photography bokeh

Understanding Bokeh in Photography

What is bokeh? Bokeh is the word for that soft out-of-focus background blur that you see in photography. It is a generally popular effect that’s achieved when shooting with a low f-number, which is a wide aperture, which creates a shallow depth of field. A shallow depth of field means that only a narrow section of the image is in focus.

In this article, I discuss:

  • why bokeh is desirable

  • how to achieve bokeh

  • some of my favorite bokeh techniques.

I’ll get a little technical but I’ll focus more on the practical application of the depth-of-field techniques that create bokeh effects.

understanding bokeh in photography

Why bokeh in Photography is desirable:

Bokeh spelled B O K E H comes from a Japanese word that means blur, haze, or blur quality.

One of the main reasons we love bokeh is that it helps your subject pop and look more crisp relative to the background. You see it a lot in macro photography like close-ups of birds, flowers, or other details in nature because of how close you are to your subject. The shallow depth of field created by macro lenses helps a tiny flower pop crisply from the blurred background too.

It’s also super popular for portraits whether that’s newborns or headshots, it helps your subject be the focus of the image. Our eyes are drawn to the sharpest part of the image so a headshot focused on someone’s eyes helps us connect with them.

Many times we also use bokeh to blur an undesirable background so that the main subject is sharp but the clutter in the background disappears.

If you look at some images with beautiful bokeh you’ll see how it can be buttery or silky, different people have different ways to describe aesthetic quality of bokeh that they appreciate.

We’ll talk about undesirable bokeh in the next section after we understand it a little better.

When iPhone introduced portrait mode, the bokeh-like effect made it possible to take iPhone images with a shallow depth of field. It’s digitally created and therefore not as pleasing, in my opinion, but a portrait in portrait mode is more flattering than just the standard iPhone lens.

Lightroom also has a new feature that digitally creates bokeh in post-production.

photography bokeh

How to Achieve Bokeh:

There’s going to be some jargon in here so I’ll try to explain everything without overexplaining what we’re talking about.  Here are the bokeh factors I’m going to talk about.

  1. Sensor size

  2. Aperture

  3. Distance

  4. Lens quality

  5. Focal length

  6. Artificial bokeh

1. Sensor Size and its Part in Background Blur

The first factor in creating bokeh will be your sensor size. The larger the sensor, the shallower the depth of field which creates more bokeh blur because more of the scene is outside of the focus range.

Most modern cameras are going to be either APS-C which is 23x15mm or full frame which is 36x24mm. The smaller sensors might be less expensive but will limit your ability to achieve bokeh. One way to combat this is to talk about other factors such as distance.

photography bokeh

2. Adjust Distance for Background Blur

One way to achieve create good bokeh is to decrease the distance between you and your subject while increasing the distance between your subject and the background. Get close to your subject.

If you get close to a subject but achieve a large distance between your subject and the background, you can achieve bokeh with smaller sensors and smaller apertures which are the larger f-stop numbers. We’ll talk about the aperture settings next but this is great if you don’t have a full-frame camera with a wide maximum aperture lens but still want bokeh. You can achieve it with an f4 lens instead of an f2 lens if you consider the distancing. You can even achieve it on the small sensor of your phone camera.

This works because of the depth of field. A shallow depth of field will result in more bokeh because there is less in focus than in a wide depth of field which will have deep focus and more of the image sharp. Therefore, the closer you are to your subject, the further away the background is making it more likely to be outside of the depth of field of your set-up which will cause it to be out of focus… achieving that bokeh blur.

photography bokeh

3. Wide Aperture for Beautiful Bokeh

Next, if you want to achieve good bokeh, you generally need what we call a “fast lens” A fast lens is a lens that has a wide maximum aperture, which is the smallest f-number for the lens.

A wide maximum aperture is something like f/2.8 or even lower f-stop numbers like f/1.8 or f/1.4. The lower the f-stop number the wider the aperture.

Often the best lenses for bokeh are fast prime lenses because prime lenses with wide maximum apertures are generally more common and affordable than fast zoom lenses. A wide aperture is related to a shallow depth of field. And as we’ve already learned, with a shallow depth of field, everything outside of the focal plane in that focus range will be blurry.

photography bokeh

4. Camera Lens Quality (The Good and Bad Bokeh)

Now, the lens choice can have an impact on the pleasing quality of the bokeh. 

The lens determines how the resulting bokeh looks in terms of shape and size as the shape of the the aperture blades will dictate the shape of the bokeh. The more blades the aperture has the more round and smooth the bokeh orbs will look because the aperture shape is more round and smooth.

Some lens designs blur an image in a less pleasing way because it’s distracting so you might hear someone talk about “bad bokeh.” Instead of circular orbs of light, they’ll be pentagonal or oblong or irregular. You’ll notice it more in city lights or in the highlights of high-contrast images because the orbs are inconsistent or fake-looking. Often it will be worse toward the edges of the images.

Good versus bad bokeh feels a little subjective to me so it is a little difficult to quantify but I’m sure there are people out there who are bokeh conosiers who would also balk at my choice of wine. I know that when Marc reviews lenses he always talks about image quality so maybe the lenses he’s chosen for our kit is why I don’t really know that much about “bad bokeh.” I think it is also probably more of an issue with vintage lenses. That’s not really the purpose of this article but let me know in the comments if you want Marc to get more technical on lens design in a future article or video.

But to ease your mind, for most modern lenses, the bokeh effect looks great.

photography bokeh

5. Camera Lens Focal length and Bokeh

The longer the focal length, the more pronounced the bokeh will be because long focal lengths create a shallower depth of field. Wide lens, wide depth of field. Long lens, shallow depth of field. 

So if you use a long lens and stand close to your subject with a large distance from your subject to the background, the bokeh will be most pronounced. Check out Marc’s video on the Samyang 135mm for more about why this particular lens focal length is the bokeh king.

Despite the fact that I don’t have much more to say about this, this is one of the more important factors to bokeh which is why people love shooting portrait photography with an 85mm prime lens.

photography bokeh

6. Artificial bokeh in Photography

I mentioned briefly portrait mode on our phone cameras. I think its worth mentioning since AI is slowly taking over our work. With iPhones or other phone cameras with super small sensors, they’re using a depth map of the images to determine what to blur for bokeh. Lidar, or light detection uses lasers to map the depth.

On the Lightroom lens blur tool, Lightroom runs an analysis and selects the subject for you. Then you can apply bokeh to the background. It’s pretty crazy, you can change the bokeh shape from modern to bubble to vintage to ring or cat-eye. You can also change the focus range and apply your bokeh based on Lightroom’s depth map.

This is pretty cool if you shot something with a 50mm lens but wish you had your 85mm… you can artificially achieve bokeh. It also seems awesome for graphic designers who want to blur more of an image for overlaying text. It’s definitely worth exploring the implications of this so again, let me know if you want a video on the Lightroom Lens Blur Tool.

understanding bokeh

Summary of the 5 Factors Contributing to the Bokeh Effect

Let’s do a Quick review. We talked about

  1. Sensor size – get a big sensor

  2. Aperture – use a fast lens f1.4

  3. Distance – get close to your subject so the background is far

  4. Lens quality – a higher quality lens will equal more pleasing bokeh

  5. Focal length – longer focal lengths will create more bokeh

  6. Artificial bokeh – if all else fails, use technology…

When I’m not making a video about bokeh I’ll often use the terms shallow depth of field and bokeh interchangeably even though they’re not technically the same thing or I’ll even say something like soft focus. Or I’ll talk about my fast lens or my low aperture lens. I tend to save the word wide for describing my focal length and not my aperture… the lens is fast or low aperture or low f-stop. So you might hear people talk about things in different ways but what’s important is that you can achieve what you want when you want it. Don’t let the jargon stop you from creativity.

understanding bokeh

Now let’s talk about Bokeh Effect Techniques

We talked about how we use bokeh in photography to help your subject pop and look more crisp and we talked about using bokeh to blur an undesirable background.

Let me share some of my other favorite uses of bokeh.

One of my favorite bokeh techniques might be a little cliche but I still love it and that’s photographing twinkle lights, market lights, or even Christmas lights.

I also love a good foreground blur that I can achieve when shooting through flowers or trees. This allows me to create more depth or framing to an image. I love this for landscape portraits or environmental portraits where I’m using nature to compose my image and flatter my subject.

For weddings, bokeh is really nice in the getting ready room where the room is cluttered and my goal is to make a bride feel beautiful. Brides spend hours getting ready and perfected so a super shallow depth of field on lips or eyelashes can be really nice. Same for wedding rings or other details that you want to highlight in detail while showing some blurry context.

photography bokeh

Beyond Beautiful Bokeh

One last note beyond bokeh in photography is that sometimes we shoot everything with a low aperture because that’s easy from an exposure settings perspective. Don’t go so crazy with bokeh and get so attached that you forget sometimes it’s nice to have deep focus. That way the mountains behind your subject can be sharp and dramatic. Just because you bought that f1.2 lens doesn’t mean you have to shoot it on f1.2 forever.

Best Lenses for Bokeh

Below are 85mm lenses for Sony that are worth looking at for bokeh. Read more about the 85mm focal length on the blog.

Sony 85mm f/1.4 GM

Sony 85mm f/1.8

Samyang 85mm f/1.4

You might also like the bokeh king or the bokeh master:

Samyang 135mm f/1.8

photography bokeh

Summary of Bokeh in Photography

Hope this post helps and maybe even inspires you to head out and shoot blurry photos… intentionally! And I hope that answers the question, “what is bokeh in photography?” If you’re looking to create good bokeh you should have an idea of what causes that out-of-focus blur and how to achieve creamy bokeh when you want it.

Thanks for being here. Next, you might enjoy these drone accessories.

about the author

I am Brenda Bergreen, one half of a husband and wife photography team specializing in Colorado wedding photography and videography as well as adventure photography. If you need someone to encourage your creativity, I’m here. (*Links to stuff I like may include affiliate links.)

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