President of International Press Association. I have worked with photographers around the world. I teach them that you learn by doing.
How to Shoot Beautiful Soft-Focus Backgrounds and Get Beautiful Bokeh Too
Years ago, most photographers would purchase a 35mm SLR (single-lens reflex) camera that came with what they called a normal 50mm f1.8 or F1.4 lens.
Zoom lenses were usually very heavy, expensive, and not that sharp, so we learned to use our normal lenses on our cameras to produce some pretty amazing results. One other reason was the film available for our cameras were usually pretty slow, and that meant you would shoot with 100-200 ASA film that required a very fast lens.
When we say a lens is fast, it means the lens, due to lens design, optics, and mechanics, has the ability to accept a great deal of light when the lens is wide open.
You will want to shoot at 125 to 250 of a second to prevent camera shake; you need these fast lenses that won't need as much light to give you a good exposure.
We have digital cameras that can shoot at 3200 ASA or higher, and even though the results might be noisy (we use to call that grain with film), we deal with it.
Manufacturers of cameras and lenses figured out they could sell you a more expensive zoom lens, even if it was slow (F4.5-5.6), and you would be fine.
The problem is not only zooms are much heavier than a fixed focal length lens, but they also require more light and higher speeds to record the images properly. They won't give you those same beautifully soft backgrounds in the images you shoot as the F1.8, 1.4, or 1.2 lenses will.
What Is Bokeh?
The beautiful, out-of-focus patterns in the background of a photo are known as bokeh. Those out-of-focus patterns have different patterns based on the shutter in your lens or added filters used to achieve various patterns. It is the out-of-focus patterns of light that are called bokeh.
So if you want to take photos that have nice bokeh, you might want to purchase an inexpensive 50mm, f2.8 lens, or faster f1.8 lens, both guaranteed to give you those razor-sharp images with beautiful, soft, out-of-focus backgrounds.
I am going to tell you the steps to take amazing shots like my samples with these inexpensive lenses and save your back from carrying around a heavy camera with a large zoom lens.
If you don't have a decent digital SLR that will allow you to change your lens, you need to get one.
There are many excellent cameras available today, and if you are just upgrading from a point-and-shoot digital camera, you can purchase a great new DSLR from about $400 for the body up to thousands. I would say spending about $600–800 will give you a really nice camera.
How to Select Your Lens
If you are purchasing the camera, I would suggest purchasing the body only so you can decide which lenses you really need. Generally, the zoom lens they pack with cameras today is not the best, but they are inexpensive, so you want to know what lenses you will need for the type of shooting you will be doing.
Manufacturers usually pack a modest zoom lens in their kits. The most common is the 18mm to 55mm lens. If you buy a small, lightweight fixed focal length 50mm lens, it just might be more useful depending on what you shoot. Some kits also include a modest telephoto zoom as well, usually a 55mm–200mm focal length zoom. This is a decision you will have to make based on your photographic needs and wallet.
To achieve the great soft focus and bokeh you see here, you will want to purchase your camera manufacturer's 50mm or similar F1.8 lens ($130). If money is not a consideration I would suggest buying the new Tamron SP35 or 45mm F1.8 Prime lens. These very fast lenses are called Prime Lenses as opposed to Zoom Lenses because they are a fixed focal length lens. The cost of the lens is $600, so if you are on a budget, get the manufacturer's 50mm F1.8, it will be fine.
Today, I shoot with a Nikon D7200 DSLR camera and the Tamron SP35mm F1.8 Prime Lens. Of course, this lens cost $600, but it is wonderful, and I do shoot professionally.
I have shot with my Nikons with the Nikkor F1.8 Lens for years, and the lens works great. I love to shoot available light shots. A glass of ice tea can look like a work of art shot with this lens.
Soft-Focus Image Gallery
Taking Soft-Focus Photos
Now assuming you have your DSLR and your fast 50mm lens, you want to start to shoot some portraits or other subjects where you intentionally want the background to go soft and out of focus.
This is great for shooting portraits, product shots, food, any shot where you want sharp detail going to a soft background.
Shooting to Get Bokeh
We also like to get shots with nice bokeh in our photos like the samples above.
You will be setting your camera to shoot in the A mode, which is aperture priority mode. The reason to shoot in this mode is we want to have the lens opened wide either all the way to F1.8. By opening wide, you will have the smallest depth of field.
Set the Camera for Manual
Now set the focus to manual instead of leaving it at automatic.
The reason for this is that your depth of field, the distance beyond or in front of the sharpest focus point that will still be in focus, will be quite shallow. If the lens is open all the way to F1.8, and you are focused on your subjects eyes (an example) then you may start to see the photo get soft in a couple of inches to the front of his eyes to the back.
Look at this sample of Levi, a beautiful Great Dane, and you will see I focused on his left eye, which is sharp, and if you look beyond that eye, you will see everything else goes soft and out of focus.
Adjust Lens Opening for Best Effect
Practice with your lens, and be sure to keep the focus sharp on the point in the photo you want to be sharp. If you are shooting a scene and need a little more depth of field, then close the lens down from F1.8 to either F2.8, F4, or F5.6 and see if those lens openings work better for you.
The higher the F number the less light is getting into the camera and the larger the depth of field, so if you need a longer DOF, then simply adjust the lens opening of the camera.
If you really want to impress other photographers with your knowledge of photography, when you see a nice photo with good bokeh, tell them that. They will look at you like you are speaking another language unless they are pros too.
You can read an extensive article I wrote on this subject using software to produce bokeh. You will see samples of my work and how I took these shots that now look like they were shot with a 50mm lens.
Other Camera Settings
Your camera will set the proper shutter speed for the correct exposure in the A mode, so you won't have to worry about getting the proper exposures.
You can determine where you want the photo to start to go out of focus using your lens openings to change the DOF (Depth of Field)
When you review your images on your DSLR, enlarge them to see what is in and what is out of focus. It is hard to do on some of these small screens, so just click on the button that allows you to enlarge the images in the review mode.
You should be fine with an F1.8 lens which should cost about $125–150. If you are a pro then you could do as I did and spend $500 or more for a Prime Lens like my Tamron SP35mm or 45mm F1.8 lens. Unless you are a pro where cost is not an issue, I would advise you to stay with the F1.8 lens.
Note: You can also get Bokeh from a zoom lens, but you will have to shoot where the background that you want to go soft will have to be quite a long way in the distance.
Remember, the smaller your aperture on your lens, the wider the depth of field is. So on a lens shooting at f5.6 or f8, you may have to be a block away to have that background go soft. On a 50mm F1.8 lens, you could go to a soft background that is literally inches away from the point of sharpest focus.
Remember that a fixed focal length lens (50mm vs. a zoom like an 18-135 or similar) means you will have to move in and out to frame your shots, a zoom will do that for you in the lens. So expect to do this with your 50mm Lenses.
Mithun Nair on April 05, 2016:
This article gave me all possible knowledge that I had to obtain about the inexpensive 50mm prime lens.
Jenn Dixon from PA on December 18, 2015:
I have comparable Canon lens like the one your are describing. It's great! I don't use it enough.
Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on December 12, 2015:
I'm glad I happened on to your post here! You have given some very good information and explained it very well. I have been taking pictures for years but I always enjoy well written "how to" photography posts!
Seraph from Canada on January 06, 2015:
I got a DSLR camera and extended lens for Christmas, but have not had much success with taking good pictures.. well a couple I took of my granny turned out. I am going to try this tomorrow, thanks for the lesson!
infoweekly from South Africa on October 23, 2014:
Had a 50mm for years it was my first prime lens and it's an amazing lens. 100% worth purchasing
Jenn Dixon from PA on August 20, 2014:
I have the Canon f1.8 50mm lens. It's plastic, but the price was right and I love it.
Mary Beth Granger from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA on August 20, 2014:
I just bought a new 50 mm 1.8 for my Sony A57 and I love it. The bokeh effect is so easy to get with this lens. Thanks for all your tips.
Shyron E Shenko from Texas on August 13, 2014:
Len, great info, on how to take pictures. this is very useful information and I will bookmark this for the furture.
Voted up, UI and shared.
Chris Mills from Traverse City, MI on November 10, 2012:
I bought a Sony Alpha 390 last winter and the first lens, other than the kit lens, that I bought was a Minolta Maxxum 50mm f1.7. I'm loving it. I am new to this level of photography, but the fun is in the learning. I also just purchased a maxxum 70-210mm f4 and a maxxum 28-105mm f3.5-4.5. Thanks for the helpful hub, especially the instruction on bokeh. Up and useful
Len Rapoport (author) from New Jersey on September 29, 2012:
Here is the issue...the depth of field or focus is very shallow when you have the lens opened all the way to f1.8. If you want both eyes to appear sharp simply set your lens opening to f5.6 or even f8 and see how that looks. The larger the lens opening, the smaller the depth of focus is. So it might only be one or two inches when you are shooting a close up portrait and the second eye could be more then the inch and then starts to go soft. Why not have the subject simply turn toward your camera so both eyes are at the same distance from your lens?
Ashok898 on September 26, 2012:
Thanks for the information, I like know i have a 50 mm 1.8 DX AF, i face a lot of problem in focus mainly when i shoot the portrait and try to place the depth on both the eyes, a lot of time I failed as depth at one eye is good but at other eye it is not ok, what should I do so every time i click depth should be great at both the eyes
Len Rapoport (author) from New Jersey on July 02, 2012:
No need to get the F1.4 lens for a lot more money unless you feel you want more glass, a heavier lens and less then a half f stop faster. With the digital cameras today, you really won't see any real difference in the quality of the shots, but you will pay a lot more for the lens. Stay with your f1.8 lens and enjoy the great price and the great images.
TrahnTheMan from Asia, Oceania & between on February 08, 2012:
I received a 50mm f1.8 and it's absolutely gorgeous! Highly recommended. Interestingly I have used a Nikon mount Zeiss ZF f1.4 on my Canon but at wide open my shots had a hazy Days of Our Lives softness , which I could only remove by stopping down, which of course undermines the purpose of a fast lens. Apparently this problem is common to a lot of adapter rings, unfortunately. ANyway I'm pretty excited now to try the 1.8. I like your advice Len to try the 1.8 before diving into the deeper end (pocket?) and getting a 1.4 straight away. Thanks for the really helpful hub.
Len Rapoport (author) from New Jersey on August 31, 2010:
Visit my new blog for an updated article on this subject.
photolenses on August 31, 2010:
Wonderful insight on camera Ienses! truly valued your Hub! I would like to view a lot more before long?
Peter from Australia on March 04, 2010:
Len great information I've never heard of Bokeh before but will read you Hub a few times more and let it sink in some :-)
Len Rapoport (author) from New Jersey on August 27, 2009:
A couple of differences. One is the speed of the lens. The 1.4 Lens is a faster lens, hence less light required. It has more glass, so it is heavier and the cost is quite a bit more, probably double on most lenses. Some swear by the F1.4 lens because of the beautiful Bokeh wide open and the nice transitions between colors, but for most of us, the F1.8 Lens will do the trick and you can buy most of them at around $130 for a digital camera. Unless you are selling your work and going to write off the cost from your tax returns, I would buy the f1.8, use it and then if you decide you must have the f1.4, go for it. You can always sell the other lens on eBay, Amazon or Craig's list and get most of what you originally paid for it.
bayareagreatthing from Bay Area California on August 27, 2009:
Thanks for the overview. Very interesting. I have heard great things about the 50mm. It will be the next lens in my bag. One thing I haven't been able to get an answer on is the major differences between the 1.8 and the 1.4- and thoughts?
Darlene Sabella from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ... on August 27, 2009:
Wow, what an excellent article. I give you 1000 points, and the first picture of the dog, with the light, is so awesome. Len you write so perfectly, give me classes LOL Thank you