How to Achieve Background Blur or Bokeh

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If I show you two different portraits, one with a blurred background and one with a sharp background, you will automatically prefer the one with the creamy bokeh. Why? Because that’s just how it is. No, the bokeh effect is very flattering because it isolates the main subject by separating it from the background.

If you did not know, bokeh means blur in Japanese, and it is purely aesthetic.

Most portrait photographers blur their backgrounds, and I certainly do it because when I take a picture of someone, I want the viewer to focus on the person’s face and not what’s going on behind them.

IMAGE 1

Portrait with nice bokeh in the background.

I always want good background blur when I shoot portraits, that’s one of the main reasons why I shoot on Aperture Priority and let the camera do all the rest of the work. My minimum shutter speed has to be 1/100th, so I increase my ISO to 400 to compensate – this is for portraits with natural light.

Bokeh basically depends on how shallow your depth of field is (note that the further the background is from your subject, the smoother the bokeh). Depth of field depends on three main things

IMAGE 2

In this image, the bokeh looks really good because the background was really far from the subject (the bird).

The Aperture Matters!

The bigger your aperture (smaller the f-number), the shallower your depth of field (e.g., f/2.8 is a large aperture opening, and it creates shallow depth of field).

The first thing I did not understand when I first started photography is that I used the biggest aperture on my lens but the background was not completely blurred.

At that time I used the 18-55mm canon kit lens with its maximum aperture of f/3.5. The user’s manual on my camera told me to just use the smallest f/stop on my lens and I would automatically blur the background. However, they did not mention a lot of other factors to get this result, like how big should my aperture be. After hours of trying to get a background blur with my aperture of f/3.5, I was left very frustrated because I did not get the results that I saw on the internet.

I later understood that bokeh depended a lot on how big my aperture was – I wanted to get bokeh for portraits with a focal length of 50mm. I had to buy a lens with a bigger aperture to get a completely blurred background, and the Canon 50mm f/1.8 was the answer. It is a relatively cheap lens to get started with portraits. You can find other lenses with an aperture of f/1.4 or f/1.2 but the bigger the aperture, the more expensive the lens.

IMAGE 3

Portrait with an aperture of f/1.8

With a regular lens like 50mm, you will start getting nice bokeh starting from f/2.8. So lesson number one is to buy a lens with a really big aperture – this is the first way to achieve flattering background blur. You probably know this already, but this is important to mention before giving the two other points.

With a big aperture, you will be sure to get a nice background blur. But, there are other ways you can blur your background without having a wide aperture.

The camera to subject distance controls the depth of field

Let me show you my point: lift your right thumb (or left thumb -it doesn’t really matter) in front of your right eye and stare at it while closing your left eye. While focusing on your thumb, notice that you cannot clearly see the background. Now move your thumb farther away from your eye, keeping your thumb in focus. You will notice that the background won’t be blurred anymore. This works with your camera the same as it down with you eyes. The closer you get to your subject, the more blurred the background will be.

IMAGE 4

At 40mm, f/5.6 you can see that I’m not getting any bokeh in the background.

IMAGE 5

At 40mm, f/5.6 you can see that with the same focal length and aperture I can get a nice bokeh by getting closer to the tree.

IMAGE 6

At f/1.8 I get a nice bokeh with the 50mm lens.

IMAGE 7

Still at f/1.8 with the 50mm, if I get closer the effect gets more intense.

I understood this when I finally managed to get nice bokeh with my kit lens (I still did not have my beloved 50mm f/1.8). I used to practice my photography, and background blur on a tree. The f/3.5 aperture was not good enough for me so I tried different things. The first satisfying bokeh I got was when I focused my camera really close to the tree.

If you take a second and think, you will realize that all the macro photography images have a shallow depth of field, therefore a smooth bokeh. This is because macro photographers get really close to their subjects.

IMAGE 8

By getting close to your subject you will blur the background.

IMAGE 9

Here I used a zoom macro lens (at 300mm) and got as close as possible to the leaf.

IMAGE 10

Here I used an aperture of f/1.8 with the 50mm, and got as close as possible.

Even if you have an aperture of, let’s say f/5.6, if you get your camera really close to your subject, you will have a blurry background.

Note that macro photographers use special lenses that enables them to take images really close to their subjects. Standard lenses have a limit regarding their focussing distance. If you cannot afford a lens with a big aperture nor a macro lens, extension tubes are a good solution to extend your focusing distance.

The shorter the distance between your subject and the camera, the shallower the depth of field will be. The bokeh really depends on that distance, because I can shoot a landscape scene with an aperture of f/1.8, and there will be no background blur. That is because there is a huge distance between my camera and the subject I’m trying to photograph.

The lens focal length changes the perceived depth of field

If you cannot get close to your subject, but still want to isolate it with a background blur, then use a long focal length lens.

IMAGE 11
Image taken with a long telephoto lens.

The cool thing with longer focal length lenses, is that you can photograph portraits, wildlife, macro, and isolate anything you can’t get close to. The other advantage is that you don’t need a large aperture, an aperture of f/6.3, for example, will give you creamy backgrounds.

A longer focal length will appear to give you a shallower depth of field, because the subject is compressed, and the isolation between your subject and the background is more important.

IMAGE 12

A shorter focal length will appear to give you a larger depth of field. Let’s go back to the example of the tree. If I put my aperture at f/4 on a 16mm lens in front of the tree, the background will appear quite sharp. Whereas if I focus on the tree from the same distance, with the same aperture, but with a focal length of 50mm, I will notice that I get a background blur and a shallow depth of field.

IMAGE 13

Taken at f/5.6 and 70mm.

IMAGE 14

Taken at f/5.6 and 300mm without moving.

Conclusion

So you must be thinking: the best bokeh you can get is to have a long telephoto lens, focused really close to your subject, with a really wide aperture. That’s pretty much it!

The sad part is that these lenses are very expensive. But, I have two portrait lenses, and together they cost less than $400 – and, I am still able to take good looking portraits with nice bokeh. So it’s about combining these things, the best you can with the tools you have.

IMAGE 15

Using a telephoto lens and getting really close.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Yacine Bessekhouad

is a young student who is currently living in France. What attracts him the most to photography is the technical and aesthetic feel. He loves talking and writing about photography and also makes weekly photography and post production tutorials on his YouTube channel. He shares most of his work on his Instagram account.

  • Sangay Thinley

    Thank you for the very easy to understand tutorial. I am a beginner photographer from Bhutan and I was looking for something like what you wrote exactly. Thank you again

  • Apostolis Tsi

    Nice article but you didn’t mention the Subject-to-Backgroud distance (or I missed it somewhere).

  • Yacine Bessekhouad

    Thanks! I quickly mentioned that the further your subject is from your background the smoother the bokeh 🙂

  • Yacine Bessekhouad

    No problem, glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  • Sandeep Rathee

    WHICH IS THE BEST LENS TO GET BLURR BECKGROUND FOR MY POTRAITS… I M USING NIKON D3300…..

  • Arnal Photography

    Since Yacine is still a student, I will cut him a touch of slack, but PLEASE ask professors and mentors to explain the difference between depth of field (a function of aperture) and depth of focus (a function of the subject’s distance from the lens). Some may consider it nit-piking and a minor nuance, but it is an extremely important factor and critical in discussions such as these.

    It’s also important to add that all f/1.4 (or whatever aperture) lenses won’t give the same bokeh. That is a function not only of aperture, but also of coatings, element groupings and a number of other design factors in the lens. Bokeh, in photography, goes a bit beyond simply “blurry”. It’s a matter of how things blur, so much so that there are a myriad of articles written just about that!

    Sorry for the rant, but it seems to me that passing along information to those who may be trying to learn should be complete… or at the very least, correct.

  • Excellent article, especially with the accompanying photos to illustrate. You made a complicated topic easy to understand. I really appreciate the tips! Thank you.

  • Arnal Photography

    Typically, a “portrait lens” is something in the 100mm plus range, depending on the creative direction you’re trying to achieve. The longer your focal length, the more shallow your depth of focus will be and the less distorted your subject will appear. I can tell you that I tend to use a Nikon 80 – 200 f/2.8 lens for my portrait work and am generally in the 135 – 180mm range on the lens with an aperture of f/5.6 – f/8 to be able to get the person’s eyes, nose and ears all in focus with the rest of the image becoming soft at a camera to subject distance of around 6 feet.

    The most important key in portraiture is to always focus on the subject’s eyes! Everything else can go soft and still be acceptable, but if the eyes are soft, the portrait will have missed the mark.

  • sandeep

    someone tell me that which is the best lens to get blurred background for my portraits.. while i m using nikon D3300

  • Whilst you’re probably right, knowing the EXACT and more scientific reasons for what causes bokeh beyond what the article covers won’t really help photographers. You know how to drive your car, don’t you? But do you know EXACTLY how each component in the vehicle works and how changing different components will effect the cars driving characteristics? The vast majority of people probably do not, and yet, they seem to be able to drive a car just fine.

    The scientific principles may help people in the academic world, but in reality, not everyone needs to know them to become a great photographer.

  • I would add to you second point of subject to camera distance as it’s only partly there. The camera:subject:back ground distance is more complete. In your example of moving your thumb not only are you moving it closer to your eye, but you are also increasing it’s distance from the background.

  • Charilaos

    Experiment with a lens you already have, like the 18-55. At 55mm, set the aperture at the smallest f-number (2.8 or 3.5, whatever your lens has) and move as close as your camera can focus. You’ll get a nice blurred background and maybe (hopefully not) a big distorted fat nose on your subject! The distortion is more intense at wide-angle focal lengths. Then try a lens of normal to telephoto focal length (50-75mm), smallest f-number and stand at the closest distance that you can you can focus at, without causing distortion.

    Afterwards think of this: When someone has a guitar that costs 300$ and buys a guitar that costs 5,000$, will that make him a better guitarist? The same applies to photography. Technique beats gear in many occasions. Reading articles here in dps (and various other websites) has helped me learn a lot. Take your time, look up articles that interest you and you will not regret it. This will help you form a correct and mature opinion on what is the gear you should personally invest in.

  • Arnal Photography

    Actually, that’s not true, Daniel. What I’m talking about is similar (to use your car analogy) to thinking it’s the wheels that are the thing that determines handling, etc on your car (which to a degree they do… yes, I know a fair bit about cars as well, with a family of mechanics) and when you go to the local shop to get maintenance done and tell them you need new wheels… do you think you’ll be disappointed when you find it was actually your tires that were the concern? Sometimes nuances, and colloquially interchangeable terms, mean things that are very different.
    The discussion of depth of field and depth of focus would be a similar topic of discussion where the terms are often used interchangeably (albeit incorrectly) but when used as a tutorial, the proper term is an important distinction.

  • Beverly5461
  • Your article is very good. I teach an intro course and often students have a difficult time understanding depth of field. While some would suggest the inclusion of more scientific information is necessary, I find the depth of your article perfect for students attending my course!.
    I plan on sending them here for reference.
    Thanks!

  • Jackie3621
  • sofarsogood

    I also teach photography-at the community college level-and always try to boil concepts down to their essence for my students. So for the second and third parts of explaining depth-of-field, I tell them it’s a function of image magnification. When you’re close to your subject DOF is worse, when you use a long or macro lens to magnify the image, DOF is worse. Or short, I should say. They seem to get that point.

  • Rob Bixby

    One thing to consider when planning on using the bokeh of a lens, is a constant aperture. An f/2.8, or f/4 lens will give you a reliable bokeh at any focal length. Less expensive, variable aperture zoom lenses will change as you adjust the focal length of the lens.

  • R.G.Menon

    I would have liked that the relation between the focal length is explained in greater detail. I will have to read the theory some where. It would have been nice if the difference between depth of field and depth of focus. None the same a useful piece of writng. I did learn a few things.

  • Yacine Bessekhouad

    Thank you ! 🙂

  • Yacine Bessekhouad

    Good Point !

  • Yacine Bessekhouad

    I hope they learned a few things 🙂

  • Jessie

    If you can’t add a lens because your camera is a bridge/superzoom – what’s the best option?

  • Nick

    I would think your only option then would to be using the other points. Get closer to your subject if you can, and try to keep it isolated from the background. If you’re shooting portraits, have your subjects stand away from walls or longer objects you don’t want highlighted in the image. Also, I’ve read about artificial blur in Photoshop, but I haven’t tried that yet

  • Nicholas Cruz Cafaro

    Larger objects*

  • Nicholas Cruz Cafaro

    Hey there! So, I also have this camera (and I love it for what it is!). I’ve had it for about a year now, but I’ve been able to get myself a few better lenses. Early on I didn’t have a complete understanding of how DOF works, so I was anxious to get something new.

    My first suggestion is to learn how to use what u have in every way possible. Practice with the kit lens to see what kind of bokeh you get. Shoot wide open, keep the subject further away from the background if you can, and get closer to your subject. Once you’ve have a better understanding of how to control DOF, then I would say it’s ok to get a new lens.

    If you’re like me and get impatient, or once you think you have a good understanding, look for a new lens. DO YOUR RESEARCH. Look into reviews, ask your local camera shop, or local photogs you may know. Obviously a better quality lens will cost more…a lot more. If price is a big concern, look for something off brand. I have two Tamron lenses (28-75mm and 70-200mm) that are both constant f/2.8 lenses. I bought the portrait lens used, which also helped with the price.

    I’ve also come to realize that a Nifty Fifty is one of the best options you can get, and are general dirt cheap. You’ll get f/1.8 and have pretty good bokeh. This is by far your cheapest option.

    Hope this helped!

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