Bokeh Photography: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know
What Is Bokeh (And Where Can I Use It)?
Whether or not you’re aware (and even before your interest in photography may have started to grow), you’ve most certainly happened upon bokeh. The term describes the blur appearing behind your subject when you’ve set your camera to a shallow depth of field, creating a softening of your background and appearing in juxtaposition to the sharp and clear portrayal of the subject in your photo. Sometimes, you may also identify this effect by the little balls (or shapes) of light appearing to dance lightly across the photo.
This blurry look can be achieved — to put it simply — through widening the aperture of your DSLR lens (the opening at the back of your lens) to allow more light onto your camera’s image sensor, rendering a shallow depth of field. You can also adjust the settings on your point-and-shoot camera or cell phone or tweaking a photo using a smartphone app or Photoshop to mimic this effect.
There is no one use for bokeh. For you as the photographer, the effect is really a chance for you to express your creativity: Learning how to take a bokeh photograph is easy; after you know the basics, you can start to have fun with the composition.
While the layperson may most readily identify this type of photography by the appearance of blurred balls of light in the photograph above, the term Bokeh encompasses any blurred section in a photograph.
Learning how to re-create a stunning technique like bokeh can feel intimidating, but, after reading this guide, you will find yourself confidently designing eye-catching photos using this effect.
This tutorial will shed light on the following:
- How bokeh was born (We break down the pronunciation and meaning of the term)
- How bokeh comes to life
- Ideal conditions and setups for capturing the ultimate bokeh portrait
- How diversifying your lens collection can vary your results
- How to set up for this effect (both at-home and outdoors)
- Shaping your blur (using your basic circle, octagon, or have fun with stars or hearts)
- Creating bokeh with a point-and-shoot
- After the fact: Tools you can use to replicate the technique in Photoshop (or, using cell phone technology)
- …along with useful or intriguing tips and information.
In the Beginning…
It’s completely understandable if the term bokeh strikes you as foreign. After all, an English speaker did import, and then revise the word from the Japanese. The Japanese word ‘boke’ roughly translates to “blur”, “haze” or “fuzziness” in English.
Photo Techniques editor Mike Johnston deserves the credit for transporting this word into the English world when he used it in a collection of photography articles in the 1997 March/April edition of the magazine.
When Johnston brought the word to English speakers, he also wanted to protect it from mispronunciation, so he tacked ‘h’ onto the the end of the word, to make ‘bokeh’. To pronounce it as it was intended, say the bo as you would ‘both’ and the ‘keh’ as you would in ‘kept’
The Inner Workings of the Blur
Three factors in an interchangeable lens camera (DSLR or mirrorless) or advanced point and shoot work in tandem to project a bokeh effect onto your image (scroll down for information on how to create this effect in Photoshop or using your cell phone) :
- Lens design
- Relative depth of field
To explain these terms in short: the depth of field is essentially the total amount of your image that will be in focus, and the aperture is the opening near the back of the lens that allows light to hit the camera sensor.
To create bokeh, adjust the aperture dial on your camera to make your aperture wider and allow more light into the lens, which, in turn, causes your depth of field to be more shallow. The more shallow your depth of field, the more your image will blur.
If you’d like to know more about these topics, then complement your knowledge from this tutorial by following these links for a more exhaustive vocabulary review of aperture and depth of field.
The Ultimate Conditions for Your Creations
From the previous section, you are now aware that this effect involves manipulation of depth of field, allowing you to control the blur in your photographs. You are also aware of bokeh basics, and can add this technique to your artistry toolkit as a photographer.
To truly master this method, however, you need to know a few tricks:
As the age-old saying goes: a worker is only as good as his/her tools, and this definitely applies to this technique. To capture first-rate bokeh, you will need a fast lens with, at the very least, an aperture of f/2.8. To create even shorter depths of field (and, make better blurred backgrounds), consider purchasing lenses of f/2, f/1.8 or f/1.4. Practice with your aperture at its widest setting; then begin to decrease the size to change the look of your bokeh.
Review the following chart to help you understand how these aperture sizes correspond with the amount of blur present in your photographs.
When you start getting serious about bokeh, you may find yourself looking for macro-lenses, long, and medium telephoto lenses because they are typically used in instances where shallow depth of field lend itself to the photograph.
Lens length choices are plentiful, so you should definitely research the ideal lens for your needs.
The Nitty Gritty of Composition
Before you purchase sophisticated equipment, especially if you’re new to the technique, start with a low budget, low maintenance at-home practice shoot.
Head to a lamp in your house or gather a light source — you could use a collection of lamps or candles, a string of Christmas lights or even something with shiny points such as aluminum foil (or any glass or metal object).
Grab your DSLR camera, set it to Aperture priority or Manual mode, and place it on a tripod. Use your widest aperture setting for round, smooth balls.
If you have a subject in mind (which could be anything: a fancy shot glass, treasured coffee mug, favorite book or an available family member), place it/them in the foreground, with your light source in the background.
Voilà! You’re now ready to snap!
As you go along, please note that you can boost your shallow depth of field by moving your subject further from your background, and getting your camera lens closer to the focal point (or subject) in your photograph. Take this shoot as a great opportunity to play with varying distances between subject and background and modify your camera settings.
You may even want to start a photography notebook, where you take note of the changes you make, and what you settings or equipment you used so you can recreate your favorite looks in the future.
When you’re ready to step up your game and take your bokeh to the streets, or for help with your basic at-home shoots, there are a few more elements to be mindful of:
- Remember that sharp or bright areas of light in your background will morph into soft, circular shapes in your photograph. Also, pieces of light (such as reflections of light on raindrops), rather than one light glaring into the camera lens should create a satisfying effect. Look for scattered light to capture, rather than just a single light source.
- As a burgeoning bokeh photographer, you may be tempted to focus entirely on preening your subject during setup, but locating a suitable background for the shoot should also be one of your greatest priorities. Although you can craft a beautiful blur with an ugly backdrop, you must be aware of the lighting and colors in your natural scene.
- Consider the weather on shoot day — the blur effect will look similar throughout, as opposed to a lighter day, where bokeh balls, or more distinct points of light will surface in your photographs.
What Makes Good Bokeh?
While what ‘good bokeh’ looks like is really a subjective judgement, making your bokeh look as smooth and buttery as possible will help you to maximize this effect in your photos. There should be no hard edges or sharpness — use this effect to enhance your subject, not detract from it. The ability to execute this technique in a visually pleasing manner is often what separates the amateur photog from the professional.
What’s in a Shape?
The aperture in your camera equipment may dictate the shape of your bokeh to an extent, as it is the shape of your aperture that forms the shape of your bokeh. Your aperture is composed of blades, arranged in either a circular or octagonal shape.
But, beyond that, the sky is actually the limit when it comes to your bokeh lens, especially if you don’t mind getting crafty:
To create a perfect circle (or any shape for that matter, be it a square, heart, or star) you’ll need:
- A piece of black paper
- Scissors (or a shaped puncher stamp you can buy at a craft store for a perfectly formed shape)
Use your scissors to make a shaped hole (around the size of a dime) in your piece of black paper. Tape the paper over your lens, guiding the hole into the middle of the lens and snap away. Here’s a good step-by-step to craft your own bokeh shapes, courtesy of A Beautiful Mess.
If you are simply not a DIYer, but still want to use this fascinating bokeh effect, photography kits are available for purchase. Another effect for purchase which may enhance this technique is the equilateral prism. By holding a prism up to your lens and twisting it to your liking, you can bend lines, create rainbows or splash other visual effects across your photos.
Keep in mind that apertures with more curved blades (which ultimately create more circular balls of light) are often found in pricier lenses. For instance, the Planar T* FE 50mm F1.4 ZA boasts a circular aperture with 11 blades and costs $1,949.99 and the Sony SEL85F18 85mm F/1.8–22 Medium-Telephoto Fixed Prime Camera Lens with a 9-blade circular aperture runs for about $600.00.
Here’s some shaped bokeh inspiration in the meantime:
How Different Lenses Capture the Effect
If you do want to add to your bokeh arsenal lens-wise, and aren’t afraid to invest in new equipment, there are many options which all lend to unique effects. For instance, macro, wide angle or telephoto lenses can expose your bokeh photography in a new light.
- Macro: great for close-ups of subjects and larger bokeh balls
- Wide Angle: may make it tougher to create bokeh, but also makes it easier to capture more of the background in certain shots
- Telephoto: makes for softer bokeh
You can also read the Phoblographer’s roundup of best lenses for bokeh to take a deeper dive into the pool of lens research and help you figure out which brand of camera and lens might be best for you.
There’s nothing more fun than experimenting with a new photography technique, and bokeh offers plenty of opportunities for that! If you’re ready for a hefty investment, that’s great! But, for the rest of us, second-hand may be the way to go. Here are some tips if you’re looking for a more economical option:
- Try before you buy and stay alert to scams.
- Research the reputations of various sellers (including second-hand photography shops and online private sellers).
- Be cautious when buying online, as delicate parts can be manhandled through shipment.
- If the seller tells you the lens has light damage and suggests fixing it shouldn’t set you back much, take that as a red flag. Repairing a lens is usually expensive.
- Put the lens on your camera, set to aperture priority mode and ensure the lens takes quality shots. Also go through all focal lengths and ensure auto focus works on each one before you buy.
- Make sure you include image stabilization, sharpness, and autofocus accuracy tests before you buy.
- Ask the seller why they are selling their lens. If it’s too hard for them to come up with a reasonable explanation, it’s a good indication there may be an issue with the lens.
Not in the market for a new lens or camera?
Photoshop has the answer to your bokeh cravings.
Unlike traditional photography, where the setup is key, in Photoshop, the magic is all in the after-effects.
There are a few methods you can use to create a bokeh image in Photoshop, including the following:
- Import the photo of your subject into Photoshop and use the ‘Quick Select’ tool to select elements you’d like to blur. Then, add a Lens Blur, the best Photoshop effect to mimic bokeh, because it uses characteristics of a camera lens to produce the blur. Turning up the brightness of the background before you add your Lens Blur will may also boost the effect by giving you more light to work with in your photo.
- Take a photograph of a subject and a bokeh texture/bokeh overlay (photograph of bokeh lights) and blend them together, like Aaron does in this video:
There are a multitude of options available to create beautiful bokeh within Photoshop. Remember, though, that sometimes less is more. Get creative, but try to maintain the essence of the original idea by incorporating harmonious colors and composition and using your Photoshop know-how intentionally.
Bokeh at Your Fingertips
The most handy way to take a bokeh photo may already be as close as the cell phone by your side. Do a quick online search to find out what sorts of bokeh features your particular model of phone has — many cameras out on today’s market have features like dual cameras and depth mapping technology to determine which areas of your photos to blur.
You can also download apps like Tadaa SLR, Big Lens or Bokehful (this app is particularly good for creating balls of light) to fake the effect. The last two also allow you to add shapes like hearts and stars to your photographs instead of traditional balls of light.
Point-and-Shoot (Your Shortcut to Bokeh)
If you’re itching to try this technique, but don’t have access to the technology we’ve already mentioned, you’re still left with one more option: your point-and-shoot camera.
To tell the truth, your point-and-shoot has been constructed to help you take foolproof in-focus photos, but you can get around these constraints. You can influence the depth of field in your point-and-shoot by switching to portrait, macro, or toy camera/miniature effect settings, or by selecting Aperture Priority mode, so the aperture setting is completely in your hands. All of these settings are pre-designed to blur different areas of your photograph.
You may also need to move background objects a further distance from the subject than you would with a DSLR. Otherwise, your background object may still photograph as in focus, instead of as part of the blurred background.
Here’s an example of a Canon PowerShot G1 X point-and-shoot photograph for one instance of how a shot could turn out:
For any of these settings, try using a tripod. It will prevent camera shake, and improve the quality of your shots. Beyond that, it will also help you to experiment by keeping the camera in one spot while you adjust settings or your subject’s distance from the background or foreground.
Now It’s Your Turn to Go Experiment
As you can see, bokeh offers a tremendous outlet to experiment with your photography, by not only enabling you to try different mediums for creating bokeh including using various camera types, lenses and technology, but also by providing a way to express your creativity and think outside the box.
And, while you’re doing so, remember: while one person might think that a 50mm 1.2 lens is the ultimate setting for creating this effect, it’s more than OK to break the mold and make your own photography magic with settings of your choice.
Originally published in PHLEARN Magazine.