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How to create a beautiful bokeh effect

Bokeh allows you to produce really interesting effects in your photography, especially at night. Award-winning Australian Geographic photographer Chris Bray explains what a bokeh effect is and shares his five rules for experimenting with bokeh to achieve beautiful and interesting images.

What is a bokeh effect?

The word ‘bokeh’ is derived from the Japanese word, which means ‘blur’. In photography it lends its name to the experimental technique of covering your lens with a cutout shape to achieve the aesthetic quality of out-of-focus blur in a photograph.

What are the rules to taking a beautiful bokeh picture?

There are five key rules to follow that will help you enjoy experimenting with bokeh effects for excellent images, especially when shooting at night.

1. Use a cutout to create your bokeh effect

The cutout masks the shape of the aperture but only affects out-of-focus highlights in the photo. This is because the in-focus elements actually pass through the very pinhole centre of the lens. The out-of-focus elements pass through more of the outer regions of the lens where the aperture or bokeh hood can impact their shape.

2. Choosing the right lens is really important

A good starting point is a 50mm or longer lens, because wider angle lenses don’t work as well. Remember that as this is a really experimental technique you may need to try a few different lenses until you find one that works for you.

3. Increase your ISO to let in the light

The bokeh hood really cuts down the amount of light entering your camera so increasing your ISO to 800 or more really helps. Because the hood is so close to the lens any small movement can create blur. A tripod is good to use and the in-camera self-timer mode also helps avoid camera shake. Set your camera to AV (aperture value) or M (manual) and shoot on your largest aperture value, which is the smallest f-stop number.

4. Set your camera to manual focus before adding the bokeh hood

Manual focus helps the camera avoid confusion when the bokeh hood is right in front of it. Then carefully tear back the tabs of the bokeh hood just enough to loosen it to neatly fit over the lens diameter. Wrap the tabs around the lens and secure it with an elastic band. Ensure the hood is flush against the front of the lens and the cutout shape is right in the centre. It doesn't matter how you secure it, so long as you remember those two things. On some lenses you may need to squeeze the bokeh hood to physically grip the lens to be out of focus.

5. Then it’s time to enjoy experimenting

To further explore the bokeh technique, simply cut out any shape from a bit of non-reflective paper or card. Then first test your skills at night – start by composing traffic, city or Christmas lights then add a background focus and you’ll be able to see the effect when you're looking through the camera's eyepiece before you even take the shot. Try adding in an in-focus foreground element. If you’re not happy with your results, try a larger shape or a smaller angle lens. The images that bokeh produces are very rewarding so keep experimenting.