How to create bokeh in photos (background and foreground)

The best thing about winter, with shorter days and longer nights, is it’s an ideal time to create bokeh in photos. So here’s a bokeh photography tutorial on how to create bokeh backgrounds and foregrounds.

What’s more, it’s something you can do indoors and images with beautiful bokeh make you feel warm and cozy. Christmas trees are a perfect subject for bokeh photography, as are fairy lights.

Before we get into how to capture bokeh in photos, we must first understand what is and isn’t bokeh.

What is bokeh?

Bokeh isn’t just the out of focus blur in the background of a photo. This is such a common misunderstanding, but here’s a full explanation on the difference between ordinary background blur and bokeh

The definition of bokeh is that it’s the out of focus spectral highlights in the blurred part of an image, usually the background.

In other words it’s the lights, or small reflections of light in the out of focus part of a photo. The bokeh effect can also be in the out of focus foreground of photos, as you’ll see lower down the page.

How to create background bokeh

How to pronounce bokeh

The term bokeh originates from the Japanese word “boke”, which means haze or fuzziness.

Bokeh is pronounced “boh-keh”. Some people pronounce it “bo-kay” or even “bo-kah”. It’s one of those words where there’s no agreement on the pronunciation. I’ve actually had several emails from people telling me how to pronounce it and they all offer a different pronunciation.

No matter how you pronounce bokeh, everyone agrees that bokeh in an image is beautiful!

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How to do bokeh photography

There are three ways to create bokeh:

  1. Aperture
  2. Focal length
  3. Distance

In this bokeh photography tutorial we’ll look at how each of these elements can be used to create bokeh. Then I’ll show you how to create a DIY bokeh filter for a fun bokeh effect.

1. Aperture setting for bokeh

Setting aperture for a narrow depth of field, such as f1.4, f2.8 or f4 is perfect for creating bokeh in an image.

Photographing with a wide aperture like this, with a very narrow depth of field, is the most widely used way to create bokeh in photos. However, it’s not the only way.

2. Focal length for bokeh in photos

The focal length of your lens also affects bokeh.

Because magnification causes blur in the out of focus areas of an image, the longer the focal length of your lens (and therefore the greater the magnification), the more the spectral highlights will blur.

So the bokeh effect will be more pronounced when using longer focal lengths.

3. Distance in photos

The distance between you and your subject, and your subject and the background has a big impact on bokeh photography.

To blur the background of an image using distance, your background needs to be two times further away from your subject than you are. 

So, if you are 1 meter from your subject, the background must be 2 meters or more behind the subject. The further away your subject is from the background, the more out of focus, or blurred, the background will be.

Bokeh photography tutorial for bokeh images

Bokeh images anywhere, at any time of day

Despite what I said about winter and Christmas tress, bokeh photography isn’t restricted to indoors. Far from it!

Here are some examples of bokeh subjects…

  • Out of focus lights in the background of an image create beautiful bokeh lights, so any dusk or nighttime scene with lights is perfect. You can try it out with distant city lights or fairground lights. In fact, any lights that are small, numerous, far away and out of focus are perfect for bokeh lights photography. 
  • A lovely sunny day is also perfect for creating bokeh images. Leafy trees with the sun shining through from behind make a fantastic bokehlicious background. 
  • Another great subject is rippling water with highlights of sunshine bouncing off the surface. Every one of those highlights will add to the bokeh effect if the water is out of focus.
  • Water droplets on glass make great bokeh too when out of focus as they pick up and reflect light.
  • Crumpled tinfoil that’s been straightened out a bit will reflect light in a million directions. When light shines on the out of focus tinfoil it’ll create great bokeh.

The list is endless. Anything that creates small light reflections, or is a small light, is ideal for creating bokeh in photos.

Light shining through vegetation shows bokeh effect in background

Where does bokeh feature in a photo?

I mentioned earlier that bokeh is usually in the background of an image. However, don’t forget that bokeh can be created in any part of an image that’s out of focus, including the foreground.

It’s just that we see it in the background more often.

Bokeh is not just background blur. It’s any out of focus spectral highlights in an image. No spectral highlights, no bokeh.

Quality of bokeh

Because top of the range lenses contain more complex optics, they produce what’s considered by many to be more pleasing bokeh. The out of focus spectral highlights will have smoother, more dreamy edges.

That doesn’t mean that you have to rush out and get an expensive lens.

Just be aware that cheaper lenses don’t offer such wide apertures, so your bokeh might have harder edges and it might be hexagonal instead of round.

Aperture affects the size of bokeh

Because increasing or decreasing aperture changes the size of the hole that the light passes through in your lens, it also changes the size of the bokeh.

  • An aperture of f22 is small, so the bokeh shapes will be small.
  • F2.8 will create large bokeh shapes by comparison. Most photographers go for a wide aperture when creating images with bokeh.

Tips on creating bokeh in the foregroundIn the above photo you can see the pebbles on the beach on are in focus and the crashing waves are out of focus, so there is no bokeh.

Camera settings for above and below images remained the same: ISO 100, shutter speed 1/800, aperture f8. The focal length above is 145mm and below it is 185mm.

How pebbles on a beach can appear as bokehHere the waves are in focus and the wet pebbles in the foreground are out of focus. As a result the sun reflecting off their wet surfaces creates this beautiful bokeh in the foreground.

Out of focus pebbles on a beach create bokehHere you can see how distance between camera and subject (focal point) affects bokeh. Bokeh is created by the out of focus pebbles closest to me. Further away from me, and closer to the focal point of the image, the pebbles are not yet in focus, but are not out of focus enough to create bokeh.

Also, with this last photo I reduced the aperture size to f13 and as a result the shape of the bokeh changed to smaller circles.

Camera settings: ISO 100, shutter speed 1/320, aperture f13, focal length 135mm.

Shape of bokeh in photos

Bokeh is generally round, because that’s the shape of the hole (lens aperture) inside your lens. Sometimes it’s hexagonal.

Aperture is controlled by a series of blades within the lens that come together to close the hole and move apart to open it. More blades equals a rounder hole. When you see hexagonal shaped bokeh, it’s because the lens used had fewer blades for closing the hole.

However, you don’t have to stick with the bokeh shape your lens creates!

Create a custom bokeh shape

If you want interesting bokeh shapes, you can buy bokeh filters on Amazon (affiliate link) to fit to the end of your lens. Just make sure you buy a size that fits the diameter of your lens.

If you like to make things, here’s how to make your own bokeh shapes filter. It’s much easier than you think!

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about how to capture bokeh in photos, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my bokeh photography tips have helped you to understand how to create bokeh share that too.

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