and 10x. You can actually stack them
    together to extend your magnification. That is what i did with those
    two macro shots. I’m all about using affordable equipment to produce
    good images. I could not afford a macro lens, so i spent $50 to buy
    these magnifiers. I love them, i don’t do a lot of macro shot apart from
    wedding artifacts. So i think this is OK for me at the moment until i
    get better glasses. Thanks for the complement about my pictures, i hope one day i can also start sharing my techniques with readers. I’m a lecturer in computer sciences by profession, so maybe that will help me to explain things well i guess.

  • Chele Blaine

    Taken with Sigma 70-300. One of our locals we call Homer.

  • Steven Hodges

    A flower in our garden

  • Steve Schuldenfrei

    I took this at the National Zoo years ago with just a telephoto lens. No Photoshop or anything else. It’s my favorite picture.

  • Charlie Barker

    Wow so crisp.

  • Ed Langmaid

    My favorite photo with pleasing bokeh. With Nikon d90 18-200mm zoom at 200mm f5.6 at 1/125 sec.

  • Imtiaz Kanga

    Thank You Simon.

  • Mila

    Thanks, Simon! It was just past 11 am, bright sun and it was a bit windy, so I used the shutter speed at 1/3200. I was out in the park with my son that day.

  • Imtiaz Kanga

    2 more pictures from the same trip

  • Janet

    Thank you so much Simon! Finding honey bees is challenging enough! I do love my 60mm, well worth the money spent- used from a reputable camera store was good advice from DPS. It’s fun for campfires too, I’ve gotten really cool shots using SS 1/1000-1/2000, I definitely recommend it!

  • Keith Hayes

    Nikon D750, 300mm, f5.6, ISO 500, 1/250. I wasn’t able to get too close, so using a longer focal length helped get the bokeh I wanted. I would’ve liked a little wider aperture, but 5.6 was this lens’ widest when zoomed all the way to 300mm.

  • James Milner

    Great article! Bokeh works nicely for holiday shots too! Taken with my Canon 5D MKIII and 70-200mm f2.8. Wide open. Using all of the techniques in your article. Thanks Simon!

  • Joan Bish

    This was one of the first pictures I took with my Nikon D5000 with a 70-300mm manual lens. I knew nothing about bokeh at the time but this picture has remained one of my favorites. Took it in my mother-in-law’s front yard one spring morning about 6 years ago.

  • E. O’Bannon

    I was out taking some landscape pics and came across this spider’s web in the morning dew. I think the bokeh is more interesting than the subject.
    Pentax K30, 78mm, f/5.6, 1/1000sec

  • Old timer

    I’m a great fan of bokeh but don’t always get it with my bridge camera. However there are times it happens and I haven’t a clue as to why. This particular picture was taken with my Fuji F5.0 at 1/280 ISO 400, 35 mm focal length and with the shooting mode set for Sport. It is straight out of the camera.

  • Ed

    My favorite with colorful brokeh. Costa Rica with Nikon D90 18-200mm zoom at 200mm. f5.6 at 1/125th sec.Taken at the waterfall park near San Jose.

  • Tony Bassman

    I don’t normally take photo’s of flowers, but I’ve use this method on some other photos I’ve taken. I’m glad you like it, I may try a few more now.

  • Tony Bassman

    Thank you

  • Oh my goodness Ed, that is stunning! I love the depth of field you have there, with the bird’s eyes tack sharp and the front of the beak just slightly out of focus. And what a beautiful mix of colors too! Well done!

  • Ed

    I just remember someone saying, “Focus on the eyes” Thanks for your comments, Simon.

  • Maria Martha Lesca

    Beautiful all the pictures
    I will also want to share one of mine. This was taken with a NikonD7000, F6.3, 1/160s, Iso 100
    I think i capture a blurry background although the F wasnt so open. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f897067c5e3969e3e66124238e64b1e953bc62f05c916ff8152470fcac21177a.jpg

  • Philippe Pichard

    Canon 5D mark III with 24-105 / f5,6 / 1/160 / 97 mm / iso250

  • Philippe Pichard
  • Suesheila

    I like the colors and composition very much. It’s rather “artsy”. There are painters who try to get that effect on purpose! lol!

  • Suesheila

    Taken near the end of last April with a Nikon D5500, Tamron 60mm Macro lens, f4.5, 1/1000, ISO 125. It was taken in the mid-afternoon.

  • Anya Gapyuk

    Thank you very much for your feedback. Sometimes photos I make remind me of a painting.

  • Anya Gapyuk

    Such a nice photo!!!

  • Keith Terry

    My Daughter watching television, natural light and a little bit of cross pro and vignet. Canon 400d with a 50mm f1.8.

  • That. is. beautiful. Very good shot, Keith!

  • Dan Nevarez

    At the time, I was more excited about getting the silhouette right, but now I really appreciate the background as well. Great article.

  • charith

    D5200/300mm/

  • Deeak

    At present learning photograpy with my Nikon D3200

  • Paul K
  • Jim Wolff

    I have to ask: why is the recommendation to use Aperture Priority, rather than using manual mode? So, basically, your telling the reader to let the camera figure it out and don’t worry about what is actually happening. How about describing how to take the shots in manual mode so that there is much more understanding about the ways to get the best bokeh rather than just saying, let the camera figure it out.

  • Certainly shooting in manual mode is a good option, but I recommend aperture priority for beginners who are a little unsure when it comes to controlling all the settings on their camera but want to learn a bit more about doing things like creating blurry backgrounds with sharp subjects.

  • TMaxMax

    Because for beginners it is easier to figure out with the exposure in P, A and S modes than in M mode. Just a bit of EV adjustment with a wheel…

  • Chris McClard

    What kind of aviation shots do you do? Reason I ask, is I love aviation and looking for different ways to capture it.

  • Irene McCullagh

    Hi Chris, I cover air shows and aviation related events for a magazine as their local representative. Ground to air and air to air

  • Chris McClard

    That’s great, sounds like it’d be a ton of fun as well. Thanks for the reply.

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