If you’re here I bet you’re wondering: What the heck is Bokeh? Maybe someone mentioned it in a post somewhere or on a forum and you were all…”yeah…bokeh…I know what that is” [enter instant google search]. So a little google search might have led you here. Awesome, let’s break down bokeh in the easiest way possible, with photos! I love to have a visual to explain what bokeh is because I am a visual learner, a visual educator, and I think its the best way to share knowledge. Let’s get into it!
Bokeh is that out-of-focus prettiness
Bokeh (pronounced as bo-kay) is actually a Japanese term. It refers to the creamy out of focus backgrounds that blend beautifully into the image, kind of like a watercolor painting. In Japanese the word actually means haze or blur, so that helps to make more sense of the term. Often the term bokeh is mixed in with the idea of shallow depth of field, but shallow depth of field is technically focused on the “in focus” part of the image, where bokeh is truly talking about the “out of focus” parts of the image. So most often photographers are really talking about how pretty the out of focus blur is, rather than talking about the crispness of the shallow depth of field.
Bokeh is determined by your lens
Photographers like to have arguments over the best lenses for bokeh, and there are even camera and lens combos that people swear by (wedding photographers love the Contax 645 with an 80mm f/2.0 lens). But really it is the lens that determines the level of creamy out of focus-ness, and of course, your chosen aperture. I find that the 85mm gives the best bokeh of all my lenses with my DSLR. It has a crisp focus around the subject and the background becomes a gorgeous mix of colors. But I still tend to use my 50mm most of the time, which also creates beautiful bokeh when I shoot more wide open.
And although shooting fully wide open (f/1.4 or f/1.8 for example) gives the best bokeh, it might not be possible (or advisable) to shoot that wide open if you want to make sure your subject is in focus. So you want a lens that gives good bokeh even at higher apertures. I often photograph a couple at 2.2-2.8 even with my 1.4 lens. It gives me more room for error if I am photographing quickly and gives room for error with the actual camera focus, which isn’t always perfect. But the below photos were all taken at with my 85mm lens at 1.8 to show how pretty that out of focus background becomes, especially when the spots of light become rounded and bubble shaped.
Now that you know what bokeh is, it’s time to play and see if your lens can give you some pretty bokeh. If you have a kit lens (the one that came with your camera) and you want to try to get bokeh you’ll need to photograph something up close and zoomed all the way in. This will give you the most chance for the out of focus quality in the background. If you have a prime lens that goes to a low aperture, try the lowest aperture and move up from there. You should be able to see a pretty big difference rather quickly. Go out and have some fun with it, and practice with a friend or an immoveable object to see the difference of just a few apertures.