A blurry picture of a road

What is bokeh in photography?

By BBC Maestro

Once you’ve nailed the basics of taking photographs, you might want to start learning some different techniques to make your images pop.

One such technique that you’re probably familiar with from looking at photography (even if you don’t know the name) is bokeh – and it’s one you’ll definitely want to learn. So, with that in mind, let’s find out: what is bokeh in photography?

What is bokeh?

The term ‘bokeh’, comes from the Japanese term ‘boke’ and literally translates as ‘blur’ or ‘haze’.

It describes the aesthetic quality of the out-of-focus areas in an image, something which can either be nice to look at (sometimes called good bokeh), or which can detract from the overall quality of the image (known as bad bokeh).

When you use this technique, the out-of-focus areas of your photograph become soft and smooth. They also often take on a circular shape, although bokeh refers to any blurring in a photograph. Whatever shape it takes, it can be very pleasing to look at, creating a soft, subtle effect or a big, bold statement – depending on the photographer’s intention.

Bokeh isn’t the same as depth of field. Sometimes, when you look at a photograph, the main subject, whether it’s a person, animal or a landscape, is in focus and the background is out of focus. That’s depth of field: the portion of the image that’s in focus.

A higher depth of field means that the whole image is sharp and in focus, while a lower depth of field means that the main object is in focus, but the background is blurred – and potentially some elements in the foreground, too.

Bokeh, on the other hand, refers more to the quality of this blurring, and whether it’s aesthetically pleasing or not.

How is bokeh created?

Bokeh is created by the way a camera lens renders the out-of-focus areas. When a lens is set to a wide aperture, more light can get in. That results in a shallower depth of field which, as a result, means that objects outside of this narrow depth of field become blurred.

The lens you choose will have an impact on the bokeh effect, too. Using a lens with lots of blades will create a more rounded bokeh. This creates the softer look that many people describe as good bokeh. On the other hand, a lens with a fewer number of blades will create octagonal bokeh, which some people find to be more jarring to look at.

However, it’s important to remember that when people talk about good or bad bokeh, it’s all subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all.

A candle with octagonal bokeh behind

Why do photographers use bokeh?

Bokeh can help you to create a certain visual experience, giving your photographs a bigger impact. By creating a soft blur in the background, you help to draw the eye toward the main subject that’s in sharp focus.

If your main object is sharp, and the background has good bokeh, then it can create a more striking image. If your background is as sharp as the main subject, then it might not make the intended focal point of your image stand out quite so much. And, similarly, if you have bad bokeh, the background could end up detracting attention away from the main subject, creating a confusing scene.

The blurred effect of bokeh can also create an ethereal atmosphere, giving your photograph a dreamy effect that you might not be able to capture otherwise. That’s partly because bokeh can turn light sources, like streetlights or candles, into glowing circles that give the image a softer feel.

Alternatively, bokeh can make your background stand out, by making the colours pop. There are lots of different variations possible when it comes to bokeh, depending on what lenses, aperture settings and composition you choose, meaning that photographers have a little more control over evoking a specific mood or atmosphere should they please.

When should you use bokeh?

You can use a bokeh effect whenever you like in your photographs – after all, it’s all about using the technique to express your creativity. But there are some types of photography that more commonly use bokeh than others, including:

Portrait photography

In portrait photography, bokeh can be used to draw attention to your subject’s face and create a pleasing background blur.

Close-up photos

If you’re taking close-up photographs of intricate objects like jewellery, food or flowers a soft, blurred background can help to emphasise your subject’s intricate details.

Wildlife and nature photography

Whether you’re capturing a majestic stag or a beautiful summer rose, you want them to be the thing that your viewer is focused on. By blurring the background, it ensures that the main focus stays with the object of the image.

Street photography

Bokeh can be used in street photography to make the scene feel more immersive. If you’re capturing night scenes, bustling markets, or festive lights, bokeh can add depth to the photograph for a more three-dimensional feel, and a more engaging composition.

A flower in front of a bokeh background

How do you create good bokeh?

Creating beautiful bokeh is likely to take some time and effort – but that’s part of the fun! Here are some things to try in digital photography to help you get it right.

Use the right camera lens

Struggling to get bokeh right? It could be that you’re using the wrong lens.

Using a lens with a wide aperture (that is, one with a small f-stop number, like f/1.8 or f/2.8) will allow more light to enter the lens. That means you’ll get a shallower depth of field, and just the right amount of background blur.

When it comes to bokeh, the longer the lens, the more the background is compressed. That means it looks blurrier in photographs – which, when it comes to bokeh, is a good thing.

It’s best to use a long, fast lens to get good bokeh – but it’s not all about the lens when it comes to achieving an aesthetically pleasing look.

Create more distance between your subject and background

There needs to be some distance between your subject and the background to create good bokeh. The further the background is from the subject, the more out of focus it will become – and that makes for a smoother, more attractive bokeh effect.

Choose a good background

Creating beautiful bokeh is easier when you have an interesting background to work with. If you look at photographs with good bokeh, you’ll notice that even though the background is blurred, there are still prominent patterns, orbs and textures.

If you choose a plain background, there won’t be as much variation which can make for a more boring shot. Lights usually create good bokeh, whether it’s city lights, Christmas lights, or candles. When they’re out of focus, they add a beautiful, dream-like quality to the photograph.

If you’re taking photos in nature, you’ll also find plenty of inspiration for good bokeh, from foliage to trees. Similarly, water can create a unique effect. Lakes, rivers, puddles and raindrops can add a sense of tranquillity to the photograph.

On the other hand, busy urban environments like bustling streets and bustling markets can create a dynamic feel thanks to the combination of lights, signs and people in the background.

Bokeh adds a touch of magic to any photograph. The soft, dreamlike blur adds a certain edge to an ordinary shot, which can help create something a little more evocative. So whether you’re shooting nature scenes, street photography or portraits, experiment with how bokeh can bring your subject to life in new ways.

Ready to find out more about other photography techniques like bokeh? Take a look at Rankin’s BBC Maestro course, An Introduction to Photography. In it, he’ll cover everything you need to know to take great photos, from different types of lenses, to promoting yourself in the industry.

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