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Bokeh Photography Tutorial: 3 Ways to Get Started

Bokeh comes from the Japanese word boke (ボケ), which means “blur” or “blur quality.” Bokeh is pronounced BOH-kay; like a bouquet of flowers. Basically it’s a blur that appears in the background (or inside) of photographs. It’s caused by a fast shutter speed and a small depth of field. Often, bokeh is applied as a post production effect in Photoshop, but it doesn’t have to be.

In this tutorial (the first of several installments) I’m going to explain how you can capture this quality in your images by simply using specific settings in your camera. This way, by the time you get your images into Photoshop, you’ll have more to play with and less changes and image destruction to deal with.

Bokeh photographs can be absolutely beautiful, delicate, and can add a silky finish to your images and has the power to further enhance your focused subject in the foreground, and emphasize photography’s ability to seemingly “stop time” for a fraction of a second.

This tutorial does come with a general warning: it’s very easy to make Bokeh photographs look super twee and sickly sweet. One step too far and the image can look straight out of a Mommy Blog craft project. So be warned, while Bokeh has an attractive and fresh aesthetic, it can turn sticky faster than a melting popsicle on a hot Summer’s day.

Bokeh refers to the blur quality in the background of the image (Image: "Beautiful Wishes" by Beata Czyzowska Young)

1. Secure a fast lens for yourself

The key to a beautiful Bokeh background is a super fast lens. Ideally, you’re trying to catch a subject in the foreground as fast as you possibly can. If you can’t get access to such a lens, there are some other tips you can try to achieve the same effect. I recently was schooled by a wildlife bird photographer that when aiming for excellence in Bokeh, you’ll need an f/2.8 aperture as a minimum.

Set your camera to “Aperture Priority,” or manually manage your aperture to gain best results. Automatic settings don’t naturally assist with Bokeh, so you’ll need to tinker with this yourself.

To ensure background is out of focus, use minimum f/2.8 aperture (Image: "Daydream" by Maria Nikolaeva)

2. Create space between your subject and environment

Increase the distance between your subject and its surroundings. This may sound ridiculous or counter-intuitive to basic photography portraits, but by literally ensuring your camera is very close to your subject, you create a shallow depth of field, which is ideal for bokeh. So get up close and personal and try and leave as much space between the subject and what’s behind him, her, or it in the environment. The portrait below is a good example of creating a shallow depth of field and space behind the subject.

Place a gap between the subject at the background for portraits (Image: Time Is Running Out by Josie Mackerras)

3. Look for lights in the distance to play with lighting

When you’re experimenting, try and pick up lighted highlights in the background (such as streetlamps or christmas lights) and watch as the they turn into large soft blurry discs of color. These are key indicators that your Bokeh is working its magic. If you need, you can manually backlight or find side lighting in images to create and capture these lights. This helps you blur out ugly backgrounds you find in your images, which is an added plus.

Use Bokeh to add softness to bright lights (Image: "Wait" by ShereenM)

When practicing  manual Bokeh, try photographing portraits in open spaces, in addition to macro shots of ornaments and household items. A great starter subject is a close up of  a car with highways in the distance. If you’re looking for inspiration and guidance, the Redbubble Group about Bokeh is a great place to hang out.

Stayed tuned for our next installment on the best ways to Bokeh.

See some great examples of bokeh from our Redbubble community right here.

[Header image:“September Sea” by Lucy Loomis]