This is a guide covering bokeh in photography.
If you haven’t heard of bokeh or seen people comment about it on social media, then you must be living under a rock (kidding…or am I?).
Bokeh is all the rage, but what is it exactly and how do you do it?
Let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
What is Bokeh?
Bokeh is the quality of out-of-focus or “blurry” elements of an image created by a camera lens, not the blur itself or the quantity of blur in the subject’s foreground or background. Simply described, bokeh is the attractive or aesthetic quality of a photograph’s out-of-focus blur.
The blur that separates a subject from the backdrop that you are so used to seeing in photography is the result of a shallow “depth of field” and is sometimes referred to as “background blur.”
The word is derived from the Japanese language and means “to blur.”
Photographers refer to the quality and feel of the background/foreground blur and reflected points of light as Bokeh.
What Creates Bokeh?
The effect of a fuzzy out-of-focus background that you obtain when shooting a subject with a fast lens at the widest aperture possible, such as f/2.8 or wider, is known as bokeh.
Portraits are the most commonly photographed topics with great examples of bokeh. Close-up portraits do a great job of displaying bokeh.
Close-up and macro photographs of flowers and other natural items are also popular themes for displaying bokeh in the image.
Photographing a gathering of holiday lights or other highly reflecting items is a common subject that is an extreme example of bokeh.
These ordinarily harsh or bright objects become soft, pastel, diffused orbs of luminous light when purposefully photographed out-of-focus.
Bokeh can soften a shot that is otherwise well lit.
Using this approach to divide your subject from the background allows you to include a less-than-photogenic background in your shot, but the diffused blur helps to “highlight,” rather than distract from, the topic.
The more blurred the backdrop (or foreground), the more likely you are to get circular bokeh.
Getting up close to a subject and maintaining the focal point far away from anything else in the background helps to create bokeh, as does shooting with a fast lens with a wide-open aperture.
Why is it Called Bokeh?
Bokeh is derived from the Japanese word ‘boke,’ which meaning ‘haze’ or ‘blur.’ The term has become synonymous with the artistic quality of an out-of-focus blur in a work of art.
Photographers should experiment with depth of field while shooting bokeh photography, as the end result is not just about getting a blurred background, but also about achieving a decent depth of focus.
Since the first photographs were shot through lenses, out-of-focus highlights have appeared in images.
The term “bokeh” was first used in the photography field in 1997 by Photo Techniques magazine, and the out-of-focus portions of images have been analyzed ever since.
There was probably debate before the phrase concerning the beauty of a photograph’s out-of-focus specular highlights, but before 1997, there was no acceptable English phrase to express the phenomena.
The hazy backdrop trend is credited to Mike Johnston, article writers Carl Weese, John Kennerdell, and Oren Grad, the Internet, and a word that no one can agree on how to pronounce.
Today, “Bokeh” is the name of a video and photography company, a movie, software, Photoshop plug-ins, film festivals, throw pillows, a Facebook page, imaginative cutout plates to cover your lens, Waterhouse plates, iPhone apps, and more.
A smartphone recently advertised its built-in camera’s ability to produce “bokeh” as a selling advantage. While the lenses in other smartphone cameras fail to produce bokeh, algorithms in their electronic brains can create artificial bokeh on photographs.
An article on employing bokeh in food photos can even be found on a nutrition website.
At the time of publication, the bokeh hashtag had been used in over 1.1 million photographs on Instagram.
If you are in need of some bokeh right now, Getty Images has over 51,000 stock bokeh photographs to select from. If you type “What is bokeh?” into Google, you will receive almost 3.5 million results—and more than 10,000 if you include quotation marks.
The fact that the human eye, with its good depth of field, does a terrible job of creating the kind of bokeh that many viewers like to see in images or motion movies also feeds the bokeh fixation.
As a result, large bokeh in images is a one-of-a-kind visual experience that can only be obtained when looking at an image recorded with an optical lens.
When you examine the amount of attention bokeh receives (guilty by virtue of writing this post), one of the oddities of bokeh is that it is rarely the subject of the shot. As a result, we should perhaps question ourselves why it gets so much attention.
Bokeh is a term that refers to one of four elements in a photograph:
1. The subject: in most cases, an abstract image with out-of-focus specular highlights.
2. A part of the subject: the cup or bowl with holiday lights “pouring” into it is the classic bokeh-as-part-of-the-subject shot.
3. An addition to the photograph
4. Distract the viewer’s attention away from the photograph.
How to Pronounce Bokeh?
What do you call the out-of-focus blurry area of an image? Isn’t it a silly question? It is called bokeh.
However, how do you say it? If you are anything like myself and a slew of other filmmakers and photographers, you paused to respond and then began to doubt everything you thought you knew about how to pronounce the Japanese term.
What is the correct way to say it? Most people pronounce it with equal emphasis on each syllable as “bow” (like a bow tie) and “keh” (like the “ke” in Kelvin).
The “h” was added to the word “boke” by Photo Technique to assist readers pronounce it correctly as they understood it.
However, according to various publications on the Internet written by Japanese speakers, the last syllable should be sounded like “kay.”
I used to pronounce bokeh as “boh-kay,” as in “a bouquet of lovely flowers.” Then I heard someone far more experienced than me call it “boh-kuh,” and I adopted that pronunciation.
Then I overheard someone much more experienced than me pronounce it as “bok-uh,” which led me to believe that person was not as knowledgeable as I had assumed.
The truest answer is: “Boh-Keh”.
How to Do Bokeh Photography?
In order to accomplish the bokeh effect, you need to have a lens that has the ability to have a shallow depth of field with an f-stop around f/1.4, f/1.8, or f/2.
One of the most common ways to use bokeh in creative photography is to capture blurred lighting.
Blurred lights provide softness and depth to photographs, whether it is Christmas lights or a nighttime cityscape.
The goal is to produce stunning backgrounds that do not detract too much from the subject, which should remain the focal point of the image.
Even though bokeh is indeed a photographic technique, using it is highly subjective. Every photographer has their own idea about what good bokeh should look like.
The type of lens used has an impact on bokeh, therefore it is important to understand how lenses render blur while photographing bokeh. It is all about the photographer’s vision from there.
When shooting bokeh photography, photographers should experiment with depth of field as well, as the ultimate result is not just about getting a blurred background, but also about achieving a good depth of focus.
You will need a fast lens to achieve bokeh in an image—the quicker, the better. A lens with at least an f/2.8 aperture is recommended, with faster apertures of f/2, f/1.8, or f/1.4 being optimal.
In case you need a refresher on f-stops, check out this chart, and check out our aperture and f-stop guides.
When shooting images with noticeable bokeh, many photographers prefer to utilize fast prime lenses.
Although bokeh is a photographic feature, the form and size of the visible bokeh is determined by the lens used. The form of the diaphragm blades (the aperture) of the lens affects bokeh, which is particularly visible in highlights.
A lens with more circularly formed blades will produce rounder, softer out-of-focus highlights, whereas a lens with a hexagonally shaped aperture would produce highlights that reflect that form.
If you do not have a fast lens, do not worry. Bokeh can be seen in photographs shot at narrower apertures like f/8 by increasing the distance between the background and your subject.
Image destabilization, in which both the lens and sensor are moved in order to retain focus at one focal plane while defocusing surrounding ones, has been proposed as an alternative mechanical technique for generating bokeh in small aperture cameras such as compacts or cellphone cameras.
At the moment, this effect only blurs one axis.
Bokeh is a function on some powerful digital cameras that allows you to shoot multiple photographs with varied apertures and focuses and then manually compose them into one image.
More complex bokeh systems use a hardware system with two sensors, one to shoot the shot normally and the other to record depth information.
After the shot is shot, the bokeh effect and focusing can be applied to the image.
If you still need more explanation, check out this in-depth video by the School of Photography:
What Does Good Bokeh Look Like?
Remember that the lens, not the camera, creates bokeh. Because of their diverse optical designs, different lenses render bokeh differently.
In general, portrait and telephoto lenses with large apertures produce more pleasing bokeh than consumer zoom lenses with smaller apertures.
For example, at the same focal length and aperture, the Nikon 85mm f/1.4D lens produces excellent bokeh, yet the Nikon 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G DX lens creates terrible bokeh — all owing to variations in optical design.
I am not just talking about background blur; while all lenses can produce out-of-focus blur, not all lenses can offer gorgeous bokeh.
So, what constitutes a nice or attractive bokeh? The background blur should appear soft and “creamy,” with smooth spherical circles of light and no hard edges, as a nice bokeh pleases our eyes and our perception of the image.
Do you know if the bokeh on your lens is good? Try focusing on an object from a very near distance (as close as the lens will allow while keeping the object in focus), making sure there are no other items within 5-6 feet of it.
Make sure you are standing at the same level as the object, so you are not looking down on it. Avoid using a simple wall as a background; instead, look for a bright background with some light on it.
A Christmas tree makes an excellent bokeh test backdrop.
Set your camera to “Aperture Priority” mode and set your aperture to the lowest value once you have found a decent test subject with an acceptable background.
Take a photograph of your subject and look at the back LCD of your camera once the aperture is set to the lowest value. The subject should be sharp, but the background should be hazy.
The bokeh should be soft and fuzzy, as demonstrated in the sample above, if you have a good lens. There should be no hard edges on the circular reflections, and they should be spherical and gentle.
There are a variety of lenses that produce beautiful bokeh. The bokeh produced by most fast prime lenses with round-blade apertures, such as the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G or the Canon 85mm f/1.2 II USM, is very pleasing.
The Nikon 85mm f/1.8G and Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM, which are less expensive versions of the same lens, provide lovely bokeh as well.
I recommend performing further study on different lenses based on your photographic needs because there are just too many to list.
For nearly two decades, there has been a discourse and website about bokeh for every discourse and website about lens sharpness.
Sharpness and bokeh are not normally the focus of a shot, but they are certainly the source of a lot of debate.
It is great to experiment with bokeh, whether it is producing it or photographing it.
Feel free to experiment with bokeh with your lenses.
Just remember not to lose the subject for the background if your preferred lens produces swirly, creamy, bubbly, bokethereal, bokehlishious, bokehrama, bokeawesome, bokehgross, bokehyuck, or bokehugly bokeh.
Jon has been a passionate photographer for 10+ years. Fun fact is that he has a collection of around 300-400 cameras that his family has collected over the years. Outside of photography, he has a Masters Degree in Engineering and has 13 years experience working in the industry across the globe.