PHOTOGRAPHY BASICS

Get creative with bokeh photography

Nothing beats genuine bokeh! Follow these tips and tricks to create beautiful background blur with our top recommendations for lenses, settings and techniques to try.
A low-lit portrait of a woman against a background of distinctive white and pale blue circular bokeh.

The term bokeh is a Japanese word meaning 'blur' that is used to describe the look of the out-of-focus areas of a photo. Bokeh – widely pronounced to rhyme with OK – is most obvious in photos with lots of small bright highlights, like street lights at night. But it's not just about bold circular highlights, it refers to the quality of any blurry parts of an image.

So what is bokeh photography? Shooting to include these blurred areas is one of the most attractive effects we can employ in our photography. It lets us dissolve distracting clutter, draws attention to the important parts of the image, and transforms unnecessary details into delightfully creamy colours and tones.

A woman crosses a road at night, with cars and traffic signals blurred in the background, taken on a Canon EOS R8 with a Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM lens.

When out of focus, points of light transform into beautiful circular bokeh. Taken on a Canon EOS R8 with a Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM lens at 85mm, 1/125 sec, f/2.2 and ISO 8000.

A close-up of a cobweb, the detail accentuated by the blurred foliage in the background.

Simply blurring the background is not enough – you need to choose a background that will look interesting, and ideally bolder, when blurred out. Greenery often works well. Taken on a Canon EOS R8 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/256 sec, f/3.2 and ISO 100.

For these reasons, bokeh has long been one of the most potent visual tricks in the photographer's arsenal. These days, dual-lens smartphones are capable of mimicking bokeh, but only through software. The tiny lenses and sensors in smartphones make it impossible to achieve the shallow depth of field you need for natural bokeh. It's an optical effect that can genuinely arise only with the faster lenses and larger sensors you get with dedicated cameras, and nothing beats the look of the real thing.

Full-frame cameras such as the Canon EOS R8 and EOS R6 Mark II are ideal for bokeh photography, but APS-C format bodies such as the Canon EOS R100, EOS R50, EOS R10 and EOS R7 can also be highly effective.

Here we'll look at some of the key techniques, camera skills and kit you need to make your photos even more striking by capturing appealing bokeh.

The best lenses for bokeh

A Canon EOS R6 camera with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens.

A lens with a wide maximum aperture like the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM can transform backgrounds into beautiful creamy bokeh. Note also how the blades visible in the lens in this picture produce a rounded opening – this largely determines the shape of the bokeh.

To capture attractive bokeh, you need a 'fast' lens – that is, one with a wide maximum aperture, ideally f/2.8 or wider (lower f-number). This is one of the main reasons to include a fast prime (fixed focal length) lens in your kitbag, even if the focal length is one covered by your kit zoom.

Fast lenses with a focal length of 50mm or more are generally best for bokeh photography as blurring the background can be more challenging with wide-angle lenses. That's because shorter focal lengths produce a larger depth of field at any given focus distance and aperture, so more of the scene from the foreground to the background will be rendered sharply, and you'll get less bokeh.

Top choices for cost-effective bokeh lenses include the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM and the RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM. But don't rule out wide-angle lenses. Both the RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM and the RF 24mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM work really well for creating a bokeh background in close-up photography as the depth of field shrinks with shorter focus distances.

For extreme close-ups, a really short focal length gives a tiny depth of field, maximising bokeh potential, so the 0.5x macro facilities of the RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM, RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM and RF 24mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lenses come to the fore. The Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM lens is also a good option for getting in really close to the main subject in a scene and isolating it against a blurred yet expansive background, thanks to its very wide field of view. This can add another creative element into the mix.

In general, a lens with more aperture blades results in more attractively circular bokeh, as each point of defocused light mirrors the shape of the aperture. It's not an issue if you're shooting with the lens wide open – that is, at the maximum aperture (lowest f-number), when the opening will be circular anyway – but that won't always be the case. You can find out how many blades your lens has by looking up its specifications on the Canon website. Seven blades is great for attractive bokeh, but nine is even better. Both of the macro lenses mentioned above have nine aperture blades, while the others have seven.

Canon's handy lens selector tool enables you to tailor lens recommendations based on your camera and the genre you want to shoot.

The best bokeh camera settings

The LCD screen of the Canon EOS R6, showing the settings in Aperture Priority mode.

Aperture Priority mode lets you set a wide aperture for shallow depth of field, which is what we need for strong background bokeh.

A close-up portrait of an Airedale terrier, perfectly in focus with the background behind it blurred out.

Shooting wide open at f/1.8 means our depth of field will be very shallow, so the focusing needs to be perfect. A camera such as the EOS R10 really helps here because its AF can recognise people, vehicles and animals – such as cats, dogs and birds. Taken on a Canon EOS R10 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 100.

Your choice of aperture has a big influence on the look of the bokeh in your photos. The wider the aperture (that is, the lower the f-number), the shallower the depth of field, which in turn means the background will become more blurred. So try shooting in either Aperture Priority (Av) mode or Manual mode, and select a wide aperture (low f-number).

In Aperture Priority (Av) mode you can also set the ISO to Auto, so this is a good place to start to see if the shutter speed is fast enough for your needs. Alternatively, in Manual (M) mode with Auto ISO you can set both the aperture and shutter speed, then leave the camera to determine the correct ISO. The key is to choose a wide aperture and a shutter speed that's fast enough to ensure that in-focus areas of the picture are sharp when you hand-hold the camera (try something around 1/200 sec).

Adjust your distance for better bokeh

 A close-up of a darter dragonfly resting on a blade of grass taken with a Canon RF 24mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens.

The cost-effective RF 24mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM, RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM and RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM all have a 0.5x macro facility, so small objects will be reproduced at half-life size on the camera's sensor when shooting at the shortest available focal length. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/250 sec, f/3.5 and ISO 100.

 A Jack Russell terrier looks to the right, with a blurred cherry blossom tree in the background, taken with a Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM lens.

All these lenses also deliver a tiny depth of field, enabling smooth and creamy bokeh of defocused areas, while their Optical Image Stabilizers help to keep the image free from motion blur by counteracting camera-shake in handheld shooting. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/85 sec, f/2 and ISO 400.

Increasing the distance between your subject and the background will blur the background more. Another factor is the distance between the subject and your camera. The closer your lens is to the subject, the shallower the depth of field. This means that background areas will fall out of focus more quickly. To blur more of the image, move the subject closer to your camera and further away from the background.

Set the best focal length for bokeh

A portrait of a woman with bright pink lipstick and her hair scraped back in a plait against a blurred background.

Bokeh is often an essential ingredient of effective portraiture. You'll typically want to give all the visual attention to the subject you're photographing. Creating a blurry defocused backdrop is the perfect way of isolating them in the scene, by removing any distracting background clutter and replacing it with beautiful bokeh. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/2500 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 100.

A longer focal length produces a tighter depth of field, which in turn can result in stronger background blur. This is the reason why telephoto zooms can be used to great effect to isolate a subject and transform the backdrop into detail-less blur. For example, the Canon RF-S 18-150mm F3.5-6.3 IS STM lens can produce an excellent bokeh background if you use it towards the long end of its zoom range, even though the aperture is narrower at that length. So if you want to make the blur stronger and enhance the bokeh, take a few steps back and zoom in (or change lenses) to a longer focal length.

How to create foreground bokeh

A young boy in a beige-coloured waistcoat, standing next to an ivy covered wall, holds open a ringbox.

Shooting close in to the ivy fence here enables us to capture blurred leaves to the left of frame and enhances the sense of depth. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/160 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 100.

A young boy in a beige waistcoat and bright blue wellies running through a clearing in the woods.

A low camera angle like this not only enables us to blur the ground in front of the subject, but also 'pushes' the backdrop further away for stronger background bokeh. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/500 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 100.

We tend to think of bokeh primarily as a background aesthetic, but it can also be used to great effect in the foreground of the frame. By composing to include out-of-focus detail in the foreground, you can draw the eye in towards your sharp subject. This might mean bringing the camera in close to foliage or low to the ground to frame the blurred foreground. Soft details like this add to the sense of depth in a scene, and are a great way to bring bold, blurred colours into your composition.

How to create bokeh in video

Twinkling Christmas tree lights in the foreground and a car's rear lights in the background are all out of focus.

Depth is vital in video composition too, as it helps the viewer to orientate around the scene. Including out-of-focus details in the foreground and background of a scene is a great way to enhance the sense of depth and draw the eye into the frame. What's more, bokeh highlights look just as wonderful in video as they do in still photography, with the added bonus that they can move too. Car headlights, fairy lights and other bright points of light look particularly beautiful when blurred to twinkling points of bold bokeh.

How to add bold bokeh highlights

A photographer dangles a string of fairy lights in front of the camera while shooting a cat on an armchair.

Fairy lights or other shiny objects out of focus in the foreground as well as the background can add a greater sense of depth to your photos.

A portrait of a cat with out-of-focus coloured lights in the background.

Try including fairy lights in the background of your photos for beautiful bokeh highlights.

One of the boldest ways to employ bokeh in your photography is to include small, bright points of light against an otherwise dark backdrop or in low light. It's a captivating effect that you can find in all kinds of circumstances, like the sun shining through a tree, or a busy street after dark, or a colourful fairground ride, or candles on a cake. If you want to try the effect for yourself, try using a set of fairy lights. Position them in the background of your shot, or the foreground, or both at once. When out-of-focus, the fairy lights transform into attractive bokeh circles.

How to create custom bokeh shapes

A blurred image with out-of-focus highlights in the shape of five-pointed stars rather than circles.

When you shoot with your lens wide open (at its maximum aperture), you should get round bokeh in your images, because the opening is round. Otherwise, the shape of bokeh is determined by the number of aperture blades in the lens – in general, the more blades, the more circular the aperture remains as it opens, and therefore the more circular the bokeh. In practice, this usually means bokeh highlights are circular or hexagonal – if you want to see what shape your bokeh will be, simply take your lens off the camera, hold it up to a light and look through it.

But why not get creative and change the shape of your bokeh? You can do this by cutting out a template of any shape and fixing it to the front of your lens. In this video, a simple piece of card transforms the bokeh into a multitude of colourful stars and snowflakes.

Try it now: shoot a bokeh still life

A tabletop with a mirror surrounded by foil, with a lightbox to one side and a Canon EOS R6 set up to shoot a yellow rose.

This is a really simple and effective way you can experiment with bokeh at home, using all the tips in this article.

A yellow rose photographed on a mirrored surface, with out-of-focus highlights around it.

The crumpled foil reflects the light from the lamp as scattered highlights, which when blurred result in beautiful circular bokeh. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/640 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 100.

We've seen that out-of-focus points of light create attractive bokeh if you shoot with suitable settings. Here's a simple set-up you can try at home to create a bokeh-filled still life. Place an object on a mirrored surface, then place a crumpled sheet of foil in the background (not too crumpled – a few scrunches should do it, so it scatters the light instead of just reflecting it). Angle a household lamp onto the foil, and use a second light to illuminate the subject (we used an LED panel, but a simple lamp will work). Position your camera close to the subject, set it to Aperture Priority (Av) mode, use a wide aperture – ideally around f/1.8 – and shoot from a low angle to capture the wonderful blurred bokeh.


Written by James Paterson and Matthew Richards

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