To achieve massive and creamy bokeh, one of the first things we learn is to use a wide aperture. But there are several other ways that might just as effective. Do you know them all?
1. Maximize focal length
This one is pretty basic, but I am surprised by how many photographers aren’t familiar with it. If you keep composition, aperture and all other things equal, a longer focal length will give you creamier bokeh. That is why many wildlife shots taken with 400mm telephoto lenses have an extremely blurry bokeh, even at an aperture of f/4.0 or f/5.6. Look at the comparison above between a 50mm and a 150mm focal length.
2. Maximize aperture (lower f-number)
Everyone knows this one, right? But the list wouldn’t be complete without it. The lower the f-number, ie. the larger the aperture – the creamier the background blur in your photo. See the comparison above (which proves that you can get decent bokeh even at f/3.5, if you follow the next tip).
3. Minimize distance to subject
The reason macro photos have such epic bokeh, is because they were taken with the lens focusing very closely, a foot from the lens or less. To get great bokeh, you have to minimize your distance to the subject. This is why it is pretty much impossible to take photos of a tree with nice background bokeh, as you will have to have some distance from a tree to get it all in. I have to admit I tried several times as a photography newbie, to photograph a tree at f/1.4, to get nice bokeh behind it. I never quite got it to work.
4. Maximize distance to background
Just as important as minimizing your distance to the subject, is to maximize the distance between the subject and the background. That is why big empty fields, or water, are perfect places to take the most bokehlicious photos. A good rule of thumb is to always have the distance between the camera and the subject be shorter than the distance between the subject and the background, if I want any bokeh to speak of.
5. Maximize sensor size
There is a reason full frame cameras are popular, beyond the low light capabilities. The bigger the sensor, the shorter the depth of field, and also the creamier the bokeh. See the comparison above between my full frame Sony A7 and an iPhone 7 Plus. The aperture is the same, the focal length equivalent is close to the same, and the composition is the same. The difference in sensor size and background blur is huge.
6. Panorama Bokeh
As we already know, one of the best ways to get nice bokeh is to stand close to the subject. This typically makes your subject take up the majority of the frame. But what if we want the subject to take up just a small portion of the frame, while simultaneously having creamy background bokeh? This is hard to accomplish, but there is a trick.
Lock your focus on your subject. You must ensure that the point of focus does not change between shots. The easiest way is to simply switch to manual focus and then focus on your subject. Now take a series of shots, both of your subject and of the background around it. Make sure that there is some overlap between the shots.
In Lightroom, mark all the photos and use the Merge feature. Lightroom is impressively good at stitching together shots, and you will end up with one photo with a large, bokehlicious background.
7. Blur the background in Photoshop
When everything else fails, you can always get some “bokeh” with the help of Photoshop. For details see the video, but in essence: Make a selection around your subject. Then expand the selection by ~20 pixels. Then feather the selection by as many pixels as you expanded it. Then invert the selection and use Gaussian Blur on the background. In most cases, you will get a beautiful bokeh effect, or you will at least be able to enhance a weak bokeh.
About the Author
Micael Widell is a photography enthusiast based in Sweden. He runs a YouTube channel about photography, where he posts lens reviews, DIY tips, and photo walks regularly