“Bokeh” is the English spelling for the Japanese word that, when translated, literally means “blur” or “haze.” The word was introduced in an article on the magazine Photo Techniques back in 1997.
Eventually, it became popular in the vernacular of photography. Previously, there wasn’t a term to describe the visually appealing aesthetic quality of soft areas that help draw the viewer’s eyes to a photo.
What is Bokeh?
I must emphasize that bokeh refers to the “quality” of the blurry – or essentially out-of-focus – areas of a photograph. It’s NOT the amount of blur or the blur itself that’s on the background and foreground around a subject. Many people get this confused.
A lens with a shallow depth of field will create this blurry area. It is usually referred to as “background blur” and helps accentuate a subject that’s in sharp focus.
Bokeh describes the pleasing emphasis that this blurriness gives.
Here a photo to help illustrate this Bokeh quality:
You’ll notice in the center of the frame that the subject is in perfect focus. That means it’s within the depth of field of the lens.
The background and a few foreground elements are out of focus because they’re outside this narrow depth of field. You can achieve the same effect by shooting near a subject with fast shutter speeds while using a large aperture lens.
It’s a popular technique applied by professionals, particularly when taking portraits. It’s also widely used in still life, wildlife, and macro photography.
The several overlapping circular spots of color you see are light reflections. They give the blurry background a pleasant vibe and softness often regarded as “good bokeh.”
However, it has been a bone of contention among photographers. Some only consider the quality of these blurry circular reflections as bokeh.
Other photographers, like me, include the overall quality of the entire area that’s out of focus, not just these light spots or other highlights.
So What’s Good or Bad Bokeh?
The secret of good bokeh is in the lens. All lenses can produce a blurry background, but the bokeh quality would depend highly on the lens type used.
Zoom lenses aren’t as good because most have a maximum aperture size limited to f/2.8. However, there have been more expensive zoom lenses with larger apertures coming out, such as the Sigma 50-100mm f/1.8 for Nikon.
High-quality prime lenses and telephotos that have wide maximum apertures consistently yield the most appealing bokeh. For instance, something like a Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II prime lens will turn out some spectacular looking bokeh.
In contrast, the bokeh from a Canon EF 24-105mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens won’t even come close because of its narrow f/3.5 limit and broader depth of field.
How do you distinguish between good and bad bokeh? Generally, good bokeh should look attractive and pleasant to the viewer. It would appear creamier, and the color transitions between the blurred reflections and surfaces should all be smooth.
If you examine all the surrounding out-of-focus areas, you’ll notice the blur is even and smooth across the entire background. There are no jarring transitions, and all the light spots look soft.
It’s the kind of bokeh quality you should be aiming for in your photos.
What about bad bokeh? Bad bokeh happens when the blurred background looks inconsistent or rough, and there are hard edges. It also doesn’t make the subject pop out as it should.
Here, you can see that the blurriness and color transitions are much too defined and aren’t smooth enough. The subject doesn’t pop out and almost blends in with the background.
The bokeh here is too busy, rough, and lacks the creaminess found in the other picture.
Bokeh Spot Shapes
You may have noticed that the shape of the light spots is different in some photographers’ photos. It’s due to the number of blades in the diaphragm of the lens they used.
As you can see in the illustration, more blades and curves make the aperture rounder resulting in more circular looking bokeh spots.
This picture is from a Nikon 50mm f/1.4 that has a diaphragm with seven straight blades.
Most lens diaphragms today have more curved blades.
Getting Good Bokeh
As mentioned earlier, the lens plays an important part in the bokeh quality.
Portrait photographers prefer using prime lenses with large maximum apertures. Telephoto lenses with larger aperture limits would be excellent for close-ups of relatively distant subjects with a good background bokeh.
There are also some pro-grade zoom lenses with wider apertures than the common f/2.8 that can do the job. Low-end zoom lenses just aren’t designed for good bokeh and would only manage disappointing results.
If you already got a lens, you can test the bokeh quality it produces. First, get as near to the subject as your lens will allow and try to keep it in focus.
The subject should be in front of a colorful background, such as a Christmas tree. Also, be sure there are no other objects fewer than six feet behind it. You also have to make sure the camera is looking straight (not up or down) at the subject.
After switching the mode to “Aperture Priority,” you can set the lens to the lowest aperture number (maximum) and take a shot. Examine the image on your camera’s rear LCD.
If your lens is up to par, the subject should be in sharp focus and pop out from a blurry background.
Overall, the bokeh on the background should be pleasing to your eye, very smooth, and fuzzy looking. The circular lights, other items, and highlights should also look soft without any hard edges.
What Lenses are Great for Bokeh?
Prime lenses with round blades in their diaphragms with a sizeable maximum aperture will produce brilliant-looking bokeh. Examples are Canon 85mm f/1.2 II USM and Nikon 85mm f/1.4G.
You can also try more affordable models of these 85mm lenses with a smaller maximum aperture of f/1.8 and still get excellent bokeh. Armed with what you have learned, you can find one with the best price-performance point for you.