Bokeh: What Is It And How Important It Is

“Bokeh” is a term that comes from the Japanese word boke, which means blur. In photography, it refers to the quality of the blurred areas of a photo, usually the background. And it is as important as the sharpness of the focused areas of a photo as the appearance of the out-of-focus areas.

In this article, we are going to see what characteristics a good bokeh has and how we can easily achieve and control it.

What is Bokeh?

We often fall into the error of thinking that the term bokeh refers to those “circles” produced by blurring bright points of light. But the bokeh is not that; it is much more; the term bokeh refers to the quality of all the out-of-focus parts of the photo, both “the circles” and the rest of the out-of-focus areas.

It is, therefore, about the aesthetics of the out-of-focus areas that a lens produces, and in fact, that will be one of the factors that will determine the quality of the lens in question.

Bokeh doesn’t just happen in shallow depth-of-field photos. Of course, it can be seen much more if the depth of field is shallow, but even if it is not, we will also slightly appreciate the bokeh that the lens produces in the areas that are not in focus.

Without a doubt, a photograph with a shallow depth of field and a large bokeh is usually very attractive. Selective blurring is a compositional resource widely used in photography, and the quality of these out-of-focus areas is decisive in the final result.

What Characteristics Does a Good Bokeh Have?

Not all blurs have the same quality, which is determined by the quality of the lens we are using. A good quality bokeh should have the following characteristics:

  1. A gradual blur: If the photo is gradually and smoothly out of focus without offering double edges, this is a good bokeh.
  2. Some uniform points of light: If the light points are uniform, homogeneous, and do not have too hard edges, this is a good bokeh.
  3. Do not exhibit chromatic aberrations: Many poorer quality lenses show very marked chromatic aberrations in the photograph’s out-of-focus areas. The better the lens, the less likely it is that these annoying colored lines will appear.

If the blur that your lens creates meets these three characteristics, you are facing good bokeh and, therefore, you are also facing a good quality lens.


Why Create Bokeh in My Photos?

Now that you know what bokeh is, you may be wondering what the point of including it in your photographs. Why look for it?

Blurring our photographs’ background is essential if we seek to isolate the center of interest so that it gains greater prominence.

For example, look at these two photos. The first is made with a great depth of field. That it has the background quite focused, on the other hand, the second one has a shallow depth of field, which translates into an out-of-focus background.

As you can see, in the second photograph, you can see a greater bokeh, which makes the model take all the attention and, besides, it manages to give that aesthetic and professional touch to the portrait. How can two similar photographs be so different? The answer is bokeh.

In disciplines such as portraiture, event photography, or wildlife photography, having a beautiful background bokeh is a safe bet to obtain outstanding shots and ensure that the attention falls entirely on our photography protagonist.


How do you get the Bokeh?

And now that you’ve seen how good bokeh is for us as an aesthetic resource, you may be wondering: How do I get it?

The basis to get a nice background bokeh for our photos is to use a shallow depth of field. But what is the depth of field? Neither more nor less than the part of the photograph that we appreciate as sharp or in focus corresponds to the area in front of and behind the focus plane.

This sharp area will gradually blur as we move away from the focus plane. If this area is quite narrow, we will consider that we have a shallow depth of field, while if this area is wide enough, we will have a great depth of field. Therefore, to achieve a very noticeable background bokeh, it is better to have a shallow depth of field.

But how do we reduce the depth of field? It is very easy to control it, you will see. it depends on 3 factors:

The diaphragm aperture: The larger the diaphragm aperture (that is, the smaller the f-number), the less depth of field we will have. This will result in a more out-of-focus background, that is, more obvious bokeh.
The focal length: The greater the focal length used, the less depth of field we will have and, therefore, the more out of focus the background will appear.
The distance with the focus plane: The closer we are to our focused subject, the less depth of field we will have. That is why in flower or insect photography (macro photography), it is difficult to keep the subject in focus because the depth of field at such short distances is shallow.


As you can see, the lens we use will have a lot to do with achieving a shallow depth of field. So, if you want to blur the background, for example, in your portrait photographs to get a nice bokeh, it is advisable to use:

  1. Bright lenses: These are lenses with a fairly wide maximum aperture, f / 2.8 or even larger, such as fixed focal lengths that reach f / 1.8 or f / 1.4. As I said before, the depth of field is much reduced the more we open the diaphragm, so these lenses will be ideal for achieving beautiful bokeh.
  2. Telephoto lenses: These are lenses with a very long focal length, so they will also reduce the depth of field. If you also have a bright telephoto lens, it will be even easier to get a very evident bokeh. But yes, keep in mind that bright telephoto lenses are expensive lenses, usually with prices above € 1000.
  3. Macro lenses are specific lenses for macro photography, so their minimum focus distance is minimal. This means that we can get very close to the plane of focus, which results in a shallower depth of field.

A Practical Example

We are going to see a practical example so that you finish understanding how to control the depth of field in your photographs, to achieve beautiful background bokeh.

These two photographs have been taken in succession, with the same lens (a 50mm fixed focal length). As you can see, we have gotten quite close to our model, which already reduces the depth of field. But then why is the background blur barely noticeable in the first photo?


If you look at the Exif data, you will see why. In the first photograph, we are shooting at f / 13, a very closed diaphragm aperture, which widens the depth of field. Even though the background has been out of focus, we didn’t get a sufficiently sharp bokeh to isolate the model.

On the other hand, in the second photograph, we have opened the diaphragm to the maximum (of that lens), at f / 1.4. This is a very large aperture, so the depth of field is dramatically reduced. This helps us achieve a nice bokeh even if the model is not too far from the background.

Also, look at the bokeh itself. Not all blurs will give us an attractive pattern, like this one, with many bright spots, colors, and shapes. That is why you must look at the background while you are framing, because perhaps simply by turning 90º, you can find a much more attractive background for your photography, which offers you an impressive bokeh.

Thanks to this attractive bokeh, we not only isolate the model so that the attention falls on her, but we also achieve a very aesthetic background that perfectly matches the tonality of the model’s clothes and makeup, thus complementing our photography.


The Shape of Bokeh

When out of focus, very bright points of light from the famous circles that many confuse with the true meaning of the concept “bokeh.” These circles are not round because the light source is. The shape of the bokeh’s bright spots depends on the shape created by the lens’s diaphragm blades.

They are normally round because we usually open the diaphragm to the maximum to obtain a shallower depth of field. Since the blades are so open, the opening forms a circle. But if we blur a bright light point with the diaphragm blades not so open, this point will acquire the shape they draw, which will normally be pentagonal, hexagonal, heptagonal … depending on the number of blades that the diaphragm has.


But did you know that we can also create our own shapes in bokeh? There is an exciting home trick that we already told you in our article “Bokeh With Shapes: A Little DIY?” to get the bright points of light to have the shape we want by blurring them.

It is about cutting cardboard with the desired shape and placing it in front of the lens. This opening, being smaller than the diaphragm blades’ hole, will determine the shape of the bokeh.

Do you like to try the Bokeh?

Now that you know how to create bokeh in your photographs by controlling the field’s depth, you surely want to put everything you have learned into practice. Am I wrong? How about taking a look at our article “27 Bokeh Photos to Encourage You to Play with the Camera” for inspiration?

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