What is Bokeh? A Beginners Guide to Bokeh

As photographers, our goal is to capture eye catching images that captivate the viewer and leave a lasting impression in their mind. One way to achieve this goal is to create images that the average person cannot- such as shallow depth of field! Shallow depths of field produce a bokeh, a photographic characteristic that only proper cameras can do. 

So what is this ‘bokeh’ we are talking about? 

What is Bokeh? 

To explain what bokeh is, we first need to define depth of field. Depth of field refers to how much of an image is in focus. When a depth of field is shallow, that tends to mean that just the subject is in focus and the rest of the image blurs away. When a depth of field is deep, both the subject, the foreground, and the background are in focus. 

Bokeh is the characteristic and quality of the blur produced by shallow depths of field. Fun fact, ‘bokeh’ is a Japanese word which directly translates to “blur”! 

What Causes Bokeh? 

Bokeh is controlled by the lens and its aperture. The smaller the number, the wider your aperture. The larger the number, the narrower your aperture. The wider the aperture, the more light it lets in and the shallower the depth of field. The smaller the aperture, the less light it lets in and the deeper the depth of field.

How wide your aperture can go is limited by your lens. Some lenses have apertures that can go super wide, such as the legendary F/0.95, but others are more narrow, such as F/5.6. You can see what aperture your lens can go at its widest point by looking at the lens name, all lenses will have an F/-number- after the lens focal length (the -number- MM). 

For example, a Canon 50mm F/1.8 lens. The widest aperture is F/1.8. Some lenses have a variable aperture, which means that the width of the aperture changes throughout the lens’s zoom. This is denoted in the following example: Canon 75-300mm F/4-5.6. This means that at 75mm, the lens’s widest point is F/4, but as you move closer to 300mm, the aperture will start to narrow all the way to F/5.6. 

In order to achieve a bokeh that most associate with the word, your aperture needs to be an F/2.8 at its narrowest point. Ideal apertures are F/1.2, F/1.4, and F/1.8.

The look and shape of the bokeh is also dictated by the optical design of the lens. Bokeh can blur into either circular orbs or light or hexagonal shapes of light. Bokeh is affected by the shape of the diaphragm blades, and these blades are the ones that open or close to make your aperture. If these blades are round, the blur will be round. If these blades are another shape, the blur will look similar to the shape. 

Besides the equipment, the distance between you, the subject, and whatever is behind the subject also affects the bokeh, Bokeh is more intense where there is distance between the subject and the background! Bokeh is also more intense based on your position to what you are photographing- if you’re further away, the bokeh will be more prominent. 

The Benefits of Bokeh

Bokeh has several benefits to it. 

For starters, bokeh allows all of the focus to be on your subject without any distracting elements. If the background is not a part of the story in your shot, you can use shallow depth of field and beautiful bokeh to direct the viewer to look at the exact point in your image that is most important. 

Secondly, bokeh creates an image that cannot usually be created by a phone camera or a small pocket camera. This is advantageous for those looking to make a living in photography, as you want to capture photographs that the average person cannot. 

Third, bokeh allows the photographer to capture images anywhere, even in unflattering locations. This is because with shallow depth of field, the primary concern is to find a location that will blur away in flattering orbs rather than what the location really looks like! This helps shoot in parks that may be a bit disheveled or cluttered streets that may be distracting if shot with a deep depth of field. 

The Disadvantages of Bokeh

Sometimes, the bokeh is actually very distracting. This can happen if your bokeh is significantly brighter than you subject, the orbs of light fall into awkward positions in the image, or the bokeh blurs something that is distracting as a whole. Use this feature wisely to enhance your subject and not take away from it. 

What is Considered a Good Bokeh? 

Generally speaking, a good bokeh is one that adds to your photograph and looks smooth. A good versus a bad bokeh isn’t really defined, because it depends on the opinion of the viewer.

You want the blur to look even and uniform throughout the image, and not choppy or stark. A lot of this has to do with the quality of the diaphragm blades. More expensive lenses tend to have better quality diaphragm blades, and as such, the bokeh looks more pleasant. Good bokehs are commonly referred to as “creamy” in the photography community!

How To Get a Beautiful Bokeh

First, you want to find a location that allows you enough room to position the subject a good distance from the background. The further from the background, the more the background will cream away. 

Make sure that your background doesn’t clash color-wise with your subject, and isn’t full of objects that may make the frame look chaotic when blurred. 

Next, set your lens to its widest aperture point. Then fire away and enjoy the results! That is all there is to it!

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