Bokeh effects are certainly a popular trend among photographers – especially within outdoor shots. But what exactly is Bokeh? Bokeh is a Japanese word that roughly translates to “blur” and, whether correct or not, is usually pronounced in English the same as the word “bouquet.” In photography, bokeh is the smooth, soft part of a photograph that is out of focus, like in the photos below.
I photographed this dragonfly with an aperture of f/5.6 at 250mm.
I zoomed into these leaves all the way to 250mm and used an aperture of f/5.6.
Bokeh also may consist of soft, rounded circles like in the picture below.
This bokeh was created using natural light, along with a 35mm zoom and an f/1.8 aperture.
This popular form of bokeh can be created with the camera or within post-processing, using actions and overlays. Check out The Luxe Lens Bokeh Photoshop Overlays to take advantage of 15 different bokeh looks, without having to mess around with special camera settings.
This picture was enhanced and bokeh was created using Photoshop overlays and actions.
Bokeh is effective because it's pleasing to the eye and it helps to emphasize what is in focus: typically the subject. Bokeh is particularly effective when taking portraits, like the one below, allowing the photographer to make the background behind the person(s) smooth. As you can see, there are many ways of creating and applying bokeh.
I photographed this lovely woman with a Canon 70-200mm lens at f/2.8 and a focal length of 88mm.
In order to understand bokeh, you need to know how to control a camera’s aperture. You can do this using either Manual or Aperture Priority mode. Aperture refers to the size of the lens opening when a photo is taken (refer to your camera manual to learn how to adjust the aperture or watch one of the numerous videos on Youtube that explains how to do this). For reasons that are difficult to understand for people not scientifically inclined (me included!), wide apertures create bokeh because they produce shallower depth of fields, meaning that the range of sharpness is smaller. It can either be very small, such as f/22, or very wide, such as f/1.5 or f/2.8. The diagram below provides a good illustration of aperture size and the blurriness produced, along with the relation to other major camera settings.
To create bokeh, you need to keep the aperture wide and get close to the subject, by either moving closer or by zooming in. Also, try not to have anything close behind the subject, since whatever is, will likely be as in focus—or nearly in focus—as the subject. It's still possible to use smaller apertures such as f/8 by increasing the distance between the subject and the background. A good rule of thumb is this: the further the background is from the subject, the more out of focus it will be. However, keep in mind that the further you are from the subject, the more difficult it will be to produce bokeh.
You should also be aware of the type and age of your lens. Newer lenses typically have rounded aperture blades, whereas older lenses tend to have straight blades. Rounded blades produce the traditional bokeh circles that are generally more pleasing to the eye. However, some photographers may prefer lenses with straight blades that produce distinct several-sided shapes. Neither kind of bokeh is bad per se, it is just a matter of what you prefer.
This image shows bokeh created with rounded aperture blades.
This image shows bokeh created with straight aperture blades
In terms of lens type, prime lenses (non-zoom) are great choices for bokeh because they have wide maximum apertures. For example, the standard 50mm lens, which is relatively inexpensive, can deliver excellent bokeh. High-end zoom lenses, such as the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8, are also great choices because the maximum aperture stays the same the entire focal length. In other words, you can still keep the lens at f/2.8 when you zoom all the way to 200mm. This is not possible in cheaper zoom lenses, which have a smaller maximum aperture at the furthest focal length. For example, the 18-55mm standard Canon kit lens has a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at 18mm, but a smaller maximum aperture of f/5.6 at 55mm. Again, you can still create bokeh at these wider apertures, you just need to make one or all of the necessary adjustments: get closer to the subject, increase the distance between the subject and background, and decrease the shutter speed.
If you want to be very creative, it is possible to produce bokeh in the foreground and background. You've definitely seen these kinds of pictures before, such as a photo of a person posing in a grass field. The grass in front and behind the person is blurry but the person is in focus. The photo of the sandhill crane below illustrates this technique.
I took this picture of a sandhill crane at f/7.1 with a focal length of 250mm. It shows bokeh in the foreground and background. There would have been more bokeh in this photo had I chosen a wider aperture, although I could not have gone wider than f/5.6 on this 55-250mm lens.With practice and experimentation, you can control how much bokeh you want in a photo. Once you reach a point where you know how to do this confidently, you can be as creative as possible and even break the rules to capture what you envision. And that’s really the fun part about photography!
About the Author:Ben Martorell is a photographer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He works for two photography companies, and also runs his own photography business: Ben Martorell Photography. He regularly uses Lightroom and Photoshop for post-processing of this professional work and enjoys sharing his knowledge with others. Ben is a graduate of Marquette University (B.A.) and DePaul University (M.A.).