Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about bokeh and its history

Aug 5, 2023

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about bokeh and its history

Aug 5, 2023

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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Bokeh in photography - a sample of a field

There’s so much we can argue about when we talk about bokeh: whether we like it or not, when and how should it be used, what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad bokeh’. In fact, different people even pronounce it differently. Still, it’s a fact that bokeh has become an integral part of photography talk and photography itself.

But how did we get there? What exactly is bokeh, when did it become a part of photography and how did it become so important?

[Learn Photography: Aperture | Shutter Speed | ISO | Exposure Triangle | White Balance | Panning | Vinneting | TTL | More…]

YouTube video

What is bokeh?

Bokeh refers to the quality of the out-of-focus or blurry points of light in a photo. It isn’t what you call the blur itself and it isn’t about the amount of blur in an image. While you usually see it mostly in the highlights in an image, it isn’t only about background blur. Bokeh can just as easily be used to talk about the quality of foreground blur, too.

How do you pronounce it?

Bokeh comes from the Japanese word boke (ボケ). It means ‘blur’ or ‘haze’. You pronounce it BOH-Kə or BOH-kay.

Lenses

It is your camera lens that is the key element when it comes to creating good bokeh.

The biggest impact on bokeh is the shape of the diaphragm blades (or aperture blades) of a lens. A lens with more circular blades will produce rounder and softer out-of-focus highlights. If a lens’ blades create a more hexagonal shape, then the bokeh will be more angular.

Generally speaking, rounder bokeh is considered more beautiful bokeh. That means you want a lens with more aperture blades. The more blades there are, the rounder the shape they create.

The faster the lens you can find, so a lens with a wide aperture, will help you to achieve good bokeh. Look for a lens with an aperture of at least ƒ/2.8. A larger aperture with more background blur means more bokeh. (And you will get the bonus of better control of your exposure as well)

Prime, rather than zoom, lenses are also preferable.

When it comes to focal length, you will find that the longer the focal length the softer the bokeh.

How to achieve bokeh

We know that a fast, prime lens set to a wide aperture is the best place to start to achieve good bokeh. This will help to create a shallow depth-of-field in your shot. By shooting in manual or aperture priority mode, you can control your aperture.

A person standing beneath an umbrella, with bokeh from the street lights and cars.

Try to keep as much distance between your subject and the background to help with the depth-of-field, too.

Getting as close to your subject as possible will also help with the bokeh effect. As you move closer to your subject it magnifies the background blur. If you move away from your subject, you will notice that it disappears.

Your background choice is going to have an impact, too. If you have a relatively uniform background, for example a stand of trees, it’ll be smooth. If the background is filled with different elements, like people and cars, and buildings, then the background blur will have a messy feel to it.

Fashion portrait of woman with red hair in an olive green coat with background bokeh.

If you don’t have a super-fast lens, it isn’t the end of the world when it comes to bokeh. You can still work toward creating those out-of-focus points of light show up in your background. Keep your aperture as wide as you can. Shoot with your subject as far from the background as possible. And make sure that you get in close to your subject.

Different bokeh shapes

There are so many different shapes! Bokeh can be round, hexagonal, donut-shaped, cat eye-shaped, swirly, even square. You can modify your lenses and create dreamy or ‘explosive‘ bokeh. Or you can make your own shapes using a lens cap or cardboard. The possibilities are endless.

Typically, High-end lenses with a wide aperture will create a round, smooth bokeh shape; Lenses with straight aperture blade will create hexagonal or pentagonal shapes; Lower end lenses, even with round aperture blades, tend to create cat-eye-bokeh at the edge of the frame, and mirror lenses will create different shapes! Bokeh can be round, hexagonal, donut-shaped bokeh. Some lenses like the Petzval, have a unique swirly bokeh shape.

A short history of bokeh

Bokeh wasn’t really a thing until the digital era. And before that, it’s interesting to look at classical painting and how it influenced early photographers.

In classical art

Classical painters usually avoided blur in both foreground and background. Artists would place their subjects either against a plain background or against a very ‘busy’ one that helped to tell a story. In the early days of photography, this was the was how people were photographed. But interestingly enough, as photography evolved, it started influencing modern painting and sort of completed the circle. I find it pretty interesting how different forms of art intertwine.

In photography

Even in the 1970s, bokeh was still not popular in photography. If you watch the video, Simon the narrator says how the the first commercial bokeh-rich he noticed was the cover of the 1972 Pink Floyd album Obscured by Clouds. Back in the day, he says that he would have called it an ‘abstract photo’, and he was completely fascinated by it.

The term bokeh was first introduced to the photographic world in 1997 in Photo Technique Magazine. And only in the digital era, photographers started paying more attention to it. It was only in the 21st century that we started debating on how we can use bokeh to add quality to our images – and there sure are plenty of ways. This is when bokeh became more than just background blur – it became an art form. In fact, it became so important and appreciated, that even phone manufacturers compete who would make it look better in their cameras.

FAQs

What is bokeh?

Bokeh isn’t the actual blur in the background of foreground of an image. It’s the quality of the blur.

Is bokeh a Japanese word?

Yes, the Japanese word is ボケ. It means blur or haze.

Are newer or older lenses best for bokeh?

Older lenses often have straighter blades. These create less rounded bokeh.

Are Canon or Nikon lenses best for the bokeh effect?

It doesn’t really matter! Both of these manufacturers make fast primes with lots of aperture blades!

What is the difference between blur and bokeh?

While both blur and bokeh refer to a lack of sharpness in a photo, they have different causes. Blur is usually the result of using a shutter speed that is not fast enough, Bokeh is the result of a lens using a wide aperture and shapes outside the depth of field.

[Bokeh: How it’s evolving – and how digital photography is elevating bokeh to an art form. via FStoppers]

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Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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4 responses to “Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about bokeh and its history”

  1. Albin Avatar
    Albin

    Bokeh became a digital camera fad a decade or so ago, with photographers doing it apparently “because I can” with expensive lenses, but with the advent of phone-y blur standardized in smartphone algorithms I think it spoils more shots than it makes. A few years ago a major phone mag asked readers to compare a set of flagship phone images, including portrait and selfie settings, and I was interested to see most casual viewers much preferred seeing a straightforward sharp background to the built-in blurs some manufacturers imposed on settings. How about vacation portraits or selfies, supposedly documenting really being there among interesting street scenes or architecture, absurdly blurred out as fuzzy background by the default phone camera setting.

  2. Graeme Gunn Avatar
    Graeme Gunn

    Who wrote this? Is this someone’s high school project? Was this translated from another language?

  3. Anette Mossbacher Avatar
    Anette Mossbacher

    Quite a subject to talk about. The magic with the Bokeh. :D
    Nice written. Actually many like to use it as well in Wildlife Photography often.
    Thanks for the good read. I enjoyed it very much.
    Cheers Anette