If you’ve spent any time talking to photographers or reading about photography, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered the word “bokeh” a time or two. What is bokeh? How does it affect your photographs?

This guide will take an in-depth look at bokeh (pronounced bo-kuh). We’ll describe what makes good and bad bokeh, and tell you how you can capture it in your images.

sunglasses with bokeh
Photo by Isaac Weatherly from Pexels

What is bokeh?

Adapted from the Japanese word boke, meaning blur, bokeh is a term that describes the shape and quality of the blur in a photograph. It doesn’t describe the blur itself — that’s the result of your depth of field. Rather, it describes the “look and feel” of the blur, or how pleasing it is to the eye.

What makes it good or bad?

Whether bokeh is good or bad is largely subjective. But, in simple terms, if the blurry part of an image looks appealing and adds to the photo, it is said to have “good bokeh.” Generally, these images have blur that is smooth, soft, and often described as “creamy.”

Circles of light will be round without hard edges. If the out-of-focus area of an image is distracting, one could say it has “bad bokeh,” with jagged edges on the reflected light shapes instead of smooth, round edges.

Bokeh shapes

The shape of the reflected light that appears in the out-of-focus areas of your images is a result of your lens diaphragm. Older lenses with 7 straight blades will produce heptagon-shaped bokeh. On the other hand, newer lenses with 9 rounded blades will produce more desirable round bokeh.

If you want to get artistic with your bokeh, you can buy a kit or create your own filters to make custom bokeh shapes like hearts, diamonds, arrows, stars, or whatever you can dream up.

heart-shaped bokeh
Photo by Joshua Slate from Pexels

What lenses create the best bokeh?

We mentioned earlier that newer 9-blade lenses create more appealing round bokeh. Prime lenses tend to produce better-looking blur than zoom lenses. Telephoto lenses are better at rendering depth of field than wide-angle lenses. Additionally, lenses with a wide maximum aperture of f/2.8 or greater are ideal.

Two lenses that are widely known for producing exceptional bokeh are the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II USM and the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G.

How to capture it

While capturing bokeh is largely a product of simply shooting images with blurry backgrounds, there are some things you can do to improve the quality of that blur:

  • Use a lens with a wide aperture. As we mentioned previously, lenses with maximum apertures of f/2.8 or wider produce better bokeh. Many kit lenses only go as low as f/4.5 and you’ll never achieve the blur you need. If budget is a concern, a “nifty fifty” 50mm lens is a great cost-effective choice of a lens with a wide aperture.
  • Choose the right background. It’s easy to get a blurry background in a photo but that doesn’t mean you’ll always have good bokeh. A plain background won’t have anything interesting going on, and a too-busy background will be distracting. Even though it’s blurred, backgrounds are always important.
  • Think about the foreground, too. Most people think of bokeh as only being in the background, but it can appear in the foreground of an image, too. The same as when you’re looking for a suitable background, make sure your foreground contains appealing light and patterns.
  • Keep distance between the subject and the background. You make the most of the blur effect if there’s a lot of distance between your subject and the background. In most cases, the farther away, the better.
  • Play with color. Experiment with colorful light sources to create interesting bokeh. City lights, neon signs, and Christmas trees can all make for interesting and beautiful light and blur shapes.
dog and christmas tree lights
Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels

Final thoughts

For many photographers, good bokeh is one of the benchmarks of a good photograph. Knowing how to take creative control and increase the quality of the light and blur in your shots will go a long way in improving your images.