Bokeh fits in the last category. An amateur photographer can take a macro photo and discover afterward that the contrast between the foreground within the depth of field and the background outside of the depth of field has a pleasing, out-of-focus appearance. A professional can create the same effect by using camera tools and settings. Of course, creativity and artistry also play a role since a professional appreciates how to use their camera, light sources and other elements to make “good” bokeh.
What Is Bokeh?
Bokeh describes a pleasing out-of-focus, blurry or hazy effect or quality in a photograph, typically in the background, that a photographer achieves by using various methods. Essentially, an unfocused background pleasantly highlights a clearly focused foreground. The word, pronounced bō-kā, is derived from the Japanese “boke” or “blur” and refers more to the aesthetic or feeling related to the effect than the actual blur.
The area of the image that has the effect is outside of the depth of field that contains the in-focus subject of the image. The total effect varies widely depending on many factors. The background blur can look creamy and subtle, swirly, coarse, circular or heptagonal. It can also contain soft, reflected lights. It’s important to keep in mind that the bokeh quality must appear smooth and create a pleasant contrast between the blurred area and the subject.
Bokeh in History
Photographic images aren’t the first to contain the bokeh effect in the history of human art. Bokeh merely describes the effect that has become increasingly popular in recent years with photography. Painters often used a similar effect on canvas and other forms of painted and drawn artwork. They would make their foreground subjects incredibly focused and detailed and create a hazy background that contained less detail to create a pleasant contrast.
With the creation of lampposts and eventually street and car lights, more artists utilized the effect and made these light sources blurry and circular shape in paintings. Modern artists now attempt to recreate the photographic bokeh effect so that their paintings look like bokeh quality photos. Hobbyists who love to paint can recreate bokeh photos using a variety of paints, including acrylics, oils and watercolors.
Good vs. Bad Bokeh
Photographers and others continue to debate not only the differences between “good” and “bad” bokeh but also if bokeh refers only to the blurred area or the entire image. Yet, there’s no doubt that “good” bokeh refers to an experience. It means that when someone looks at the contrast between the subject within the depth of field and the area outside of it, they feel that the contrast or the overall look of the image is great.
Qualities of good bokeh can include smooth transitions in the blur and soft edges on highlights and light reflections, as seen with round bokeh and heptagon-shaped bokeh, and an overall soft texture. With bad bokeh, the contrast and overall quality of the image feels wrong. In a bad bokeh image, hard, discordant transitions might exist in the blur or between it and the subject and textures or even colors between the two might clash.
Light Shapes and Bokeh
In a bokeh image, highlights and reflections can again appear as rounded or heptagon shapes. Some people actually confuse them with a lens flare, which creates a similar effect. Yet, lens flares occur when light becomes dispersed or scattered when it hits the lens. Another similar comparison is made with shots that involved water striking the lens. In those cases, the droplets can possess a bokeh quality by accident since they reflect light, which then makes them appear to have a similar form as blurred lights in bokeh shots.
With purposeful bokeh, adjusting the focus away from light source creates soft rounds or bubbles and heptagon shapes based on the lens design. These shapes aren’t always uniformly fuzzy. Depending on the level of spherical aberration in the lens, they can possess spots within them of higher light intensity and reduced haze. Of course, photographers can also create their own bokeh shapes, such as diamonds, hearts and stars, by masking off part of the lens.
Tools Needed to Create Bokeh
An extremely shallow depth of field is a standard bokeh element. Typically, the size and shape of the field and overall bokeh effect is achieved based on the shape of blades of the widest, fastest aperture prime lens (f/2.8, f/2, f/1.8 and f/1.4). Many photographers rely upon macro and telephoto lenses for bokeh effect since they’re designed to provide the best shallow depth of field shots.
Keep in mind that different lens designs can create different shapes with highlights. For example, rounded blades create soft orbs. That said, a photographer can achieve bokeh with a narrow, slower lens, such as f/8, as long as a shallow depth-of-field exists or the subject of the image and the area outside of the depth of field have a lot of distance between them with no objects six feet behind the subject. Bokeh also improves when the photographer is closer to the subject as with macro shots. Any highlights on the background from side or back light can make bokeh more visible.
Best Settings for Bokeh
Amateur and professional photographers alike can achieve bokeh with the appropriate tools and camera settings. Depending on the level of comfort, most photographers use one of several settings. They choose Aperture Priority, which makes it possible for them to use the camera to choose the shutter speed once they set the f/stop. Program mode offers the best combination of settings by the camera so that the photographer doesn’t have to choose the setting. Flexible Program mode offers the photographer a bit more control. More experienced photographers can set both settings in the Manual mode.
Special Digital Adjustments
Some cameras, especially on modern cell phones, offer “bokeh effect” settings that allow people to adjust before and after taking a photograph. With before adjustments, the app does all of the work and the user merely needs to point, focus on the subject and shoot.
Many photo editing programs also allow users to create the bokeh effect in their saved digital photographs. These settings are often marked as “blur” or “bokeh.” In some cases, a user simply rolls a brush over the area they want to keep in the shallow depth of field and the program automatically blurs everything behind it even when the entire picture was taken in focus. Some people use this feature to create unique color contrasts as well. They set the depth of field to contain color and the area outside of it to switch to black and white.
Best Shoot Setup for Bokeh
Beyond camera settings, a photographer must consider the setup in front of the camera. For example, they must place the camera within a straight line-of-sight of the subject instead of attempting a top-down shot to create the best contrast between the subject and the background. If they’re uncertain about the best background, they consider the options that can give the effect the color and texture they desire.
Most professionals recommend that people not use white or any light color that might not blur well or create too much of a harsh contrast. They often use dark or multicolor backgrounds or lights outside of the depth of field to create good bokeh since the colors and light intensity enhance the effect. Backgrounds that contain moving objects, water or anything that reflects light are also preferred to bland backgrounds. The key thing to remember is that a person must look at their camera’s display before they take the shot to make certain that they’re achieving the contrast they desire.
When to Choose Bokeh
If a person needs or wants a close-up shot with a blurry effect around it or in the background, then they should consider focusing their time and attention on creating the bokeh effect since blur without an emphasis on achieving bokeh can make the subject of the image look bad even if the focus on the subject is clear. Also, photographers often use the bokeh effect for individual portraits of people, especially young children and business professionals.
They also attempt bokeh when performing macro or big, close-up shots of insects, birds, flowers and other objects designed to bring out details that might otherwise appear blurred because the subjects are small or in motion. In addition, many people like to photograph brightly lit background objects out-of-focus to make them less bright or harsh, such as light sources. Some people even create bokeh shots with so narrow a depth of field that it seems like the entire image possesses a soft blur, as seen with decorative light images and shots of a single word or line of text on a book page.
Best Events for Bokeh
Images for any special event can look great with the bokeh effect. That said, people use bokeh shots most often for portraits and certain personal and holiday events. For example, a photographer might use bokeh for an outdoor shot of a bride standing with a natural setting behind her. This type of image makes the bride appear magical or gives the environment a magical or fantasy quality, which matches the theme of many weddings.
During the winter holidays, a person might photograph a Christmas tree covered in string lights in a way that each light has the rounded bokeh effect. Bokeh also works well with shots of children and small pets in seasonal outdoor settings during holiday events and birthday parties. Once a person becomes skilled at creating bokeh shots, they can make the bokeh effect between the depth of field and the area outside of it good enough that a child or pet stands out in an incredibly cute or fun way.
Create Mood With Bokeh
It’s impossible to talk about the bokeh effect without discussing the statement a photographer might make with bokeh or the impact that the effect has on the emotions of a person looking at the image. As already mentioned, bokeh can give an image a magical or fantasy quality and can influence how a person feels about small children and pets. The haze in the background can also make it seem like the subject of the photo is within a dream landscape.
Bokeh influences people in other ways. Some photographers again mask their lenses to create unique shapes for bokeh shots. One trend seen in the business world is bokeh quality shots that contain dollar bill symbols. These types of images hung up in a business can motivate, for example, customer service, office and sales workers because they make them feel like the dollars in focus (i.e. money) as part of the dream (hazy background) of increased wealth is possible.
As revealed in this guide, a person doesn’t need to be a professional photographer to create stunning bokeh images. They merely need a great lens and the ability to recognize the types of contrast that they’re capable of creating using various hardware, software and subjects.
The bokeh effect also requires an imaginative approach. As noted at the beginning, people achieve bokeh both by accident and exerting their will. As a result, many people create bokeh using an approach that falls somewhere between those two areas. They might photograph the same subject a dozen times until they create that “good bokeh” shot that makes them feel like they’ve successfully captured a pleasing contrast between the subject and blur zone. They might also discover that they can’t achieve the shot they want without altering the image digitally using software. Although some people might consider using software to create bokeh isn’t a hard-earned result, they need to remember that the camera uses digital software and that the end product, the dream envisioned by the photographer, is all that truly matters. After all, it’s this quality that bokeh represents best of all.