What is Bokeh Photography?

Michael • Updated July 20, 2022 • 10 min read

What is bokeh photography, photo shows colorful bokeh orbs at night

The bokeh effect is most often seen in portrait and fashion photos, but it can also be seen in photos of food, flowers, and close-ups in general: The Japanese word “bokeh” has been used for a few years to describe the soft blur behind the main subject.

Background with a soft blur gives a sense of place. The picture will then look more elegant, and the main subject will stand out in a powerful way. Our article tells you what you need to keep in mind when taking pictures and editing them to get the bokeh effect.

The background should be blurry and reduced. The image will look more elegant, and the main subject will stand out more. 

Here are our guidelines for getting the popular “bokeh” effect when taking photos.


 

What does bokeh mean?

Bokeh is a Japanese word that means “points of light that are not in focus.” The name comes from the Japanese word for “mist” or “veil,” which is “boke.” (The “h” was added to make it easier to say in English [BO-KEH]).

It’s a very subjective word that’s often used to describe how an image’s blurry background looks, people say “the picture has good bokeh.” Or, in other words, the beauty of things you can see in a photo that is out of focus.

So, bokeh refers to how blurry something looks in the background or foreground of an image, not how blurry it really is. It is less important whether or not the background is clear or blurry.

What’s more important is how the areas that are out of focus blend into each other in the picture. Because of this, there is no numerical value for bokeh. Instead, it is described based on how good or bad it looks.

How to maximize a bokeh effect?

  • More bokeh is created with large camera sensors than with smaller sensors. This means a full-frame DSLR camera has more potential for a bokeh effect than a camera with a smaller APS-C sensor; compact cameras or phones with even smaller sensors produce even less bokeh.
  • Best for bokeh is a prime lens or telephoto lens if you want your subject to stand out against a blurry background..
  • The background will look less sharp when the aperture is wide open. The bokeh effect is best at F-stops of 1.4 or 2.8. The background is much sharper when the aperture is 6 or 11.
You can also use these three rules of thumb together:
 
  • The best bokeh comes from a full-frame camera with a prime lens or telephoto lens and an open aperture, like f/2.8.
 
portrait photos with background bokeh
Portrait with background bokeh taken with telephoto lens ©michaeldam
 

Debates about bokeh looks

Photography fans also argue about what kind of blur it is. Depending on the lens, the blur rings can be round, oval, or pointy. People think that being circular is a good thing.

Lens makers are helping this trend by making diaphragms with eleven or nine blades instead of six, which prevents blurring at sharp angles. Depending on the lens, there can be also bright edges around the blur, which many photographers would rather not have.

 
image shows a camera with mode dial or camera dial
Camera dial showing the AV mark ©emkanicepic
 

Switch your camera to aperture mode

If you already have a camera and lens, the only way to control blur is through the aperture: For example, set the camera to aperture priority, which is also called “aperture priority” and is usually marked “A” or “AV” on the rotary switch on the camera. Now that you’ve set the aperture manually, the camera will figure out the right exposure time for you.

Even if your camera doesn’t have an aperture priority mode, you can still get decent bokeh with a wide-open aperture when shooting sports or portraits.

On the opposite, if you set the camera to landscape or architecture, the camera creates a relatively detailed background with no or little bokeh.

landscape photo with bokeh effect in the background
Landscape background Bokeh, ©jamie452, Panasonic, DMC-GH4, 20mm, ISO 200, 1/160s, f/1.7

The best lens for bokeh photos

Most of the time, bokeh effects go wrong because the wrong lens is used. To get beautiful bokeh effects, you need a lens with a focal length of at least f/2.8.

Unfortunately, the kit lenses that come with most cameras only have focal lengths of f/4.5 to f/3.5, which seems not far from f/2.8 but is still not enough to get the blur effect that bokeh needs.

A 50mm lens is the best bet for beginners. These lenses are cheap, easy to find, and can be opened up to a focal length of f/1.8 or even f/1.4. 50mm lenses and telephoto lenses can both be used to make beautiful bokeh backgrounds.

Camera dial showing the AV mark ©emkanicepic
50mm Canon prime lens

Depth of field, or DOF, is better with longer focal length lenses, even when the distance between the background and the subject stays the same. When used with an aperture of f/2.8 or less, or when zooming in, a telephoto lens can make the blur effect much stronger.

Just keep in mind, that when the aperture is wide open, other problems like edge shading (vignetting) or ugly color fringes could happen (chromatic aberration). When the aperture is wide open, the whole picture may look a little soft and low in contrast.

There are lenses with large apertures, like 1.2 or even 0.95, that promise a great bokeh effect but aren’t sharp enough at their widest point, so you may have to close them down.

Aperture blades shape the orb of the bokeh

When choosing the best bokeh lens, you should also think about the aperture blades. Depending on how they shape the opening of your aperture, they can change how your designs look in the background.

For example, a lens with nine blades makes a circle-shaped opening, which makes the light sources in the background look round and natural.

On the other hand, a lens with fewer aperture blades, such as five or seven, will produce orb shapes that are pentagonal or heptagonal.

photo hourglass with background bokeh
Hourglass foreground/background Bokeh, ©aronvisuals, Nikon D7100, 112mm, ISO 400, 1/15s, f/5.6

The image composition has a big effect on the bokeh effect

A beautifully blurred background isn’t just about the lens and camera; it’s also about how the image is set up. 

  • Put a lot of distance between your subject and the background. 
  • Move your portrait model or subject away from a wall or plants, then the background will be less clear in the photo. 
  • When taking macro photos, make sure your main subject is far from the background.
  • Try out different places to put the camera and different ways to set it up. 
  • Pay attention to how the blur rings change when you slow down a bit (for example, from 2.8 to 4.0). 
  • Special lenses, like tilt-shift lenses, which were made to take photos of buildings without distorting them, or inexpensive effect lenses like Lensbaby, give you more ways to spread out the blur.

Having a good bokeh is important for:

  • Portraits photos taken with a camera
  • Photos taken in low light or at night 
  • Photos with a selective sharpness composition

Bokeh is less important when taking pictures of things with no depth of field (reproductions, enlargements), at hyperfocal distance settings, when the depth of field goes to infinity (wide-angle lenses), when the background is bright and it’s hard to see highlights on it, and when using smaller apertures or lenses with less light output, which also makes the blurred circles smaller.

Sunglasses with bokeh in the background
Sunglasses, selective sharpness composition, ©ethanrobertson, Sony a7M2, 35mm, ISO 50, 1/8000s, f/1.4

How to create bokeh in portraits?

Portraits are the most common things that are photographed that have nice bokeh. Bokeh is very clear in close-up portraits. Close-up and macro pictures of flowers and other natural things are also popular ways to show off bokeh in a picture. 

When you take a picture of a group of holiday lights or other highly reflective objects, you get an extreme example of bokeh. When sharp or bright elements are taken out of focus on purpose, they turn into soft, pastel, diffused orbs of glowing light. 

Using this technique to separate your subject from the background can also let you use a background that isn’t very eye-catching, but the blurred effect helps “highlight” the subject instead of taking away from it.

How does a decent bokeh look like?

  • Excellent bokeh: The blur is smooth and even, with no color fringing at the blur’s edges and no doubled lines or sharply defined edges on circular highlights.
  • Good bokeh: The blur is soft and even, and sometimes there are little color fringes in the blurred part of the image. There don’t seem to be any double lines, and the highlights look a little bit polygonal but not too clear.
  • Bad bokeh: The area that isn’t in focus looks choppy in general.

    Background edges look like they are doubled and stand out in a way that messes up the way you see things forever. In areas of the background with a lot of contrast, color fringes show up.

    They usually turn purple. As you move toward the image’s corners, the changes in color become more noticeable. Highlights have a polygonal shape with clear edges, and sometimes it looks like rays are coming out of their corners.

Smooth decent bokeh, nice scene of city lights
Smooth decent bokeh, City lights, ©winstonchen, Sony a7M3, 24mm, ISO 200, 1/30s, f/4

Try some online simulators to make a bokeh

You can fake blur with the help of apps. Visit the websites of camera and lens makers to simulate different zoom levels and blurry backgrounds.
 
Set the sensor size ahead of time, then play around with aperture and focus length virtually:

Use your phone to make a bokeh effect

At first, bokeh was hard to get on camera phones because the sensor area was so small. But background blur is possible, especially with the best phones right now. The most expensive phones have relatively wide apertures, like 1.6, and sensors that are about the size of those in compact cameras, like 1/1.7 inch sensors.

At least, the background blurs a lot when the subject is close. Try it and make a photo of a flower or a coffee cup.

Important: Tap your main subject on the screen before you take a picture to make sure your phone focuses on the right place.

Depending on the manufacturer, some of the newest high-end phones also have a feature called “live focus or aperture”: First, you take the picture, and then you use the slider in the photo app to change how blurry the background shouöd be. 

You can change the bokeh effect while you’re taking the picture, but it’s much easier to do it afterward. This is also good for moody portraits with a blurry background. However, be careful when applying a blurry background effect, as it doesn’t always look real.

photo shows a candle on a table with bokeh from lights in the background
Moody scene, candle with light bokeh in the background, ©jrydertr

Make bokeh effects with software

With photo editing apps like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom, you can use the “Field Blur filter” to create beautiful bokeh effects after the photo has been taken.

Here is just a quick idea of how to do this::

  • With the Quick Selection tool, you can choose the background around the main subject.
  • You choose a background and apply the Field Blur filter on it.

With the Field Blur filter, you can set a focal point in the image and then blur and sharpen other parts of the photo in different ways. Try it out and see what kinds of bokeh you can make with the blurred background.

You can also use it to directly change the bokeh. You can change the color and strength of the bokeh in your image by moving the bokeh color slider in the Field Blur filter.

photo shows typical bokeh orbs
Photo shows typical round soft bokeh at low light, ©tommyvideo

Tips and Tricks

1. Choose a good background

To get a beautiful bokeh effect, it’s important to choose the right background. Even though it’s easy to blur parts of an image with the right lens settings, this doesn’t always mean that the bokeh effects are nice.

Plain, black-and-white backgrounds don’t work well for bokeh effects because there isn’t much to see. Even though the background is hazy, light sources and patterns stand out clearly in very good bokeh images.

The best places to photograph bokeh are in cities. The lights from buildings and street lamps make your photo background look different and interesting. If you want to make really striking photos, you can also shoot in front of water surfaces. The reflections in water surfaces create beautiful bokeh effects.

2. Pay close attention to what’s in the foreground

Beginner photographers usually think of colorful, blurry backgrounds when they think of bokeh shots. But you can also use bokeh in the foreground, for example, by stringing up lights in front of your subject.

For a bokeh foreground effect, you’ll need beautiful light sources and patterns in front of your subject, just like you did for the background.

When you use a wide aperture, the shallow depth of field affects both the background and the foreground. So, if you focus on the thing in the middle, the background and foreground will become less clear.

3. It’s all about your subject

Between the bokeh foreground and bokeh background, you must set the scene for your main subject. This should go without saying, but if you spend too much time getting your bokeh effects just right, you might forget to make sure your real focus point is well lit.

People in bokeh photos sometimes look like silhouettes because they weren’t exposed properly in the frame.

In bokeh photos, the glowing orbs of different colors in the background are caused by a lot of light behind the subject. But make sure they aren’t too bright to avoid the silhouette effect we talked about before, unless you only want to show silhouettes.

Focus on your subject instead of the background to make sure you have enough exposure. Then, your camera will decide what the right exposure is for you. When the aperture is wide open, the image can sometimes look “soft” because the depth isn’t deep enough.

To avoid this, choose an aperture that blurs your background or foreground but keeps your subject in sharp focus. You don’t have to use your lens’s maximum aperture to get beautiful bokeh effects. If your lens has a focal length of up to f/1.4, f/1.8, or f/2.8 are often enough.

phoo shows women holding sparklers, bokeh round light orbs in background
Sharp subject, women with sparklers, bokeh light orbs background, ©cento4ka, EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM 34.0mm · ƒ/2.8 · 1/200s · ISO 2000

Read more about bokeh here:

Addicted to bokeh on summer evenings
Fujifilm Fujinon XF 80mm f/2.8 Macro
Helios 44M-4 58mm f/2 review
Bokeh is a form of visual fetishism
Create Bokeh Effect with Simple Camera Mod


Frequently asked questions

What camera is best for bokeh?

So, a full-frame SLR camera, like the Canon R6, Nikon Z5, or Sony Alpha 7R IV, has more potential for bokeh than a camera with a smaller APS-C sensor. Compact cameras or phones with even smaller sensors have even less bokeh, and really only work for close-ups.

What lens has the best background blur?

There are a lot of lenses that make nice bokeh. To get nice bokeh, you need a “fast” lens with a large maximum aperture, f2.8 or higher is best (smaller f-number).

What does bokeh mean?

Bokeh is the natural blurring of the background that happens when you shoot a subject with a fast lens and a wide aperture. Or, to put it more simply, bokeh is the pleasing or beautiful blur in a photo.

What do you call pictures where the background is blurry?

The only clue to the original depth of space in a photo is the blur or bokeh effect. The blurred background is caused by a small depth of field.

How to use a smartphone to make bokeh?

Smartphone cameras are made with very wide-angle lenses and short focal lengths, which give them a high level of sharpness and depth of field. The lenses are not good for a blurred background with clear light circles or even a blurred foreground.

Smartphones’ fake portrait bokeh is usually not very clean because it is made by software inside the phone.

Are some bokehs pretty and some not?

Most people think that light circles with onion rings or corners are less attractive. But this is a matter of personal taste. In my eyes, round, soft, light circles are nicer than onion rings. Some lenses have aspherical lenses built in, which cause what are called “cat-eye rings” in the blur.

How does a cat-eye bokeh work?

Cat-eyes are circles of light that aren’t quite round but are more like ovals. The vignetting of the lenses causes cat-eyes, which are often visible at the edge of the shot. I also think that light circles that look like cat’s eyes are beautiful.

What is bokeh donut?

Donut bokeh are light circles that are hollow in the middle. Most of the time, mirror telephoto lenses are to blame.


Wrap up

The Japanese word “bokeh” has been used for a few years to describe the soft blur behind the main subject. The bokeh effect is most often seen in portrait and fashion photos, but it can also be seen in photos of food, flowers, and close-ups. Many photographers use the widest open aperture available, such as 1.4, 1.8 or 2.8, or 3.3, depending on the lens. 

When photographing, put a lot of distance between your subject and the background. When taking macro photos, make sure your main subject is far from the background. You can test various bokeh effects with online simulators and create bokeh effects with Adobe Photoshop.


What is your opinopn on what is Bokeh Photography? Let us know in the comments.

By Furoore team member Michael
Furoore Team is here to assist you in capturing the most significant moments in your life. To create exciting photographs, discover photography guides, find unique photo ideas, and limitless image inspiration

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