Have you ever taken a photo, glanced at your LCD and thought, “how on earth did I get those cool looking spherical shapes in my background?” Discovering the beauty of bokeh photography, even if it’s by accident, can open up a whole new world for creativity and can act as a guide to understanding how to read lighting conditions in order to achieve the bokeh effect.

What is Bokeh?

To start off, what is bokeh? Bokeh is Japanese for the aesthetic quality of the blur in the out-of-focus areas of an image produced by a lens. Simply put, it is the portion of your photo that is not in focus, also known as your depth of field. Switching your lens to M and focusing manually until you start seeing the round shapes is by all means the easiest way to achieve a bokeh image. Although this is not incorrect per say, it does lack creativity and your image could do with a foreground or subject in focus to make the bokeh really eye-catching.

Chirstmas tree bokeh

Photo Credit – Nicolette Louw

How do you know what photographic backdrops will make eye-catching bokeh backgrounds?  Your have two options, Artificial- and Natural light.

1. Artificial

The artificial lighting technique leaves one with many options to play around with and the key here is to have a subject in focus so that your shallow depth of field will produce a bokeh effect. Be on the lookout for locations that feature a lot of lighting such as outdoor restaurants and cafés or street lights. Twinkle lights, as well as candlelight, will be your best friend in this endeavour. Remember that your camera may have trouble focusing on a subject if it’s too dark and the best way around this hurdle, is to take a torch with you (having a friend tag along as an unofficial assistant can’t hurt!) Shine your torch on your subject and let your camera focus. Once your camera has focused, switch your lens to manual, turn off your torch and snap your picture. (P.S. a smartphone’s torch will suffice too!)

Girl in black dress with bokeh background

Photo Credit – Nicolette Louw

Wedding details bokeh

Photo Credit – Nicolette Louw

Bokeh Candlelight

Photo Credit – Nicolette Louw


Finding bokeh backdrops in nature is not as in abundance as on a street-lit sidewalk but is relatively more straightforward than one would think: bokeh in nature is aided by knowing how to read lighting conditions. Generally, the best outcome would be to have your subject behind the light and the light reflections bouncing off leaves will create the spherical shapes but the best bokeh achievement in nature certainly has to be the combination of water and light. Sun rays falling on water will naturally give a shimmering effect, similar to artificial lighting, and with a proper depth of field setting, nature will paint a bokeh canvas for you.

Portraits with natural bokeh

Photo Credit – Nicolette Louw

Tips to remember:

  • The mode of choice should be to shoot in aperture or manual mode.
  • The best way to achieve bokeh is to have a fast lens with a wide aperture of f/2.8 or less but if you lack such a lens, take a few steps back and give some distance between your subject and background.
  • On that tip, it’s not always about the prime lenses. With a telephoto lens, zooming in on your subject will separate it from the rest of the scene and should leave you with beautiful bokeh.
  • Scout an area that you think has potential bokeh offerings. Test out your backgrounds by focusing on random objects or subjects in the vicinity. You can even hold up your hand in front on your camera and focus on it to see what your background would look like. (People in passing might think you’re nuts but one has to do what one has to do to get the shot!)
  • Bokeh is not always just about the background. Play around and see if you can create a funky foreground too.
  • Add a little something extra by customising bokeh shapes in your images. Outline your lens cap on black paper and cut it out. Then, snip a shape of choice in the middle of your circular black piece of paper, tape it over your lens and voila! Your bokeh will be whatever shape you have cut out.




detail shot of grass with water droplets bokeh

Photo Credit – Nicolette Louw

Flower detail shots with natural bokeh

Photo Credit – Nicolette Louw