LOGIN/SIGN UP function is disabled for upgrade and maintenance. It will resume on 22/01/2022 10.30 AM SGT. Sorry for any inconvenience caused.
Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials In Focus: Aperture Settings for Various Scenes- Part2

Aperture-Priority AE Technique #2: Create Background Bokeh for a Warm, Friendly Family Photo

Want to capture that warm, fuzzy feel of family? Try creating a bokeh effect in the background! It not only draws the viewer's eye to facial expressions, but also gives the shot a softer atmosphere. Read on to learn more about the difference it makes. (Reported by: Teppei Kohno)

Family portrait with background bokeh

1. How does background bokeh change a family portrait?
2. Examples: f/3.5 (maximum aperture) v.s f/8
3. Equipment tip: Faster lens, stronger bokeh
4. Step-by-step instructions: How to set maximum aperture


In family portraits, facial expressions should take centrestage—not the background!

When both the background and the people being photographed are in focus, the viewer's eye tends to be drawn to the background, and they will pay less attention to the facial expressions of the human subjects.

But in portraits of people, especially of families and children, the faces play a starring role. You want to capture facial expressions as well as possible, and you want them to be the centre of attention.

To make the background less distracting, blur it out by creating background bokeh

We learned a bit about bokeh in the previous article. Bokeh is also very useful for simplifying the background by blurring out details so that the background is less overpowering. In portraiture, a strong bokeh effect results in a soft focus feel that makes facial expressions look gentler and friendlier.

Here's how to do it:

1. Use Aperture-priority AE mode.
2. Use the smallest f-number possible on your lens.

Click here to jump to step-by-step instructions

Know this: The smallest f-number on your lens is also known as its maximum aperture. The smaller the f-number, the stronger the background bokeh effect. 

Learn more about aperture in: [Lesson 3] Learning about Aperture

Tip: Get the people in the portrait to stand at about the same distance from the camera

If there are differences in the distance between each person and the camera, some people will be in focus but others will be out of focus. As much as possible, get everyone to stand on the same focal plane, i.e, about the same distance from the camera.

See the difference: Maximum aperture v.s f/8

Smiling little girl in playground with background bokeh
FL: 28mm/ f/3.5/ 1/1000 sec./ ISO 200/ WB: Auto

This was taken using the maximum aperture on a kit lens. The large background bokeh effect makes the child's facial expression the focus of the photo. The child's face is also depicted in a soft manner.

Smiling little girl in playground without background bokeh
FL: 28mm/ f/8/ 1/125 sec./ ISO 200/ WB: Auto

In this shot, a lot of things are in focus, including the details of the surroundings. Because there are so many other things that our eyes get drawn to, the child doesn't stand out as much. Her face is also depicted with more shadow detail, which makes the atmosphere slightly different.

Equipment tip: To get a stronger bokeh effect, use a faster lens

If you are using your kit lens, chances are that it is a standard zoom lens with a maximum aperture of about f/3.5 or f/4. This is usually good enough for taking family photos,but if you are shooting only one or a few people, you might want to create stronger bokeh in the background.

Some ways to do this include shooting closer to the subject and choosing a background that is further away. However, this is not always possible for the shooting situation. For example, if you shoot too close, the subject might feel uncomfortable. You might also not be able to frame them the way that you want.

This is when using a faster lens (i.e., a lens with a wider maximum aperture) helps.

One lens to consider is the EF50mm f/1.8 STM: With its very fast maximum aperture of f/1.8, it is capable of a very shallow depth-of-field, which results in a stronger bokeh effect. Furthermore, it is compact, lightweight and reasonably priced. If you love creating bokeh and take lots of portrait and street photos, this is a good addition to your gear.


EF50mm f/1.8 STM


f/1.8 at 50mm
Two girls in field with creamy f/1.8 bokeh
FL: 50mm/ f/1.8/ 1/1250 sec./ ISO 100/ WB: Auto

This was shot at the maximum aperture of the EF50mm f/1.8 STM. Notice the strong bokeh effect in the background.

f/5.6 (maximum aperture at 50mm on kit lens)
Two girls in field with f/5.6 bokeh
FL: 50mm/ f/5.6/ 1/125 sec./ ISO 100/ WB: Auto

This was shot with the maximum aperture possible at 50mm on my 18-55mm kit lens. As the background bokeh is not as strong, the children's faces don't command as much attention.

Pro tip: Use Face Detection and Eye Detection AF to help you nail focus

The shallow depth-of-field at very wide apertures like f/1.8 can make it hard to get the faces fully in focus. Use Face Detection (and Eye Detection AF if your camera has it) to help you set focus on the face/eye that is closest to you. As above, it is best if you can get everyone in the picture to be on the same focal plane.

How to set the maximum aperture

*Images are for illustration only. Your camera’s dials and buttons may look slightly different!


1. Set the camera to the [Av] mode

Mode dial on DSLR

Turn [ON] the power supply and adjust the Mode Dial to the [Av] mode.


2. Turn the Main Dial

Main dial on DSLR

Turn the Main Dial to the left to change the f-number to the smallest value.


3. Check that the f-number has been changed to that of the maximum aperture

Quick Control menu on DSLR

On rear LCD screen during OVF shooting on a DSLR

f-number display in Live View

During Live View/EVF shooting

The current f-number will appear as circled. Check that the f-number has changed before taking the picture.


The next time you take photos with your family outdoors, try shooting with and without background bokeh. Do you see the difference? Feel free to share them with us on My Canon Story.


To have even more fun with bokeh, check out the following articles:
4 Easy Steps to Capture Those Elusive Bokeh Circles!
Built-in Flash Techniques #6: Magical Bokeh Circles on a Rainy Day
How to Create a Sparkly Background with Bokeh Circles for Pretty Trinket Pictures


Receive the latest update on photography news, tips and tricks.

Be part of the SNAPSHOT Community.

Sign Up Now!

Teppei Kohno

Teppei Kohno

Born in Tokyo in 1976, Kohno graduated with a Social Work degree from the Department of Sociology of Meiji Gakuin University, and apprenticed with photographer Masato Terauchi. He contributed to the first issue of photography magazine PHaT PHOTO and became an independent photographer after that, in 2003. The author of many books, Kohno not only shoots all sorts of commercial photographs, but also writes prolifically for camera and other magazines.