What is Bokeh?
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 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.
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 or nervousness. Part of the cause of this nervousness 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.
How do you get a more pleasing bokeh?
• 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. Of course, not all prime lenses are created equal. The Nikon 85mm f/1.4 D and the Nikon 85mm f/1.8 D, as well as the Canon 85mm f/1.2 II USM and the Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM can all create really good bokeh. The Nikon 50mm f/1.4G creates beautiful bokeh, but the older Nikon 50mm f/1.4 D or the f/1.8 D produces less desirable bokeh.
For the Micro Four-Thirds crowd like myself, the new Olympus 75mm M. Zuiko f/1.8 prime lens (full frame equiv. 150mm) renders amazingly creamy bokeh. Coupled with incredible center and edge sharpness, it has become my new favorite lens. It is absolutely stunning.
• Use the maximum 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.
• Use a longer focal length lens
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 Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II USM and the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 are both excellent telephoto zoom lens. The more you zoom in and increase the focal length, the more of the background becomes out of focus.
• 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.
• 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!
Canon Full-Frame Mount
• Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L USM Standard Zoom Lens
• Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens
• Canon 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens
• Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM Autofocus Lens
• Canon 200mm f/2.8 L II USM Telephoto Lens
Nikon Full-Frame Mount
• Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 G AF-S Nikkor ED Lens
• Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 G ED VR II AF-S Nikkor Zoom Lens
• Nikon 85mm f/1.4 D IF Nikkor Lens
• Nikon 85mm f/1.8 D AF Nikkor Lens
• Nikon 50mm f/1.4 G AF-S Nikkor Lens
• Nikon 135mm f/2.0 D AF DC-Nikkor Lens (Defocus Control)
• Nikon 200mm f/2.0 G ED VR II AF-S NIKKOR Telephoto Lens
Micro 4-3 Mount
• Olympus 75mm f/1.8 High-Grade Portrait Lens (150mm ff equiv.)
• Olympus 45mm f/1.8 Lens (90mm ff equiv.)
• Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4 Lens (50mm ff equiv.)