How to Create a Beautiful Bokeh

Anyone who spends time looking at wildlife photographs will have seen examples where the subject appears to “pop” out of the soft, blurred background. This is known as the bokeh effect. Bokeh is defined as the “effect of a soft out-of-focus background that you get when shooting a subject, using a wide aperture”.

It comes as no surprise then that this is a highly sought-after technique. An image of an animal with a distracting background full of sticks is rarely a good one. (This is not to say that including environment in an image is a bad thing – that’s an entirely different technique).

Immature Little Owl
The owl “pops” from the image, thanks to the soft bokeh. Taken at 400mm, f/4, 1/200.

The factors that affect the bokeh are:

  • Aperture
  • Distance between subject and background
  • Distance between subject and camera
  • Focal length of the lens

Aperture

To create the softest bokeh, you want to have the widest aperture you can (lowest f-stop number). This is because your depth of field becomes much shallower, causing the background to become more out-of-focus. This is what helps to give that smooth bokeh.

Thus, it goes without saying that the perfect lenses for this technique are the f/2.8 telephotos. However, don’t panic if your lens isn’t that wide. Just select your lowest f-stop possible, and then follow the points below.

Distance Between the Subject and the Background

Another big factor contributing towards the bokeh effect is how far your subject is from the physical background. The greater the distance, the softer the bokeh. This is helpful to know, but not easy to implement due to the nature of wildlife photography. I doubt many animals would stick around long if you tried to pick them up and move them a little further away.

If you are photographing in hides though, then you are in luck. Most birds and mammals are lured into feeding stations using bait. By strategically placing the bait further from the background, you are likely to get your subject further away too. However, please read our “Ethics of Wildlife Photography” before trying to influence animals.

Distance Between the Subject and the Camera

You’ve probably already guessed that the closer your camera is to the subject, the softer the bokeh. Combining the above point with this point will help you to maximise the potential bokeh effect you can create with your lens.

Focal Length of the Lens

A larger focal length decreases the depth of field of an aperture. For example, a 14mm lens would have a greater depth of field at f/4 than a 400mm lens would have at f/4. So, the greater the focal length, the softer the bokeh – assuming a constant aperture.

Personally, I shoot with a Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 lens, so none of my images are taken at a wider aperture than f/4. I can still achieve bokeh at much greater apertures, and that’s by paying attention to the above points.

Juvenile Shags
A wide-angle sometimes has no bokeh even at a wide aperture. Taken at 14mm, f/4, 1/1250.

Some Considerations

Not every image needs a clean bokeh. It is becoming increasingly popular to include the environment of an animal in a photo, and most people tend to use a wide-angle for this.

Don’t go out and buy the fastest telephoto on the market just to achieve a nice bokeh. It really isn’t too difficult to create a soft background with a slower lens. Just practice with the above points and you’ll be sorted in no time at all.

If you fancy a challenge, trying shooting wildlife with the very popular, yet inexpensive, Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G lens. This allows you to achieve a maximum aperture of a whopping f/1.8, and when used correctly can produce some great images. Be aware that you will need to get fairly close to your subject for this to work well. Again, please keep in mind the ethical issues when approaching wild animals. Even if you find you can’t easily create “bokeh images” this way, the lens will come in handy for when you wish to include the environment in your image, and also landscape photography.

 

Will Nicholls is the founder of Nature TTL and a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from England. Having been photographing since the age of 12, Will's images have won a string of awards, including the title of "Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year" in 2009 from the British Wildlife Photography Awards. Will is also the author of the book On the Trail of Red Squirrels.

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  • Simon

    Love the hot of the owl 😀

  • Kleintje33

    perfectly clear. Now, question: how can I make that kind of pic? the bokeh here seems to be drops of water? (let the low key technics apart)

    • Could you expand a little on your question please? I’m not sure I’m following – which aspect are you trying to create, a bokeh instead of the black area in your image?