How To Achieve Nice Bokeh in Your Photos [In Plain English]

How To Achieve Nice Bokeh [In Plain English]

Want to take portraits that have nice bokeh?  First, what is it?

BOKEH = noun.  a Japanese term for the subjective aesthetic quality of out-of-focus areas of a photographic image.

Below is a photo I took just the other day.  It is an example of an image with nice bokeh and how to use it effectively.

Annie Tao Photography bokeh example.

By blurring out the background, the entire image looks visually pleasing. You can’t even see she is standing on a sidewalk next to a parking lot!

HOW TO ACHIEVE NICE BOKEH (in plain English!)

1.  Use the right lens.

All lenses can create some kind of bokeh, but the REALLY nice, drool-worthy bokeh is from prime lenses with large apertures, like f/1.4 and f/1.8.

2.  Select a large aperture.

The larger the aperture (the smaller the aperture number) = a narrower depth of field and more bokeh!  Usually f/2.8, 1.8 and 1.4 create the best results.

3.  Get close to your subject.

4.  Focus on what you want to have sharp.

I know, I know…. duh.  But there may be someone out there who isn’t sure!

5.  Put your subject far from the background you want blurred out.

In the image above, there is beautiful green bokeh because there were bushes on the far side of the parking lot.  I took the shot from a lower angle (shooting upwards) to intentionally miss the cars in the parking lot, which were directly behind her.

The result is a deliciously smooth wash of color in the background, which made it look more like the little girl was standing in a meadow than a parking lot.


Bokeh photography example

Bokeh example - Annie Tao Photography.

Annie Tao Photography bokeh Example

Sometimes I create bokeh in the FOREGROUND because it tells a different story…

Bokeh in foreground example

And sometimes I don’t want any bokeh at all. I want to see all the details, like the textures of these walls, so I place my subjects close to the background and have my camera set at a smaller aperture.

Photo without Bokeh

No Bokeh in Photo

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Annie Tao is a Professional Lifestyle Photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area who is best known for capturing genuine smiles, emotions and stories of her subjects. You can visit Annie Tao Photography for more tips or inspiration. Stay connected with her on her Facebook page

Some Older Comments

  • MissKimar April 6, 2013 06:14 am

    John B thanks for your response. I tried and it's kinda coming. Just need more outdoor scenes and practice I guess. :) Thanks a lot.

  • John B. April 3, 2013 11:58 pm

    Misskimar, set your camera to aperture priority, and try opening your lens to its largest aperture. That will be the smallest number your lens will allow - f/3.3. Make sure there is some distance between your subject and the background. Whatever bright spots are in the background should give you what you're looking for. You can do this at night, too, if you use a tripod. Streetlights in the background can often give you some nice bokeh provided you have a subject for the camera to focus on in the foreground. If you still can't get it, then it could be that your lens doesn't open up enough, and if I understand correctly, you can't change your lens.

  • MissKimar April 3, 2013 09:33 am

    I really enjoyed the tips and pictures. I am however, at a lost of achieving that effect using the Nikon Coolpix p510. Any suggestions?

  • Douglas March 19, 2013 03:59 pm

    There is some good commentary here.
    Some folks, as other poster's have said need to step back from being a nasty critic. Being a critic is easy, being helpfull is just as easy and one can correct anothers "senior moment" or weak wording etc by simply writing your understanding of it!

  • Wendy March 9, 2013 03:40 pm

    I will say Thank You for your help! Any help I can get to improve my photography, I am grateful. But it upset me to read nastiness. This site is not a Competition , it's to help and give advice. If someone has made an error politely correct them. There is no need, some people need to step back and look at the man in the mirror.

  • Rosanna February 22, 2013 02:53 am

    Don't comment much on anything but feel constructive criticism is fair but rude criticism is totally not necessary. No one's perfect in this very much less than perfect world! Appreciate the fact that someone cares enough to share w/out money being the prime motivator! If you're a know-it-all, good for you but your harsh comments aren't appealing!

  • Leland February 13, 2013 02:25 pm

    Well that was embarrassing, Annie...

  • Scott February 11, 2013 03:07 am

    John B's reply to Stephanie is right to a point. However, some cameras or in the case of digital SLRs, lenses, are much better at producing good bokeh than others. Jamba has explained it fairly well in a previous comment.

  • John B. February 10, 2013 04:56 am

    Stephanie asked: "How do I get the “typical” bokeh with shapes turning into circles?"

    Each of those circles represents a point of light which could be, for example, reflections off a car or water. Where there are multiple points of light in the background, as long as they are out of focus, you should see your circles of light. They may not be so obvious when looking at your subject through your viewfinder, but they will show up in your photo.

  • Scott February 9, 2013 04:54 am

    This article has many good points of interest to the new amateur who wants to improve their photography. The problem is it is simply incorrectly titled as has been pointed out in a few comments. It is not about bokeh, it is about DOF and when and why using different DOF and whether or not the background or foreground is in or out of focus effects portrait shots.

    Regarding the comment by e j haas, although it may be technically accurate it is practically incorrect. When a photographer looks at their electronic readouts as they are making their settings adjustments the number they see for the f stop is not 1/2.8 or 1/16 it is 2.8 or 16. For all practicality for almost any photographer you talk to, whether someone who is just learning about the difference between f stop and shutter speed or the seasoned professional, the standard explanation will be that the lower the number (that you see on the camera's readouts) the larger the aperture and therefore the shorter the DOF.

  • David February 8, 2013 08:59 pm

    I think the main concept of this article is designed for beginners who are looking for plain english fast hard direction to create what ever bokeh their lens can. this article does just that! it dont go into aperture blade count or aperture blade configurations "which is what creates various different Bokeh types". still its a hard fast instruction to get new photographers where they need to be fast! it touches on key proceedures to abtain the O.O.F area needed to have bokeh in the first place. key facts like aperture size / subject to camera distance / subject to background distance. if I would add any comment to this it would NOT be a discussion on what was wrong with this article it would be simply that background elements , tree leaves, flowers, lancapes, lights, are key elements in the end result of the bokeh you will obtain using this method of checks and balances to create the area of O.O.F that results in what ever bokeh your aperture blade count and arrangement can produce. this was well designed article it was fast and simple with exact measures one needs to take. and NO gobbly goo of oh look at how awsume I am! its simply exact measures of the recipe for success. to argue the difference of oof v/s bokeh is kind of stupid when you cant have one with out the other when one depends on the existance of the other! Dobb

  • E J Haas February 8, 2013 01:21 pm

    "The larger the aperture (the smaller the aperture number) = a narrower depth of field and more bokeh!"

    Whoops that statement that was also mentioned in a few posts is incorrect. It should read: The larger the aperture (the larger the aperture number) … An aperture written as an ƒ/ stop is a fraction. ƒ is a constant and is the numerator. The number after the slash is the denominator. So substituting the number one for ƒ we have 1/2 1/2.8 1/4 1/8 and so on. If ƒ was a cake which would be bigger, the cake divided by 2 or the cake divided by 16? Otherwise a good article.


  • kerry February 8, 2013 12:51 pm

    I understand the first, third and fourth pictures had great 'bokeh'...what were the other pictures? Not even exciting or interesting. trying to learn and not seeing anything? Is it me?

  • barrr February 8, 2013 11:13 am

    Harsh words from some people here. If you're experts, you don't need things stated in plain English, so why read this, other than to criticize? Annie wasn't here to do the hard math. She was trying to help newbies understand a concept. I understand bokeh but it was still nice to hear someone explain it again. And trust me, I love precise language but I also appreciate concepts explained simply.
    If you've nothing nice to say, don't say it. You don't sound smart. You sound combative.

  • Javier February 8, 2013 09:27 am

    Nice information! Some people forget that even if the terminology is not 100 correct the outcome will be the same! This is for people that have little knowledge of photography! "If you can't explain something in the simplest form for everybody to understand, then you really don't know it yet!! "

  • Tom Horonzy February 8, 2013 06:48 am

    Thanks. Clearly stated and simply written.

  • Jampa February 8, 2013 05:35 am

    I have always understood bokeh to be an inherent quality of a lens, largely determined by the design of the lens. Specifically I understand bokeh to be the way the lens renders specular highlights in out of focus parts of the image. The author of this article uses the term in a rather different way - I would have said this article is more about the use of depth of field and selective focus than about bokeh per se. None of the other comments I read emphasized the fact that bokeh usually refers to the out-of-focus HIGHLIGHTS specifically, and whether or not they are aesthetically pleasing. Obviously this is a subjective judgement, but a lot of photographers tend to like round, soft-edged out-of-focus highlights and lenses tend to get labelled as having "good" or "bad" bokeh based on this. Some of the examples in the article have no specular highlights in the out-of-focus areas, and therefore, do not demonstrate the lens bokeh at all according to my understanding of the term.

  • JL February 6, 2013 11:20 am

    Its an adjective not a noun!!!! its a hybrid of two made up phrases anyhow! As a photographer, you have an exposure triangle to work with, be you David Bailey or whoever. Aperture, Shutter speed and ISO. All are intrinsic. Your depth of field will be determined from this. This is maths. Bokeh, nothing to do with this, it describes ashetics pertaining to blur 'quality' as depicted by the lens. I give up. Ignorance rules, ok. Should someone from DPS step in here????

  • James February 5, 2013 09:36 am

    On the issue some critics have with DOF and bokeh in this article.....maybe the point of emphasis should have been that the bokeh of a given lens usually looks its best at wide apertures. Other than that I think it's a nice article for those interested in achieving nice blurred backgrounds.

  • pieter February 5, 2013 02:04 am

    Look here, scroll down about 40% for the bokeh comparison. The reviewer compared five 35mm lenses. The depth of field is (mostly) the same - the quality of the out of focus areas is vastly different. This is bokeh.

  • JL February 5, 2013 01:14 am

    Lets see if I can clarify this...
    Take 2 lenses - one is a canon 50mm f1.8, the other is a canon 24-70mm f2.8L.
    Now, if I take a picture of a subject 6ft away with the 50mm lens at f2.8 and then exactly the same photo with the 24-70 set at 50mm @f2.8 I will get exactly the same out of focus area (depth of field) but the smoothness/silkiness will be different. In my opinion, far more pleasing on the 24-70 in most but not all situations. This variance in quality of the out of focus areas is these days referred to as 'Bokeh', and is down to your glass/blades on your diaphragm etc. there is no right or wrong bokeh, it's down to the photographer to exploit the advantages and disadvantages of each lens.

    Hope this helps :)

  • Chithra Unni February 4, 2013 05:03 pm

    Bokeh is not the same as shallow depth of field..Get your facts right

  • ccting February 4, 2013 04:53 pm

    I love the text, different people has different view.. lol... i thought photographers are the one who create images that contains "bokeh", and not the lens... If the lens is the one who create bokeh, then it will be a very nice thing to have.

    well, everyone has different view / perspective, why bother...;). Keep the nice work up.

  • Fraser Smith February 4, 2013 03:00 pm

    Glad to see the text has been corrected. :-)

  • Shruti February 3, 2013 11:36 pm

    I'm a complete rookie, and I barely understand these terms, but I do want to learn. I own a Lumix FZ60 and have recently been trying to achieve the bokeh effect. I also tried out cutting shapes on black paper and taking pictures. While I could the desired blurred effects on the lcd and viewfinder, my autofocus was probably ruining things.I'm not sure. My capture was late; it didn't click when I wanted it to and the pictures had no blurred parts. How do I go about this? Please do help me. :)

  • Stefanie February 3, 2013 12:26 am

    I didn't find this article very helpful. I have a 50mm f/1.8 and I get soft backgrounds, but they still have too many details for my liking. How do I get the "typical" bokeh with shapes turning into circles?

  • JL February 2, 2013 09:53 am

    @Pieter Your comment is entirely correct. Bokeh is depicted by the lens, nothing else. It describes the quality of the blur, good or bad, not the amount of blur due to DoF.

  • Major Bokeh February 2, 2013 08:49 am

    Bokeh comes from more than fast prime lenses. I have a Canon 50mm 1.2 that has a razor thin depth of field when wide open making getting bokeh a certainty. But I also have a 100-400mm zoom that is wonderful for getting a sharp subject and soft background. I prefer to use that for taking portraits to the 50.

    Also as oldwolf pointed out your statement: "The larger the aperture (the smaller the aperture number) = a greater depth of field and more bokeh!" Is incorrect. A GREATER depth of field means more of the image is in focus and less bokeh occurs.

    I know bokeh. Look at my screen name!!

  • Terry Doyle February 2, 2013 04:18 am

    Lovely examples of why you'd want to introduce bokeh into your shot. The little girl is wonderful and telling us how you set up for the shot helps a lot. Bokeh gets rid of things you don't want (dirt, twigs, gum wrappers when shooting flowers) and brings in its own beautiful backdrop. That green halo in the first shot is great!

    I'd also like to compliment you on showing the two shots at the end and why they're just as great w/o bokeh. There, the background is part of the picture and that blue lined door as well as the beautiful bricks really set those shots up very nicely.

  • pieter February 2, 2013 03:55 am

    Bokeh is subjective "quality" of out of focus areas, not "quantity".

    A wide aperture lens can have very narrow depth of field, meaning only a small piece is in focus. Yet, it can still have "bad" bokeh. Most 50mm primes have "bad" bokeh, even if the depth of field is very narrow from using a wide aperture.

    Good bokeh is used to describe the quality of the out of focus area: is it smooth, creamy and not distracting? Bad bokeh is distracting. The blond boy in the red strip top is bad bokeh. The leaves in the background have harsh edges.

    You can't "create" bokeh; it's a property of the lens.

    This is an article on "how to get narrow depth of field", not "how to create bokeh".

  • af February 2, 2013 03:30 am

    oldwolf nails a boo boo.

  • oldwolf February 2, 2013 02:49 am

    Have a question about #2. Wouldn't a larger aperture or smaller f/stop number give you less depth of field instead of greater depth of field.

  • John Davenport February 2, 2013 02:48 am

    Great job explaining Bokeh! It's definitely an area of photography that takes a little practice to get used to creating it in a pleasing way. Nice use of examples as well to showcase all the different kinds of uses for bokeh!

  • Dwynn February 2, 2013 02:24 am

    Nice article. However, I think there is one small misstatement. You say,
    "The larger the aperture (the smaller the aperture number) = a greater depth of field and more bokeh!"

    I think you meant
    "The larger the aperture (the smaller the aperture number) = a SMALLER depth of field and more bokeh!"

  • Matt Mikulla February 2, 2013 02:24 am

    BOKEH = noun. a Japanese term for the subjective aesthetic quality of out-of-focus areas of a photographic image.

    You are describing depth of field in this article. Not bokeh.

    Again, bokeh is the quality of the out of focus areas. Not making areas out of focus.

  • Fraser Smith February 2, 2013 02:21 am

    Point Number Two:

    The larger the aperture (the smaller the aperture number) = a greater depth of field and more bokeh! Usually f/2.8, 1.8 and 1.4 create the best results.

    …is completely wrong. Depth of Field is the distance between the closest point in focus and the farthest point in focus. The greater the depth of field, the lesser the bokeh. Bokeh is the result of a shallow depth of field, i.e. more of the background is out of focus. (See here

    Just saying. It's basic photography and you really should understand the terminology before writing about it "in plain English" :-)

    That said, a nice clear article.