Bokeh Photography Effect

March 05

18 min. to read

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The Bokeh effect is an artistic way to use the background or the foreground of a photo. Learn how to use it in your photos and create unique compositions.

The Bokeh effect is an artistic way to use the background or the foreground of a photo. Learn how to use it in your photos and create unique compositions.

We all know those dreamy pictures with blurred lights in the background. They’re very popular at Christmas, weddings, concerts, and festivals. You can also find them in portfolios of street and travel photographers. To create these photos, photographers use an effect called Bokeh. However, it’s not an editing effect; Bokeh is an effect created directly in the camera, while you take the photo, which makes it much more challenging and exciting.  

The Bokeh effect can be used with all sorts of subject matters, not just candles and street lights. In fact, the effect doesn’t refer to photographing lights at all. Here’s everything you need to know to use the Bokeh effect and create amazing compositions.

Bokeh Photography Effect Image1

Photo by miller jacob on Unsplash

What is Bokeh?

Although Bokeh literally means “blur”, the effect refers to the quality of the blur. More exactly, it means that the photographer uses the blurred background or foreground as an active element of the composition, creating a visually appealing canvas for the subject. So not all pictures with blurred backgrounds or foregrounds produce the Bokeh effect.

The Bokeh effect transforms the background into a painting, with shapes, colors, and contrast. Instead of hiding it and making the subject the only focal point of the composition, the Bokeh effect shifts the focus and transforms something blurred into one of the main elements of the photo. In a Bokeh background you won’t find hard edges or doubled lines but smooth patches of light and color, usually roundly shaped, that blend harmoniously. The patches create a pattern that’s impossible to overlook even with the most interesting subject in the frame.

Bokeh Photography Effect Image2

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

How to achieve the Bokeh effect with a professional camera

First of all, you need to know that achieving a good Bokeh effect depends on the lens you use. The optical design of the lens decides the finesse of the effect and it isn’t much you can do about it. You can do some research before buying a new lens for Bokeh. As a general rule, you want a fixed lens with the largest aperture possible, therefore, an expensive lens. You’ll be better with a second-hand high-quality lens than with a new but mediocre one.

You want a very large aperture because the Bokeh effect starts with a shallow depth of field. This means you’ll have only a small part of the frame in focus while the rest will be blurred. And the three elements that help you achieve a shallow depth of field are a large aperture (a small f-number), a short camera-subject distance, and a telephoto lens. That’s why you’ll appreciate a lens with a focal length of at least 50mm and an aperture of at least f/2.8. To make things easier when you set up the camera, start by setting the aperture. You can use the Aperture Priority mode to fix the value of the aperture and let the camera select the best shutter speed. To avoid camera shake blur, use a tripod.

Large apertures allow a lot of light to enter the camera. You can balance exposure using low ISO values and fast shutter speeds. However, sometimes it’s not enough. To reduce the amount of light that enters the camera use a neutral density filter (ND filter) or take photos on an overcast day or in the morning or evening.

The lens also decides the pattern of the background. With some lenses, you’ll have circular patches, while with others you’ll have polygonal patches, which aren’t very appealing. However, don’t worry too much about the pattern because you can easily change it using a Bokeh kit (a set of individual discs cut in different shapes). You can even do your own Bokeh kit from paper.

Bokeh Photography Effect Image3

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Framing for the Bokeh effect

Start by choosing an interesting background that will help you achieve the artistic effect you want. For example, it may be the Christmas tree, the golden hour sky, city lights, a blossomed tree, or the foliage in the autumn. Make sure the colors of the background match your composition. 

Then, choose a focal point. It may be a foreground element or one between foreground and background, in which case you will create foreground Bokeh too. Set focus and exposure using the focal point, otherwise, it will be underexposed. When the Bokeh effect is created with background lights, the subject has backlighting and the subject will be just a silhouette.

Although the Bokeh effect creates artistic compositions, don’t forget about the rules of composition. Observe all the elements that enter the frame and change the position of the camera until you find the best shooting angle. The subject shouldn’t always be in the center of the frame and you shouldn’t always take photos from your eye level. To maximize the effect, you might need to get really close to your subject and put some distance between subject and background. And because you can’t always change the scene, change the position of the camera. 

Bokeh Photography Effect Image4

Photo by Florin Beudean on Unsplash

How to achieve the Bokeh effect with a smartphone camera

Smartphone cameras have wide-angle lenses with small sensors and can’t create a shallow depth of field as a professional camera does. Furthermore, some smartphone cameras work in Auto mode only and don’t allow you to set the aperture. Without a shallow depth of field is impossible to create the Bokeh effect. But don’t worry; there are ways to achieve the Bokeh effect with a smartphone camera.

Wide-angle lenses of smartphone cameras have a focal length between 26 mm and 35 mm depending on the model and manufacturer. And while this can be an impediment in creating a shallow depth of field, it has some advantages too. First, they are less susceptible to camera shake. Then, they have a shorter minimum shooting distance, which means they can focus to shorter distances than a telephoto lens. 

So, if your camera can work in Manual mode and allows you to set the aperture, choose the largest aperture available, place the camera close to the subject, and leave a long distance between subject and background. Even when you can’t set the aperture, getting close to the subject and having the background far from the subject creates a shallow depth of field and blurs the background.

Bokeh Photography Effect Image5

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Some smartphone cameras have features that create a shallow depth of field even if they’re designed for something else. Check if you have a Portrait or a Selective Focus option. These features focus on a subject (whether recognized automatically or chosen by you) and blur the background via software.

Another way to achieve the Bokeh effect with a smartphone camera is to use an app. Dedicated apps such as Bokeh Lens (iOS), Bokeh Photo Editor (iOS), Snapseed (iOS and Android), Bokeh Camera (Android), and AfterFocus (iOS and Android) recreate the effect via software. They allow you to highlight the subject and blur the background with a tool similar to lens blur. Some apps can even recognize automatically the area in focus and the background. Apps also provide different shapes, colors, and densities for the Bokeh blur.

When to use the Bokeh effect

The Bokeh effect is so popular because it creates a particular mood. It enriches your visual story and encourages the viewer to engage and spend more time with a photo. The Bokeh effect is often used for portraits, wedding photos, and couple photo sessions. It’s romantic, nostalgic, and dreamy. 

Besides creating an atmosphere, the Bokeh effect has some practical benefits too. First of all, it hides a busy background and transforms it into something beautiful. Then, it makes the subject stand out by creating an appealing contrast between sharp and blurred areas. It also creates a sense of depth. For these reasons, you shouldn’t limit the use of the Bokeh effect to portraits and romantic photos. Here are some ideas to inspire you:

  • Use the Bokeh effect in macro photography: When you have a very small subject such as an insect or a wildflower you don’t want the background to interfere. At the same time, you want to capture the environment too, to add context to your visual story. A Bokeh background is discrete enough to not distract from the main subject but powerful enough to give clues about the environment. For example, the foliage behind an insect can be a perfect Bokeh background.

Bokeh Photography Effect Image6

Photo by Faris Mohammed on Unsplash

  • Try a black and white Bokeh effect – Christmas lights and sunsets create an amazing Bokeh effect but not everything has to be in colors. Black and white photography is famous for its dramatic contrasts, attention to detail, and powerful meanings. A black and white Bokeh background has a cinematic effect. You can use it to go back in history, reflect memories, or reveal the essence of your subject.

Bokeh Photography Effect Image7

Photo by jano gepiga from Pexels

  • Play with colors – The Bokeh background doesn’t have to have a single color. Photograph colorful light sources such as street lights. Learn to work both with complementary colors that create a strong, dramatic contrast and analogue colors that create a smooth, silky effect. You can experiment with still life photography and arrange the scene as you like.

Bokeh Photography Effect Image8

Photo by Anshu A on Unsplash

  • Use the Bokeh effect in nature and landscape photography – Because the Bokeh effect creates a sense of depth, it might be a good idea to use it for landscape photography too. Usually, landscape photographers want to have the entire scene in focus. Yet, from time to time, placing an element in the foreground and blurring the background creates an inviting 3D perspective. It makes the viewer part of the landscape and allows them to perceive the distances between elements. When a shallow depth of field appears naturally in your landscape compositions, you may consider adding the Bokeh effect.

Bokeh Photography Effect Image9

Photo by Aya Okawa on Unsplash

Bonus: Tips for beautiful Bokeh effects

To become a good photographer you have to see the world in shapes, colors, leading lines, textures, and patterns. First, you decompose the scene into basic elements and then you recompose it into a photograph. So take your time to observe the environment and find the best shooting angle. Before pressing the shutter release button you should know exactly what enters the frame and what message you want to convey.

The Bokeh effect can make your compositions more interesting but if you don’t use it wisely the result will be artificial and unpleasant. Check out the following tips for successful Bokeh:

  • Choose a background that fits the Bokeh effect (e.g. has repetitive shapes and colors, is situated at a long distance relative to the subject, has spots of light)
  • Don’t limit yourself to the background; the Bokeh effect works equally well in the foreground
  • Create a shallow depth of field using anything you have at hand (e.g. large aperture, short camera-subject distance, telephoto lens, long subject-background distance, software tools, smartphone apps)
  • Use reflections in your favor; they can maximize the Bokeh effect
  • Make the subject stand out by focusing and exposing for the subject
  • Spend some time creating a connection with your subject; a photograph is a story
  • Be creative and find a place for the Bokeh effect regardless of your preferred photography genre

Conclusion

While using a professional camera assures a subtle, smooth, and natural-looking Bokeh effect, you can still achieve the effect you want using a less expensive camera or even a smartphone camera. The secret is to choose wisely your subject and the background or foreground you want to use for the effect. It’s also important to see the entire frame and don’t focus only on the subject or background. An effect can be beautiful but without context, balance, and meaning it won’t create a good photograph.

From a technical point of view, the Bokeh effect is challenging. However, it is more challenging from a compositional point of view. Being creative means more than using fancy effects. It means being a storyteller and revealing the unseen or overlooked part of the world.

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