In photography, few effects are as enchanting and interesting as bokeh—the beautiful, dreamy blur that transforms ordinary backgrounds into abstract canvases of color and light. While often associated with high-end lenses and expensive equipment, the magic of bokeh isn’t reserved for the pros. Whether you’re armed with a state-of-the-art DSLR or a simple smartphone, there are techniques and tricks you can employ to achieve this mesmerizing effect. In this article, we’ll give you a guide to bokeh, breaking it down step-by-step, so you can create those creamy, out-of-focus backgrounds with any camera and lens in your arsenal.
What is Bokeh?
Bokeh is the “out of focus” area of an image. Bokeh (pronounced “Boh-Keh”) is a very popular creative look that many photographers sought after. The word comes from the Japanese word “Boke,” which roughly translates to the word “blur.” In photography, bokeh describes the aesthetic quality of the out-of-focus areas of an image and how pleasing the blur looks, particularly in the background areas.
Contrary to popular belief, quality bokeh is not only about how shallow the depth of field (DOF) is or the amount of blur in an image. The shallow DOF can contribute to the look of beautiful bokeh, but it is only part of the story. All lenses can blur the background, but not all lenses can render beautiful bokeh. So in short, good bokeh is about the quality of the blur, not the amount of blur. Being able to control your bokeh will make your pictures look less point and shooty and will increase the quality of your photos.
What is Good Bokeh?
Judging what a “good bokeh” is can be pretty subjective, of course. What is typically considered a desirable bokeh is when the background blur has a creaminess look to it, with soft and smooth transition between tonal areas and from out-of-focus areas to in-focus areas. A good bokeh should be pleasant and should not distract the viewer from the subject in focus.
The out-of-focus bokeh disks quality is also an important indication of good bokeh. These disks are created by out-of-focus specular lights or light reflection, and are usually round or roundish when the aperture is wide open. Good bokeh disks are fairly easy to spot. They should be uniformly bright with no bright or harsh outline edges or light/dark dots in the center. They should not be jagged, either.
What is Bad Bokeh?
Bad bokeh typically has harsh outlines and jittery shapes. Part of the cause of this look is a busy background that is not blurred out enough. A kit zoom lens with a small maximum aperture or a camera with a small sensor will have a harder time blurring the background compared to a larger aperture prime lens or a camera with a full-frame sensor.
With bad bokeh, the bokeh disks will exhibit bright outline edges, lines inside the disks, and/or light/dark dots in the center. They are typically not as round and may even look like polygons like this Konica Hexanon f/1.7 lens.
Tips for Creating Beautiful Bokeh with any Lens
Use a fast aperture lens
One of the reasons why kit lens are not that great for creating beautiful bokeh is because it typically has a slow maximum aperture of f/3.5 on the wide end and f/5.6 on the telephoto end. This means that you will get too much DOF, which can lead to a busier background. Additionally, the kit lens tends to not have the higher end lens element and lens coating that higher end lenses have. A fast prime lens of at least f/1.8 or wider can help you throw more of the background out of focus and create a more pleasing bokeh.
Use the widest aperture
Whether you are using a mainstream lens or a pro-spec lens, you get the best bokeh when you are shooting wide-open at lens’ maximum aperture. Yes, some lens will exhibit softness at wide open aperture, but for the purpose of the bokeh, you get the smoothest bokeh at the widest aperture. As you stop down, more and more of the background becomes sharper, thus creating a busier background that will start to compete with the subject in focus.
The wider your aperture (the lower the f-stop number) the shallower your depth of field will be. I took two photos at 28mm, one at f/3.5 and the other at f/8. Check out how much more pleasing the bokeh is in the f/3.5 photo.
Maximize The Distance Between Your Camera and Subject
The closer you are to your subject, the more blurred out your background will be. I’m shooting all of these photos at the lens’ minimum focusing distance (MFD) to get the best results. The Canon 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 has an MFD of 0.5m / 1.6 ft.
Maximize the Focal Length
All things being equal, a longer focal length lens throws the background out of focus more than a wider focal length lens. Of course, some telephoto lenses perform better than other lenses and have a faster maximum aperture. The more you zoom in and increase the focal length, the more of the background becomes out of focus. To get bokeh with any lens, stand as far back as possible and zoom in as much as possible.
Get the subject farther away from the background and closer to the camera
If you remember our shooting guide on aperture, we talked about how shallow DOF can be controlled by moving the subject closer to camera and farther away from the background. The closer the subject is to the camera, the more bokeh is created in the background. This is why macro photography has some of the creamiest bokeh available. You are so close to the subject that the DOF is razor thin and the background is just a blur.
Use a lens with more rounded aperture blades
The Konica Hexanon lens is an example of a lens with six straight aperture blades. When the lens starts to have 7 or more curved aperture blades, the resulting bokeh disks tend to be rounder and better looking. The Olympus M. Zuiko 45mm prime lens with its 7 aperture blades is a good example of this. While you can get bokeh with any lens, a higher quality lens will give you smooth circular shapes.
Use a camera with a bigger sensor
As we talked about in my aperture article, sensor size also affects DOF. Full-frame DSLRs and medium format cameras have an easier time to create bokeh because they can attain shallow DOF at a smaller aperture compared to cameras with an APS-C sensor or smaller. This is because a crop sensor creates a deeper DOF than a full-frame or medium format sensor.
So creating great bokeh usually requires a lens with a high maximum aperture and/or a long focal length. Some lenses like the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 G perform better than similar lenses in the same focal length, like the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 D. Lens quality and design does affect that lens’s ability to render beautiful bokeh, so to help you out, here are some lenses that I recommend for creating beautiful bokeh. If you have any suggestions for other lenses, especially for Sony and Pentax systems, please suggest them in the comments. Thanks!