What is Bokeh?

Bokeh comes from the Japanese word meaning blur or quality of blur, used to describe the aesthetic or pleasing quality of the blur in shallow depth of field images. Some people think of bokeh as just the blurred-out background you see but it is more than that, it is how that blurred out part of your image looks.

Depending on the lens, the blurred-out part will actually look different, looking rounder or more jagged hexagonal in shape, because it is determinate by the shape of the diaphragm blades, meaning the aperture. The number of blades determines the shape of the bokeh. A lens with fewer blades will create an octagonal bokeh, while one with more blades will create a smoother, more rounded bokeh. This can more easily be seen in highlights like blurred out light bulbs. It’s up to you which you prefer, but generally when people talk about “good” bokeh, they’re referring to more rounded shapes. When you’re shopping for a lens, you can usually count the number of blades. You can also see if “diaphragm blades” is a listed feature. Look for lenses with more than eight blades for rounder shapes. You can also create or buy different bokeh shapes by cutting a shape out of dark paper and covering the lens with it.

When people say: “how do you get more bokeh?” what they are probably asking is how do we get a blurrier background. So, for example, if your image has a background of a blurred line of trees, that’s not bokeh. But if your image has a blurred background of trees with fairy lights, that’s bokeh. It’s a subtle distinction but an important one when you’re distinguishing bokeh from other techniques.

Bokeh is not a quantitative concept, unlike lens aperture or shutter speed, bokeh has no associated system of measurement. What matters is the quality of the blur, not the amount. Accordingly, bokeh is a rather subjective idea, one person’s opinion of “good” bokeh may not fall in line with another person’s opinion.

Bokeh is a feature of a photograph, not necessarily a feature of a lens. Lenses do, however, possess certain design characteristics that affect how the bokeh is rendered in photo. There are scenes that just sort of lend themselves to producing smooth, creamy bokeh even with not-so-great lenses, while other scenes, such as those with harsh lighting or lots of specular highlights, present a much greater challenge. It is in situations like these where the quality of the lens will have a more noticeable impact on the quality of the bokeh, but there is no such thing as a perfect bokeh lens.

Which brings us back to the point of subjectivity. You probably have your own ideas of what constitutes good bokeh, so it is important to understand how the lens you are using renders blur. It’s no different than knowing at which apertures or focal lengths your lens vignettes; some photographers like vignetting and use it to great artistic effect. Others hate it. There’s no right or wrong here.

The lens, of course, isn’t the only thing that plays a role in creating bokeh. What follows are some tips on how to bring together a number of factors that will help you achieve the “best” possible bokeh in your shots.

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Troubles when shooting bokeh

If you’re having trouble achieving that hard-to-define, pleasantly blurred quality, there are a few key things to check and adjustment to make for better bokeh.

  1. Your bokeh is too “crunchy”. Photographers often refer to “crunchy” bokeh, which means angular instead of blurred edges. First check if your aperture is wide enough. Make sure it’s as wide as it can go and if that’s not wide enough, you may need a different lens.

However, this could also be an issue with your lens not having enough blades or the wrong shape of blades, in which case the solution is to invest in a new lens.

  1. Your background isn’t blurry enough. Are you close enough to your subject? Check to make sure you’re close enough to your subject. In order to capture good bokeh, you need to be very close, so that the depth of field is shallow.
  2. Your subject is too blurry. When your aperture is wide open, it’s important to keep your camera steady. That’s because any movement can cause the entire image to blur, which is not bokeh, it’s just an out of focus image. Remember, one of the elements of good bokeh is that the subject is in crisp focus, while the background is blurred. You might need a tripod or other method of keeping your camera very still when you’re trying to capture bokeh.
  3. Your image is overexposed. Another potential issue is that the light may be too bright to shoot with a wide aperture. The aperture of your camera determines how much light is let in, which means shooting with a wide aperture in bright light can lead to an overexposed, or blown out, photo. A solution for this is using a neutral density filter, which filters out some of the light. Another option is waiting until later in the day, when the light isn’t as strong.

While this may seem complicated at first, capturing bokeh is surprisingly easy once you get the hang of it. As with many photography techniques, the key to success is experimenting with your equipment and seeing what works best for you.

Continue to lesson 34: Back button focus tutorial