Stuff's Guide to Photography: What is bokeh – and how do I get it?

Add atmosphere to your photos by becoming a master of beautifully blurred backgrounds

So, “bokeh”: a Japanese word that has no English equivalent, but once explained a very simple concept for any camera-wielder to grasp. How simple? Well, this five-step guide will clue you in on all the blurry basics.

What is bokeh?

Put simply, it’s the way in which a camera’s lens renders out-of-focus points of light. So those attractively blurry backgrounds (and/or foregrounds) you see in shots with a short depth of field? That’s bokeh.

There is both “good” and “bad” bokeh

Each lens’ characteristics – namely lens aberration and the shape of its aperture – determine the sort of bokeh it creates. Curved aperture blades, for instance, help create bokeh that looks more circular and, to most eyes, more pleasing – there are even lenses like Sony’s STF 135mm F2.8 and Nikon’s 105mm DC-Nikkor that are designed specifically to produce beautiful buttery smooth bokeh. Using a lens with fewer or straighter aperture blades can result in bokeh that’s more angular and “ugly”.

Image credit: Jerome Marot

More after the break...

The wider the aperture, the more likely you are to get bokeh

Bokeh occurs when portions of the image are in front of or behind the in-focus area, and the easiest way to achieve this narrow depth of field is to use a lens with a wide aperture: F1.8, F2.0, F2.8 etc. Alternatively, you can use a longer, lower aperture lens – let’s say an 18-55mm kit zoom set at 55mm and F5.6 – and ensure the distance between subject and background is extensive.

Compacts and smartphones can achieve bokeh – but it’s tough

Because of their tiny apertures, it’s difficult to get bokeh in shots taken with point-and-shoot and smartphone cameras. The only way to achieve “real” bokeh with most is to take a macro (i.e. a shot of something very close to the lens), which will likely result in a blurry background and sharp, in-focus subject.

Image credit: Intensivtäteraggressor

There are some software tricks, however…

Many small cameras can use technical trickery to create fake bokeh. Android 4.4 KitKat’s camera, for instance, uses a clever algorithm to simulate bokeh, but requires that everything in the frame remains still for a few seconds. Most of these techniques can’t match the effect of real bokeh, but can deliver decent results in a pinch.

You have to login or register to comment.