Bokeh refers to a soft out-of-focus background that you get when shooting a subject. It comes from the Japanese word ‘boke’, which means ‘blur’.
But how do you achieve that colourful creamy background with your kit? If you’re interested in creating a beautiful bokeh effect in-camera, keep reading.
[ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something we make a little bit of money. Need more info? See how it all works here.]
Why Do We Like Bokeh?
We love bokeh for a multitude of reasons.
An Excellent Compositional Tool
Helps You Play Around with Colors
It can also be used as a mass of colour complementing or mimicking the colors on your subject. So, in the case of a portrait in a green-dominant nature environment, you can choose to colour your subject in magenta to make it pop.
Or, oppositely, you might also choose to make it harmonise with its surroundings, and dress it in a different shade of green.
Great for Framing Shots
You can frame up your subject with good bokeh, placing a large piece of blur to one or more sides. This can make otherwise dull and uninteresting scenes come alive.
You Can Hide Unwanted Elements with It
Bokeh can be used to hide distracting elements. If you blur your background into oblivion, crisp details will disappear from it. It will become a dollop of colour and tone, and not much else. Thus, good bokeh contributes to a cleaner, more refined look.
It Can Create a Unique Atmosphere
You can create a misty, moody atmosphere in an image with bokeh. Especially in portraits, if you choose to be close to your subject and introduce a lot of bokeh, it can make the viewer resonate more with the photo. Of course, it doesn’t replace a strong narrative.
At night or in a dark environment, points of highlights can shine through the background, creating well-defined bokeh balls. They look particularly flattering in portraits.
It also helps to give your images an overall professional feel. If you use it well, your photo will stand out from afar and remain interesting when viewed close-up.
In short, bokeh is a fantastic visual element with many great attributes. But you need to be conscious with it to consistently get awesome results.
Why Is It Called Bokeh?
According to Wikipedia, “bokeh is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out of focus parts of an image produced by a lens”. Bokeh has been defined as “the way the lens renders out of focus points of light”.
But what does that mean exactly? To understand bokeh photography, you need to understand depth of field, and how photography converts three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional mould.
To control and shape bokeh to your needs, you first need to understand how it’s made and what affects it. The following will be slightly technical, but I aim to make it easily digestible.
Bokeh and Focus
You know well that you can’t have everything in focus at the same time – your lens is not capable of that in practical circumstances. You have to prioritise a plane as your area of focus.
Let’s take a look at this graphic to see how that works. On the first figure, the rays coming from the subject converge on the sensor, projecting a sharp image of the subject’s plane.
On the latter two figures, the plane of focus for our subject is before or behind the sensor. This means that in the sensor’s plane, the projected image is not sharp, but out of focus.
As all the individual out-of-focus points add up and blend together, you get bokeh.
Bokeh and Depth of Field
You might rightfully ask: what’s the difference between bokeh and depth of field?
Well, the two are closely related to each other, but they’re not the same. Depth of field refers to the range in space that’s in acceptable focus. It’s a number, a measurement.
Bokeh, in turn, is the result of a shallow depth of field. It’s a visual element, and aesthetic factor – you can’t really measure or calculate its qualities.
The size of bokeh balls is actually possible to precisely calculate – but nobody does that. Bokeh is more than that, it’s about visual quality above all.
What Influences the Amount of Bokeh?
Not every camera and lens behaves the same when it comes to out-of-focus areas. The quantity and quality of bokeh depend on many things, from lens design to your creative vision. So, let’s dive in and see them one by one.
The most important factor is the distance between the subject and the camera, as well as the distance between the subject and the background.
The closer your focus is to the camera, the more shallow depth of field becomes and more bokeh appears. But if your subject is too close to the background, there won’t be enough separation to let large bokeh balls form.
Subject distance affects the relative size and amount of lens blur in your frame.
The longer your focal length is, the more bokeh will show up. This is because perspective compression forces the blur to spread out more.
So, you’ll get noticeably more background blur from an 85mm f/2 lens than a 50mm f/2 lens.
Physically, sensor size doesn’t have anything to do with the amount of blur. But, in practice, it does.
If you use the exact same lens (say, a 50mm f/2) on a full-frame and a 1.5x camera, the crop camera will force you to move away from your subject to keep the same framing.
Now, we know that subject distance does indeed affect bokeh – the further you stand, the less bokeh you’ll have. So, in these conditions, the crop sensor setup will show less bokeh.
What Affects the Quality of Bokeh?Until now, I only mentioned things that affect the amount of our bokeh. But there’s much more to that: its aesthetic qualities are just as important.
Aperture Blades and Shape
The shape of the aperture is a perfect circle when it’s wide open – so the shape of your bokeh will be circular, too. But once you start to increase your f-stop just a little bit, differences in iris design become apparent.
Lenses that have plenty of blades will keep the iris look roughly circular even when closed down. If they’re rounded, even better. Typically, high-end lenses have 7-8 blades, especially portrait-oriented ones.
Here’s what this bladed aperture looks like inside a lens.
A quite infamous lens from this standpoint is the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II, the nifty-fifty. It only has five blades, which are not even rounded! As a result, it produces a signature type of pentagonal bokeh balls when stopped down. (Despite that, it’s probably our favourite prime lens for the price.)
Huge differences can be found among lenses just because of their different designs. It depends quite a bit on the optical structure.
At wide aperture values, many lenses will present a phenomenon called the cat’s eye bokeh thanks to optical vignetting. Towards the edges of the frame, bokeh balls will be distorted from their original circular shape to an eye-like, crushed shape.
Optical vignetting at the extreme can cause the out-of-focus parts of an image to be warped into a swirly form. This is a signature look of many vintage portrait lenses, like the Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 or the Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5.
The Mayer Optik Görlitz 100mm f/2.8 renders out-of-focus highlights in a very special way, with distinctive edges. Many photographers and folk on the internet call that ‘soap-bubble bokeh’.
Mirror telephoto lenses, such as the Samyang 500mm f/8 will display a distinctive, doughnut-shaped bokeh. This is because their middle is dark, the light can’t pass there. So, their bokeh also has an empty part in the middle.
Aspherical lens elements in many cases cause the bokeh balls to have lighter and darker concentrical rings, like an onion or growth-rings.
Dirt and Dust in the Lens
Larger dust and dirt pieces and other imperfections on and in your lens will show up in your bokeh.
Typically, this is more of an issue in older lenses, particularly vintage manual ones that had seen a few winters. Correcting such spotty bokeh during editing can be really time-consuming, if not practically impossible. So, remember to keep the glass of your lens clean.
How to Achieve the Most Pleasing Bokeh
To be clear, there is no such thing as ‘the most pleasing bokeh’. It’s all up to your taste and vision.
However, there is a widely acclaimed type of look with a lot of bokeh. I’m talking about images like this:
How can you achieve that, you might ask? Well, using what you’ve learnt in the first part of this article!
So, which lens is best for bokeh effect? First and foremost, you’ll need a fast lens. A great cheap option is the 50mm f/1.8 lens for Canon or Nikon DSLRs, but there’s a ton of great options out there.
You need to keep in mind that every lens is capable of blurring the background to a degree. If you have an 18-55mm-type kit lens, it will produce some kind of blurring, especially at 55mm wide open (around f/5.6).
But a standard prime or a fast, higher-end zoom lens is capable of much more, giving you further control over your backgrounds.
Another level of extra bokeh are super-fast primes and f/2.8 telephoto zooms. The 70-200mm f/2.8 lens (by any brand) is a very popular choice among professionals and serious hobbyists alike for its unique versatility and the blur it offers.
An 85mm f/1.4 or 135mm f/2 prime gives a shallow depth of field with excellent-looking bokeh.
Another (really expensive) step-up is a 200mm f/1.8, 300mm f/2.8 or 400mm f/2.8 lens. The 200mm f/1.8 is built specifically for portraits and bokeh, and it’s an absolute pleasure to shoot with (I have used Canon’s model quite a lot). The other two are professional sports photographers’ go-to choices.
In macro photography, because of the close subject distance, you’ll get a lot of bokeh, even with a narrow aperture.
Why Is Distance Important for Bokeh?
Aperture is the most important area when it comes to bokeh – followed by depth of field and focus. In addition to aperture, distance also plays a significant role in blurring parts of your photograph.
The distance relates to the camera and the subject as opposed to the subject and the background.
You can achieve a large amount of great bokeh blur in a photograph using f/2.8, even if you are far from your subject. This is because the focal distance is very small.
On the flip side, if you place yourself very close to a subject while using a medium aperture, such as f/8, the background will come out blurred.
This is due to the background being much further away from the subject than the camera is.
This is a great tip to know if your lens only drops down to f/5.6, as many zoom lenses do.
Why Is Lighting Important for Bokeh?
Of course, one of the most important aspects of producing great bokeh is how your photo is lit.
If you’re in controlled conditions where you can adjust your light and want to experiment, you may find that opening your aperture wide works best.
Remember, this is going to have the smoothest results, and produce the largest bokeh.
Or perhaps the light is breaking through some leaves of a tree in the background, and you want to capture this with a smooth bokeh blur.
The light source doesn’t have to come from behind the subject, like in the photo above. It can just be incidental light creeping through a well-lit scene, like below.
You always have to pay attention to the environment of your subject. It’s your job to spot it and use it to your advantage.
How Do You Get the Bokeh Effect?
1. Find Your Image
First of all, you need to find where you are going to take the image. What you need to be aware of is light, the size of the area, and what the background is going to look like.
Here, we found a field for the bokeh experiment.
2. Find Your Subject
We wanted to keep the theme as natural as possible, so we went with a leaf.
Mixed with the field, it will provide a nice contrast in terms of shape and complimentary colors.
3. Set Your Camera to Aperture Priority for Easy Shooting
Setting your camera to Aperture Priority will make it easier to change the aperture. If the area is well lit, choose ISO 100.
At the height of the day, an f/2.8 at ISO 100 will give you around 1/1000 of a second, if not more.
The benefit of aperture priority is if you feel f/2.8 is too shallow and want to use f/8, the camera will work out the corresponding shift for you.
As you move the aperture up 3 stops, the shutter speed will drop by the equal amount.
Choose a lens with a long enough focal length to show adequate blurring.
Take the picture. As you can see, the camera is close to the subject, and the distance from the subject to the horizon is much farther. This accentuates the blur, creating more of the bokeh effect.
The image and bokeh are enhanced by the dew on the blades of grass. It allows the light to become more prominent.
And that’s it. You can take beautiful bokeh photographs in-camera using a wide aperture. It is that simple. You are only held back by your imagination.
Get CreativeYou can also make your own, custom-shaped bokeh. Just cut out a shape from a piece of paper and place it on your lens. Then, point it at a highlight point. And there – your bokeh is now reshaped.
There are a few instances where your bokeh might not go as envisioned. Let’s visit a few common problems.
Why is my bokeh background not as blurry as I had hoped?
- Set the lens to the widest aperture possible (smallest number).
- Bring the camera closer to the subject.
- Close that gap and re-shoot.
You will find it much better for bokeh. If not, get closer to the subject in capturing that shallow depth-of-field.
Why are my images dark?
If you still have problems, increase your ISO a bit. That should fix things. With a higher ISO, you’re giving your f/stop and shutter speed more room to play with.
You may find that some background lights will disappear and magically reappear within your photographs. Don’t be alarmed, it hasn’t really got much to do with you.
Electrical lights such as Christmas fairy lights may not show up on your photograph at all. This is due to the fact that the lights aren’t exactly constant. They strobe.
They disappear in your image because your image isn’t synced with them. Try using a shutter speed slower than 1/60th of a second.
If you have a camera with built-in flicker correction, turn it on (my 5D Mark IV has it, for example).
This works really well in a city where there are cars and street lights. Get out there and try creating a bokeh background for yourself.
Or, if you are up for a little DIY, you can make your own bokeh filters very cheaply. Everything you need is in this article.
Want to take your photography to the next level? Check out our ebook Photography Unlocked!