Rat snake bokeh example.

This originally started out as a mistake, I wanted more of the snake in focus. But after I reviewed the image on the camera, I immediately shot another 100 shots in the same style.

How to Get Great Bokeh – Free Lesson 3

In this Lesson, I’ll cover that somewhat elusive magical image feature… BOKEH!


What is Bokeh? Wait, first, how do you pronounce Bokeh?

Bo (long o) keh. In Japanese, the word Boke means hazy, blurry. When Japanese say Bokeh, they almost pronounce it like bouquet (of flowers) – but not quite. See, the bokeh word is almost as nebulous as the dreamy effect it produces.


OK, so what is Bokeh?

Bokeh is that rich buttery smooth blur effect behind the subject that people go crazy over.


Here are some examples of frontal and rear (background) bokeh…

A blue thrush with circular bokeh example.

Blue thrush with circular bokeh behind… some green, some white.

White butterfly bokeh trees example.

White butterfly with circular smooth bokeh – lime green, yellow, and white.

Front bokeh example with an owl in the rainforest.

Front bokeh is interesting too. It’s harder to control, but it gives a very dreamy effect… a spying effect. It’s like you’re looking at something that can’t see you. You’re hiding in the shadows and sneaking the shot. Kind of a cool bokeh effect.


What is the effect of bokeh, and what is it used for?

Bokeh brilliantly separates the subject from the background, creating a dream-like effect which can make the subject look especially good.

In the past, and I’m talking 30 years ago when I got started in professional photography in New York City in 1988, bokeh was not all that common – except with certain lenses. I remember this photographer I worked for had a lens that was phenomenal for bokeh on the 35mm Nikon cameras he used (F3’s I think they were). Which lens? Nikkor 180mm F/2.8. This lens was full of massive glass that to me at the time, was pure magic.

There was something magical about that lens and the 135mm F/2 for portrait photography. Then, there was the 300mm F/2.8. Incredible bokeh effects with all of these lenses. These were lenses that were FAR out of my price range back then, but today, most of us who are into photography can afford a lens that creates great bokeh. My 100mm F/2.8 Tokina macro lens has incredibly nice bokeh, and my 70-300mm F/5.6 lens also creates some very acceptable bokeh. Anyway, there are so many lenses that are capable of it. If the bokeh effect is important to you, make sure you research your lens online or YouTube before purchasing.


Below, I’ll show you below how to create bokeh with your wildlife photography.


2 Ways to Create Bokeh

1.) Wide-open Apertures. Shooting at apertures like F/1.8, F/2.0, F/2.8 can give you a nice bokeh – regardless how far you are from the subject (within reason, and depending on the lens), or how far the subject is from the background.

2.) Shooting close to subject with a background far away. It’s possible to get great bokeh even shooting at F/11. Really. You just need to get very close to the subject and make sure the background is far away.


Bokeh, the Finer Points

One tip not many people talk about, but if you want the absolute best bokeh – know that:

More Blades in the lens = Better.

The number of blades in the diaphragm of your lens – creating the aperture, the opening to let light through, is better – more circular, less angular – when there are more blades. A 9-bladed aperture is best because it takes the straight lines out of the circular highlights in the bokeh – and it looks fantastic.

Glistening drops of dew, or other highlights in the background or foreground = awesome bokeh.

One cool effect of bokeh is that it distorts highlights in some cases, making them look like glowing balls of light. The effect is spectacular. You can see it in many Christmas tree photos as the lights on the tree behind, when blurred, can look dazzling.  Some nature photographers bring spray bottles with them that they mist plants with to create this effect. It’s used often in the studio too – sometimes just using a mass of tiny lights to accomplish what the sun does outside.


Green and yellow background bokeh in a butterfly flower shot.

Bokeh blurs out the entire background. Things which are closer – can seem clearer – like the little stick on the left side toward the top and the lower straw under the flower going horizontal. The contrast of the butterfly’s wing with the bokeh makes a nice effect. In this case, the green and yellow of the background bokeh matches the green and yellow of the flower the butterfly is on. This may or may not be ideal. I typically like to get a different color background, but I shoot anything if that’s what is available. 


See all Wildlife Photography Pro Courses here >

Free Lesson 1 – Gear Primer >

Free Lesson 2 – How to Take Razor Sharp Photos >

Free Lesson 4 – Macro Tips >

Free Lesson 5 – 12 Pro Wildlife Photography Tips >




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