How to Obtain Maximum Bokeh

In photography, the term bokeh represents the quality of the magical out-of-focus blur that makes it look like the subject is isolated from the background. It is visually appealing for us to see a photograph with a soft, creamy and beautiful background. It helps concentrate our eyes on a single area and creates a sense of depth and dimension on an otherwise flat-looking image. Let me share a few tips on how you could obtain maximum bokeh from your camera setup.

85mm f/1.4 Image Sample (5)

1) Use a large aperture

Bokeh is not created by the camera – it is your lens and its optics that are responsible for rendering the out-of-focus areas. Therefore, the first thing you should do is set your lens aperture to its lowest value, also known as “maximum aperture”. You can do this by changing your camera mode to “Aperture Priority” and setting the “f” number to the lowest value your camera will permit. On Nikon DSLR cameras, this is typically done by rotating the front dial towards the left (counter-clockwise).

What is the effect of lowering the lens aperture? It basically decreases the depth of field (which is the area that appears sharp relative to the background) to a very small or “shallow” area.

2) Minimize the distance between yourself and the subject

The closer you stand to your subject, the blurrier the background will get. This happens because when an object is very close, the lens will focus closer and the depth of field will be the smallest. It works the same way with our eyes – try to extend your index finger close to an object two feet away from you, then focus your eyes on your finger and start moving it towards your eyes. You will notice that as you get closer to your eyes, the object behind your finger will get blurrier and blurrier every time. Lenses work exactly the same way, which is why subject distance plays a big role in rendering of the bokeh.

70-200mm f/2.8 Image Sample (3)

3) Increase the distance between your subject and the background

If the subject you are photographing is very close to a busy background, the bokeh will definitely suffer. Remember, depth of field is not just a hard line after which everything is supposed to be completely out of focus – it gradually transforms from sharp to out of focus, as can be clearly seen in the below image. Therefore, in order to get a pleasant-looking bokeh, you should try to put your subject away from close background objects. For example, if you are taking a portrait of a girl that is standing very close to a tree branch with leaves, those leaves might not look completely out of focus. If the girl moved closer to you and thus increased the distance between herself and the tree branch, the leaves would look more “out-of-focus”.

Fall Leaves

As you can see in the above image, the nearest leaves on the tree look sharp and in focus, while the ones a little behind on the left-hand side look somewhat blurry. In comparison, the leaves from the other trees further away look completely out of focus.

4) Use longer focal lengths

Given that the distance between the camera and the subject remains the same, increasing the focal length of the lens decreases the depth of field. So, if you have a zoom lens, you should zoom in to the maximum focal length your lens allows to separate the subject from the background even more. This also means that if you zoom out and use the lens at its shortest focal length, the depth of field will increase, which is desirable for landscape and architectural photography.

Zeiss 35mm Bokeh Sample

For example, if you have a 70-300mm zoom lens, shooting at 300mm focal length will isolate the subject the most (which is what you want for the best-looking bokeh), while shooting at 70mm will bring more objects in the background to focus.

5) Use a long lens

Since increasing the focal length means decreasing the depth of field, the longer your lens is, the better the bokeh you will get. This is not necessarily always true, because the rendering of out-of-focus areas also heavily depends on the optics of the lens. For example, both Nikon 18-200mm and Nikon 70-200mm have the same long focal lengths (200mm). However, the Nikon 70-200mm has much better optics than the 18-200, which is why it has exceptionally beautiful bokeh when compared to the 18-200. So when I say “use a long lens”, I mean “use a high quality long lens” :)

AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f2.8G ED VR II samples (1)

6) Use a fast lens

And last, but not least, use the fastest lens you have, since aperture impacts the depth of field. The best lenses for beautiful bokeh are portrait lenses such as Nikon 50mm f/1.4, Nikon 85mm f/1.4 and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 that have large maximum apertures and highly optimized optics for portraiture. The cheaper alternatives such as Nikon 50mm f/1.8 and Nikon 85mm f/1.8 also produce great bokeh.

AF-S VR NIKKOR 300mm f2.8G IF-ED samples (3)

Nikon NIKKOR-S Auto 50mm f/1.4 Sample (3)


Avatar of Nasim Mansurov About Nasim Mansurov

is a professional photographer based out of Denver, Colorado. He is the author and founder of Photography Life, along with a number of other online resources. Read more about Nasim here.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Morten

    I love these small technical guides and read them with great joy and inspiration! Please keep them coming, there are lots of thinks still for me to learn. Thanks for the work that you are doing!

    • Morten, thank you for your feedback!!! I’m glad that you like the articles and find them useful :)

      I will be posting more useful articles this week, so stay tuned!

    • 16
      ) Vinay

      Dear Nasim ,
      The article on bokehs is excellent but I am extremely confused about one basic principle. Are not maximum aperture and longer focal lengths mutually exclusive ? In a typical kit lens 18mm to 55mm the aperture is 3.5 to 5.6. Is it possible to fix the aperture at 3.5 even for a focal length of 55mm? In my very limited experience even in the Aperture Priority mode the aperture automatically changes the moment focal length changes. I use a Nikon d 3100. I am not able to follow how the photographer can select / FIX the aperture in the A mode when it keeps changing when the focal length is adjusted?
      Sorry for the long and possibly extremely basic query but I hope you can help .
      Thanks
      Vinay

      • Vinay, yes, maximum aperture and longer focal lengths are mutually exclusive in a way when it comes to variable aperture zoom lenses, but it all depends on lens optics. On some lenses, the aperture does not change up to a certain focal length, while other lenses are at f/5.6 long before the longest focal length is reached. Unfortunately, there is no way to keep the aperture at a certain fixed value – it is the lens design and the zoom mechanism that control the aperture.

        • 24
          ) Guilherme

          Nasim, I had the same doubt as Vinay, thanks for the further explaining. For the best bokeh experience, should I prefer longer focal lenght or better to keep aperture at max?

  2. 3
    ) Sam L.Pin

    Thanks for such a wonderful post. I have another tip. Use AF-S to select the focus point on subject you want to focus on. Does this count? :)

    • Sam, both single and continuous AF modes would work fine to obtain maximum bokeh :)

      Thanks for the tip!

      • 5
        ) Girish

        Hi Nasim,

        Thanks for the great articles on photography for beginners. I have Nikon D60. Is Nikon 35mm f/1.8 AF-S is equivalent for Nikon 50mm f/1.8 for DX format? Can the Nikon 35mm lens be used for portraits? Would you recommend this lens?

        • Girish, you are most welcome! Yes, the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 is equivalent to a 50mm lens on DX, because there is a crop-factor multiplier (1.5x). The Nikon 35mm is an all-purpose lens and can also be used for portraits. Although it is not as good as the Nikon 50mm f/1.4, it is still not bad. And yes, I would absolutely recommend the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G – I love that lens.

  3. 7
    ) Girish

    Thanks for your advise. Can you please let me know which lens is better for portraits 35 mm or 50 mm?

  4. 9
    ) Nabila

    this is superb! thank you Nasim! i’m still learning and is always finding ways to learn new things and get better everytime. you’re a great help!

    • Nabila, you are most welcome and thank you for your feedback :)

  5. 11
    ) Eduardo Siqueira

    Nassin, I love bokeh pictures style. Since I started using my first DSLR I’m very excited to get good ones. I’d like to know which lens (I’m thinking of buying) should I use in my D5000 as it is a DX sensor and I think you are talking about a FX sensor in yours articles. Can I get bokeh using my 18-55 f/3.5-5.6G VR AF-S DX which came with the camera? Thanks, Eduardo.

    • Eduardo, the 18-55m will not yield good-looking bokeh. I would go for a portrait lens like the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G or Nikon 35mm f/1.8G.

      • 13
        ) Eduardo Siqueira

        Nassin, thanks for your help. Regards, Eduardo.

  6. 14
    ) Ravi Rai

    Hi Nassin,

    First of all, thank you very much for sharing very informative and sharing knowledge, I guess it’s a gift to the rest of the world from you. Thank you again.

    My question – I have D3000 and I bought Tamron 70-300mm macro lense. I love taking Bokeh pictures and its quite nice performance I am getting but the sharpness is my concers. When I take portraits the sharpness falls. So, please suggest me the perfect aperture for sharp pictures. After reading your article I am planning to buy 50mm nikor.

    Thanks & regards
    Ravi

    • Ravi,

      The Nikon 50mm will certainly help for portraits. As far as your Tamron, I would try f/8.0 to see if you can get sharp results. If you cannot, then you probably have a bad copy of the lens…

  7. 18
    ) Swami

    How do you balance between point 2 and 4? Say I am taking a portrait…I can either move very close to my subject, in which case, I will have to be completely zoomed out, OR, I can stay far and zoom in to the subject. Point 2 says I should move close to the subject, and point 4 says I should zoom in as much as possible. Given then I am able to do either, which one takes priority, point 2 or 4? Should I move as closely as possible first, then zoom in more if necessary, or should I zoom in as much as I can first, and then move closer as needed?

  8. 19
    ) Aaron

    Thank you for the interesting article. I disagree, however with saying a 50mm lens is a portrait lens. Also, fast lenses often suffer from Bokeh fringing, so with a 1.4 lens you are likely to have magenta and green halos in your Bokeh.

    • Aaron, you are right – the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 is considered a “normal” lens and some pros hate its bokeh when compared to 135mm DC or 200mm f/2. However, people that cannot afford exotic optics look for cheaper solutions and the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 or the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 are great alternatives that will create beautiful bokeh when compared to cheap consumer zoom lenses. In addition, don’t forget about the crop factor on DX bodies that affects the field of view on the 50mm equivalent to 75mm, which is a portrait range. And lastly, the above article is for beginners :)

      II will be working on a separate article on bokeh for advanced photographers very soon, after I am done with my articles on optics.

  9. Very good and succinct article. I guess learning about the interplay of these factors with different subjects and lenses is just a matter of experience. 5 and 6 are pretty much a different way to express points 1 and 4 and are often discussed in articles about bokeh, but points 2 and 3 are also very important and they don’t cost money to control. Many photographers covet super fast lenses such as the 50 1.2, when a 70-200 f4 would create gorgeous bokeh for most portraits at a more affordable price…

  10. 22
    ) gelo soriano

    This is exactly what I’ve been looking for! Thanks for the great tips/advice. =)

  11. 23
    ) ARUN

    Hi Nasim, Iam using Sigma 17-50 2.8 lens for my Nikon D7000, Can i get Bokeh and how i can obtain the maximum Bokeh?

    Thanks lot

  12. 25
    ) zdenka

    Hi Nasim,
    First, I have to write you that you are the best teacher to me. :-)
    I am using nikkor 2,8 and nikon 50mm 1,4d for my nikon D7000 and I was wondering how I can get a bokeh if I take photos of a group? If I use the lower F number, only the person would be sharp and if I higher the F number, then I am loosing the bokeh.
    Can you please help?
    Thank you

  13. 26
    ) Ahmed

    Hi Nasim

    U always post a great articles which really help like me as beginner of dslr I have a question Iam using a nikon 24-70mm 2.8 lens pls advice how can I get the maximum bokah .
    Thanks .
    Ahmed

  14. 27
    ) EricD

    I would add a little:
    The effect of foreground and background bokeh will generally be different, due to Spherical Aberration (SA). Maybe that’s why foreground objects are rarely seen defocussed ?
    http://photographylife.com/what-is-spherical-aberration
    There is a compromise between maximum sharpness and bokeh, and also between foreground and background bokeh.
    An ideal lens with no SA would defocus from a small point at focus to a uniformly-illuminated, sharp-edged circle, on either side of focus – near or far.
    People prefer a soft-edged circle, so lens designers leave a little positive SA, so that background bokeh is smooth. Inevitably, this gives the foreground bokeh a hard edge to the circles.

    Nikon make two DC-Nikkor lenses for Defocus Control with a ring that changes the SA from positive, through zero, to negative. This lets you choose smooth bokeh in front or behind, and how much to soften the maximum sharpness.
    http://www.photozone.de/Reviews/222-nikkor-af-105mm-f2-d-dc-review–test-report?start=2
    (Move the mouse cursor over [f/2 R=2][f/2 F=2] for the effect)

    Sony and Minolta produce a lens where the physical aperture itself has soft edges: a grey radially-graduated glass filter.
    This fakes the ‘Gaussian Blur’ effect that Photoshop uses to fake defocus !
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minolta_STF_135mm_f/2.8_T4.5_lens
    It is possible to DIY
    http://www.fredmiranda.com/forum/topic/1041243
    http://www.4photos.de/camera-diy/Apodization-Filter.html
    but shooting through film will be blurry.
    Mount the film in (RI matching) oil in a glazed 35mm slide mount ?

  15. 28
    ) Laani

    Hi Nasim,

    These are really very useful tips for beginers!
    Appreciate if you can teach me some basic setting for Nikon D7100.

    Thanks,
    Laani

  16. 29
    ) Gena

    Finally an explanation I can understand! Thanks….

  17. brilliant article. Thank you Nasim!

  18. 31
    ) Angie

    Thanks for info. Could you please tell me how to get bokeh with two people in the picture. I have a canon rebel t3i. I am using a 50mm 1.8 lens. When I do one person is in focus and the other person is out of focus. They are side by side. Thanks

    • 32
      ) vishwa

      Thanks a lot for the wonderful advice for beginners like me

  19. 33
    ) Bijunarayanan

    Thanks you,

  20. 34
    ) Geordie

    What would the ISO on a 35mm camera (Nikon FE) be set to? 1/1000th of a second with f/2?

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