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As we’re heading into shorter days and longer nights, in the northern hemisphere at least, I thought this would be a good time for a tutorial on how to create bokeh backgrounds and foregrounds. It is something you can do indoors and images with beautiful bokeh make you feel warm and cozy. Soon, many of us will be putting up our Christmas trees, which is a perfect subject for bokeh.

If you keep going to the end, you’ll find step by step instructions for creating your own fun bokeh shapes.

The term bokeh originates from the Japanese word “boke”, which means haze or fuzziness. It 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. However, no matter how you say it, everyone agrees that bokeh in an image is beautiful!

What is bokeh?

Bokeh is the blurred part of an image that is not in focus, usually the background. 

How do you create bokeh?

There are three ways to create bokeh:

  1. Aperture
  2. Focal length
  3. Distance

1. Aperture

Setting your aperture to a narrow depth of field, such as f1.4, f2.8 or f4 is perfect for creating bokeh in an image. Shooting like this, with a very narrow depth of field, is the most widely used method.

2. Focal length

The focal length of your lens will also affect 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 blur, or bokeh, you will have.

3. Distance

The distance between you and your subject, and your subject and the background has a big impact on bokeh. 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 anywhere, at any time of day

Despite what I said about winter and Christmas tress, photography with bokeh is not restricted to indoors. Far from it!

  • Out of focus lights in the background of an image create beautiful bokeh, 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. 
  • A beautiful sunny day is also perfect for creating bokeh. 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.
  • Tinfoil that has been crumpled and straightened out a bit will reflect light in a million directions and when out of focus this is will also make bokeh.

The list is endless. Anything that creates small light reflections or is a small light is ideal.

Where does bokeh feature in a photo?

I mentioned earlier that bokeh is usually in the background of an image. However, bokeh can be created in any part of an image that is out of focus, including the foreground. It’s just that we see it in the background more often.

Quality of bokeh

Because top of the range lenses contain more complex optics, they will produce more pleasing bokeh, with 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.

Aperture also affects the size of your 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. 

Tips on creating bokeh in the foreground
In 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 bokeh
Here 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 bokeh
Here 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.

The shape of bokeh

Bokeh is generally round, because that is the shape of the hole inside your lens. 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 rounder hole. When you see hexagonal shaped bokeh, it is because the lens used has fewer blades for closing the hole.

However, you don’t have to stick with the bokeh shape your lens creates. If you want interesting bokeh shapes, you can buy bokeh filters 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, you can also have fun creating your own bokeh shapes. It’s much easier than you might realise!

Easy peasy bokeh filter

To finish up this tutorial on bokeh, here’s my “recipe” for creating your own unique bokeh filters.

Step 1 – material

Get a piece of black paper or thin card. The key requirement is that it is black.

Step 2 – drawing

Place your lens face down on the paper and trace the outline so that you have a circle the same size as the front of your lens.

Draw four 2cm x 4cm (ish) rectangles at regular intervals around your circle. These will be the tabs that will hold your makeshift bokeh filter in place.

Step 4 – shape

In the middle of your circle draw the shape you’d like to create, for example a heart or a Christmas tree. Experiment with sizes, but don’t be tempted to make it really big. Small, but not tiny, and in the centre works best. You’ll find that the smaller you go the more of a vignette you’ll have in your image.

If you’re looking for inspiration on what shapes to create, have a look at these bokeh filters you can buy. Then make your own!

Step 3 – cutting

Cut along the outer lines of your filter and then carefully cut out the shape you drew in the middle.

Heart shaped DIY bokeh filter

Step 4 – positioning

Place your bokeh filter on the end of your lens, making sure that you position it the right way up. Fix it in place with a rubber band.

DIY bokeh filter fitted to lens with elastic band DIY bokeh filter fitted to the lens

Step 5 – photographing

Experiment! Point your camera at an ideal bokeh subject, set your exposure with the widest possible aperture and start photographing. You’ll see that as you change focus, aperture and focal length the size of your bokeh changes.

I’ve photographed a Christmas tree out of focus to show you the affects of the aperture. If I put somebody or something in the foreground and focused on them with the tree out of focus in the background, it would make a great holiday photo!

Out of focus Christmas tree with heart shaped bokeh filter
The image on the right is more out of focus, so the shapes are bigger. Aperture for both images was f2.8.

PS: as it took so long to set up the tree (including a trip to the shops to buy new lights, because my old ones refused to work), I’ve decided to leave it up until January, so I’ve got 2 months to play with this scene. If you join our Facebook group you’ll see my bokeh background tree in action in the lead up to Christmas.

Quick summary of how to create bokeh backgrounds

  • Pick a background with small light sources.
  • Position your subject in the scene with the lights far behind them.
  • Get close to your subject.
  • Shoot with a wide aperture.

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