Creative tips for artistic bokeh effects

There's more to bokeh than blurred backgrounds. TikTok content creator Rosie Lugg demonstrates how to play with light and custom cutouts to make your images unique.
A person placing their hand onto the shiny side of a CD, with bokeh star shapes surrounding them.

Bokeh has become a buzzword in creative circles. From the Japanese word for 'blur', it describes the quality of defocused areas within images. Good bokeh is a key factor in the technique of isolating the main point of interest within a scene by blurring the surroundings, so it's particularly effective in portraiture and still life images. You can find out more in our beginners' guide to bokeh.

Beautiful bokeh is a central element of Rosie Lugg's shooting style. As well as being an accomplished photographer, Rosie is a keen TikTok creator, posting helpful how-to videos that take aspiring photographers through new tips and tricks, step by step. Here, she explains how to get creative with bokeh, elevating it from a mere blur effect to something truly artistic.

1. Choose your kit

The ability to defocus foreground or background areas within a scene is vital for the bokeh effect. You need a shallow depth of field, but this can be difficult to achieve if you're shooting with a smartphone. It's easy to produce bokeh by using a camera with a large image sensor, like in many Canon mirrorless cameras, or through using lenses with wide apertures or even telephoto lenses.

Any Canon camera is capable of producing images with good bokeh, and Rosie relies on her Canon EOS 200D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 250D) to do just that, but a full-frame camera such as the Canon EOS RP or EOS R6 are also sufficient. Fast prime lenses are ideal and there are some excellent options, such as the Canon EF 50mm F1.8 STM.

EOS R System options include the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM, which gives a very natural perspective. For a wider angle of view, the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM is a good choice, whereas for portraiture, the Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM is perfect. Its short telephoto focal length enables a comfortable shooting distance, without crowding your subject, and it has a flattering, slightly flattened perspective. Both of these macro lenses have a very short minimum focusing distance, which also helps to give a really tight depth of field.

The appearance of bokeh is also affected by the number of aperture blades in your lens – generally, the more the better for attractive circular bokeh. The Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM and the Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM have nine aperture blades, while the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM has seven.

2. Cut and stick

A hand drawing a line around a lens placed face down on a sheet of paper.

Rosie says, "The template needs to fit the front of your lens so it's easiest to simply draw a line around it and cut it out." © Rosie Lugg

A hand holding up a Canon EOS 200D in front of a wall covered in fairy lights. A star-shaped paper cutout has been placed over the lens.

To avoid using gaffer tape and having a sticky lens afterwards why not try Rosie's method using folding. "I cut out my template with foldable tabs and popped a hairband around it to hold it in place." © Rosie Lugg

"I love adding a bit of magic to my shots with custom-shaped bokeh elements," Rosie continues. "They're easy to create, as well. Just get a sheet of paper or card and lay it on a table, then place your lens on it, front end down, and draw an outline around the circumference. Next, cut around the outline, leaving tabs that you can fold over the end of the lens. You can use these to keep the template fixed in place with an elastic band."

"I've used two different cutouts for this project," says Rosie. "For the shot of the steaming mug of love hearts (below) I made a heart-shaped cutout, and for my self-portrait I decided on a star." Heart-shaped bokeh could give your wedding or Valentine's Day imagery a truly romantic feel, while stars would be a fun addition to birthday shots or for seasonal celebrations.

"It might take a bit of trial and error to work out the right size of cutout for the best effect, depending on the camera and lens you're using, but it'll be worth it in the end," adds Rosie. "For lenses with a shorter focal length, such as the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM, try using smaller cutouts."

3. Light it up

A trail of bokeh love hearts appear to be floating in the steam above a black and white mug.

For this atmospheric shot, Rosie positioned a steaming mug in front of a string of fairy lights, which created heart-shaped bokeh thanks to a carefully crafted cutout placed over the lens. Taken on a Canon EOS 200D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 250D) with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/1.4 and ISO400. © Rosie Lugg

A camera on a tripod positioned in front of a mug and a string of fairy lights.

Rosie used a single light source for the mug and positioned the camera on a tripod nearby. She selected a wide aperture, which helps to minimise depth of field. "The fairy lights are about 3-4 metres behind the mug. The further away you place the lights, the blurrier they'll look," she says. © Rosie Lugg

"To create bokeh shapes in your image, you'll need some lights. Each defocused light will take on the shape of your cutout, so a string of fairy lights in the background is ideal. Hang them in a line or group them together – whatever works best for the image you want to create. To light the main foreground object, you'll need a single brighter light. Don't worry if you haven't got a photographic light. A table lamp or room lighting will be fine, or you could even use daylight coming in through a window."

Rosie also likes to add a splash of colour. "One of my favourite tricks is to use an old CD to reflect the main light, so it casts different colours onto the subject. You can alter the position and angle of the disc to adjust the effect."

4. Select your settings

"To maximise blur in the background, use your lens's widest aperture," says Rosie. "I generally shoot in Manual (M) mode. First dial in the smallest f-number, then select a sufficiently fast shutter speed to avoid motion blur. It's best to put your camera on a tripod and use a shutter speed of at least 1/125 sec for portraits, but slower shutter speeds are OK for still life images with no movement. Preview the image in the electronic viewfinder (EVF) or rear screen of a mirrorless camera, or on the rear screen of a DLSR in Live View mode, and increase your ISO setting if the image looks too dark. I try not to go above ISO400 with my Canon EOS 200D, so shots look as detailed and noise-free as possible, but you can go a lot higher with newer Canon EOS R System mirrorless cameras."

5. Put yourself in the picture

A woman looking at a light in the foreground, leaning over a chair, holding a smartphone.

Rosie used the Canon Camera Connect app on her phone to control the camera's autofocus while she was shooting her self-portrait. © Rosie Lugg

A self-portrait of a woman with her head tilted to one side and star-shaped bokeh clustered behind her.

Here's the finished self-portrait, taken with a single light illuminating Rosie's head and shoulders, and star-shaped bokeh created by the fairy lights in the background. Taken on a Canon EOS 200D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 250D) with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/125, f/1.4 and ISO200. © Rosie Lugg

"For the self-portrait, I could have used the vari-angle screen that's featured in many Canon cameras, but I prefer using the Canon Camera Connect app on my phone," says Rosie. "It makes everything so easy. You can preview the image on your phone in real time and tap the screen to select the point on which to autofocus. For portraits, it'll generally be the eye that's closest to the camera. It's also useful to use the camera's two-second self-timer delay. That gives you enough time to put the phone down and strike a pose before the shot is actually captured."

6. Playtime

A self-portrait of a woman with star-shaped bokeh made from fairy lights clustered behind her, with a reflection of her face visible in the foreground.

Rosie used an old CD for this version of her self-portrait: "Not just to add colour but also to create a reflection which adds an extra creative element to the shot." Taken on a Canon EOS 200D with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/125, f/1.4 and ISO200. © Rosie Lugg

A pair of hands wearing rings, with star-shaped bokeh in the background.

Rosie is a big advocate of experimentation. "Hands can make an interesting and expressive foreground subject," she explains. "I love playing around with different gestures and shapes." Taken on a Canon EOS 200D with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/125, f/1.4 and ISO200. © Rosie Lugg

Once you've mastered the basics, you could use the same techniques to give your portraits of friends and family a distinct look. Rosie says it pays to play around with your setup. "You can dramatically change the look and feel of images just by slightly altering the position of the subject and camera or shooting from different angles. Altering the distance between the foreground object and the fairy lights in the background can have an even bigger impact. I love adding extra props and different coloured lighting to set the mood. Just let your imagination run riot."

Inspired by these creative techniques? Watch Rosie's tips for using bokeh shapes to create beautiful light effects on TikTok and then have a go at adding some fun effects to your own images. Share the results with the hashtag #FreeYourStory and tag @canonemea.

Written by Matthew Richards

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