Bokeh refers to the blur in the background of an image, and for photographers, stunning bokeh is like gold. We want it, struggle for it, need it. Yet how do you generate stunning bokeh consistently?
Fortunately, there a few simple ways to create high-quality background bokeh.
In this article, you’ll find four ways that will enhance your ability to produce pleasing bokeh, and therefore increase your photographic versatility and skill.
I’ll first discuss techniques such as increasing the subject to background distance and shooting wide opened. Then I’ll explain bokeh-enhancing situations such as backlighting. You’ll finish with the knowledge to creatively generate stunning bokeh in your own images.
What is pleasing bokeh?
A quick word on great bokeh: In general, bokeh simply refers to the background blur generated by a lens. However, there are two types of bokeh that I’m going to focus on here.
The first is what I will call geometric bokeh. Geometric bokeh is out of focus highlights that actually take on a geometric shape. This particular shape depends on the nature of the lens, but circles, hexagons, heptagons, and octagons are all fairly common.
When properly utilized, this type of bokeh can add an impressive edge to your images.
I will refer to the second type of bokeh as creamy bokeh. This is the smooth, out-of-focus look that photographers often strive to achieve.
Both types of bokeh can be generated, but require slightly different methods. Let’s take a look at each.
1. Shoot wide opened
This is really the bread and butter of creating stunning bokeh. Regardless of whether you want geometric or creamy bokeh, shooting wide open (that is, with an aperture in the f/1.2-2.8 range) will greatly increase your chances of achieving it.
I will focus on creamy bokeh here.
If you stop down your lens so that the depth of field is far less shallow, you’ll find that you lose the possibility of nice, creamy backgrounds.
This is because a larger depth of field means that the background is rendered less blurry. To generate the creamiest bokeh, you want to blur the background as much as possible. It’s as simple as that.
To generate better creamy bokeh, widen your aperture to decrease the depth of field. Only then will you start to achieve that beautiful, creamy look and stunning bokeh.
2. Maintain a good subject to background distance
Another essential aspect of producing pleasing bokeh is keeping a good distance between the subject and background. As in the first tip, this applies to both creamy and geometric bokeh, but I’m going to focus on creamy bokeh here.
When I talk about the subject to background distance, I’m referring to the distance between the elements of the photograph that are in focus—your subject—and the elements of the photograph that are out of focus, i.e. your background.
Why does having a good distance between the subject and background enhance the quality of creamy bokeh?
It has to do with the depth of field. A greater distance between the subject and background means that the depth of field (the area that is sharp within the image) ends far before the background. The background is then rendered in the form of a lovely blur, rather than as a more in-focus mess.
So in order to increase the creaminess of the bokeh, increase the distance between your subject and your background.
3. Find bright highlights behind the subject
I’ve talked a bit about generating creamy bokeh, now it’s time to turn briefly to geometric bokeh.
Impressive geometric bokeh is created by highlights. One way to get strong geometric bokeh is to look for bright lights in the background.
You can achieve this in a few ways. For instance, you might look for objects that filter sunlight, such as leaves. They break up the rays of the sun and turns them into small pinpricks of light that then become impressive geometric bokeh.
You can also look for elements that reflect light. Water is a great option. Another is water droplets. Areas that are wet with morning dew can generate beautiful bokeh when placed behind the subject.
Third, you might search for small light sources in the background. Car lights, street lamps, or christmas lights all work well, especially when shooting after sunset.
Fourth, if you really want to create bokeh but are struggling to find the proper conditions, you can create them yourself. Bring a string of fairy lights with you when you’re shooting, and place them behind the subject.
Geometric bokeh is not all that common in photographs, but can be fairly easily produced. Just follow the tips discussed above!
4. Put the subject in the shade, with a bright background
This method of generating stunning bokeh is unique, in that it can produce amazing creamy bokeh when used one way, and amazing geometric bokeh when reversed.
Both ways involve making sure that your subject is in the shade. Both methods also involve having a bright background. Ideally, you should be shooting in the early morning or late evening when the sun is low in the sky.
Where the techniques diverge is in the placement of the sun.
If you shoot with strong frontlighting—that is, if the sun comes from behind you, over your shoulder—position your subject so that beautiful golden light spills onto the background behind your subject (while your subject remains shaded).
Then that golden light will often render the background similarly golden, and you’ll find that your bokeh becomes wonderful and creamy.
If you shoot with strong backlighting—that is, if the sun comes from behind your subject—position the subject so that the sun must go through trees, leaves, branches, or grasses. As mentioned above, this creates bright highlights behind the subject.
These are then blown into beautiful geometric bokeh.
Feel free to experiment. Try to vary the amount of shade on your subject, moving from complete shade to direct backlighting.
Whether you choose to shoot with frontlighting or backlighting, by placing your subject in the shade and working during the “golden hours” of sunrise and sunset, you’ll generate beautiful bokeh.
While photographers often struggle to create beautiful bokeh, it doesn’t have to be hard. By shooting with a wide aperture, using a large subject to background distance, by positioning the subject so that bright highlights exist behind it, and by using special types of lighting, you can begin producing images with stunning bokeh.
Know other ways of generating great bokeh? Please share them and your bokeh images in the comment area below.