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What Is Bokeh?

Bokeh is a popular but sometimes misunderstood photography subject. Because it is so closely related to depth of field, sometimes people will confuse limited depth of field with bokeh, yet they are not the same.

Depth of field refers to how much of the photo is in focus and bokeh refers to the visual quality of the out of focus area in the picture.

The term bokeh comes from a Japanese word “boke” which carries a meaning of something that is blurry, hazy or fuzzy. It is commonly used to describe someone who is not thinking right or making silly mistakes and could be loosely translated as “fuzziness” or “confusion”. In photography it is used to describe the characteristics of the out of focus area in a photograph.

While most people will recognize how “good bokeh” improves a picture when they see it, it is not always clear as to what separates “good bokeh” from “bad bokeh”…if there really is such a thing as “bad bokeh”.

It might be better to think of bokeh in terms of good, better and best…since it is somewhat subjective and photographers even disagree as to exactly what it means.

Different Understandings of Bokeh

At its simplest or broadest meaning, the term bokeh is used to refer to the out of focus area in an image. In photography the term bokeh is used to describe the character, look or appearance of the out of focus areas in a picture. It is not so much how out of focus the background is…as it is how smoothly the out of focus area is blurred and how good it looks.
 
However, some photographers prefer to use a more technical or limited definition of bokeh. They only use it to describe how the lens renders the out of focus points of light. They will argue that bokeh only refers to the quality or fuzziness of the circular light sources and reflections in the out of focus area while others believe it is really more about the quality of the entire out of focus area, not just the highlights.
 
While bokeh is most noticeable around out of focus light sources, it is really not limited to just the highlights and can be used to refer to the quality of the blur or fuzziness in the entire out of focus region.

What is good bokeh?

Good bokeh helps separate the subject from the background and is pleasing to the viewer. It should have a soft and creamy appearance with smooth round circles of light without any hard edges. Good bokeh is when the out of focus area looks good and enhances the photo by helping make the subject the center of focus.

Bad bokeh happens when there are shapes, lines or structures in the background that tend to distract from the subject. While the background might be blurred it remains somewhat distractive and does not fully isolate the subject from the background.

good-bokeh This is an example of "Good Bokeh". Notice how the background area is smoothly blurred with little distinction.

This would also be considered an example of "cream cheese bokeh" because of the very smooth blurring of the background.

This image was taken with a fast F2.8, 70-200mm lens. The camera was set to aperture mode with an aperture setting of F2.8 and the lens was zoomed to the maximum focal length of 200mm. This combination of fast lens, large aperture and longer focal length combined to create a very pleasing blur to the background that helps isolate the subject.

bad-bokeh This is an example of "bad bokeh". Notice how the background area, while blurred,still shows too much detail or distinction.

This picture was taken with a slower 18-70mm, F3.5-5.6 variable aperture lens. The camera was again set to aperture mode with an aperture setting of F5.6 (the fastest for this lens) at the maximum focal length of 70mm.

The combination of slower lens, smaller aperture and shorter focal length combined to create a less pleasing bokeh or blur to the background.

While not a bad picture it would have been that much better had the background had a more pleasing bokeh.

What Causes Bokeh? 

Bokeh is the result of the optical design of the lens. That is why different lenses will have different types and qualities of bokeh. Normally your faster, larger aperture lenses such as an F1.4 or F2.8 lens will produce better looking bokeh than a cheaper, slower variable aperture lens does.
 
The bokeh that is seen in a picture is closely related to the aperture used to take the picture. A larger aperture (smaller F-Stop) will result in a reduced depth of field and a background that is more blurred. The fuzziness or smoothness of that blurred area (bokeh) is a result of the design of the lens. Some lenses are known to create “good bokeh” while others tend to produce a less pleasing blurring of the out of focus areas or light sources which results in “bad bokeh”.

Different types of bokeh are created because the aperture of the lens is normally controlled by a multi-leaf diaphragm. This allows the amount of light passing through to the image sensor to vary depending on the F-Stop setting of the camera. Typical lens diaphragms can have between two and eight blades and use either straight or curved blades. Straight blades will result in a polygon shaped diaphragm opening while curved blades will result in a more rounded opening. Generally speaking the more closely the aperture opening is to being round, the better the bokeh will be from the lens. So the design and build of the lens will be the determining factor in the type and quality of the bokeh a lens produces.

Two Types of Bokeh 

There are two basic types of bokeh commonly sought after by photographers. The first is normally referred to as “cream cheese bokeh” and known by the almost “gradient” effect it creates. This type of bokeh is commonly used on portraits and produces a background that is completely washed or blurred, resulting in a very smooth and pleasing background that really makes the subject stand out.
 
The second type of bokeh is referred to as “Hollywood Bokeh” and is known for its distinctive softening of the highlight areas resulting in lights or reflections in the out of focused area being very soft and round…yet still distinctive. This type of bokeh can be created using special attachments that go on the front of the lens such as the Bokeh Masters Kit . Using this type of accessory even allows you to create custom shapes which will produce a bokeh effect in the shape of a heart or some other special shape. These can be very effective ways of creating some cool special effects and making interesting backgrounds for you photos.

Here are two examples of what would be considered "Hollywood bokeh".

Notice how the light sources in the background have a very smooth, rounded shape with some distinction.

This type of bokeh can be very effective when used with product photography like the example to the left of even portrait photography like the example below.

hollywood-bokeh

You can create this type of special "Hollywood Bokeh" using your DSLR with the Bokeh Masters Kit

Getting the Best Bokeh Out of a DSLR

Here are few quick tips to maximize the bokeh when using a digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR). Most of these are techniques that will reduce the depth of field of the photo and maximize the bokeh effect.
  1. Use a fast lens. Lenses with large aperture openings such as a 50mm F1.4 or 1.7 lens or a 70-200mm F2.8 lens will produce better bokeh than a lens that only goes to F4 or F5.6.
  2. Use the largest aperture your lens has. This means selecting the smallest F-Stop whether that is F2.8, F3.5 or F5.6. The lower the F-Stop, the narrower the depth of field and the more the out of focus area will be blurred.
  3. Select a lens with a longer focal length. A longer focal length reduces the depth of field. If you are using a zoom lens you should zoom in to the maximum focal length or close to it for the best bokeh.
  4. Get closer to your subject. You will get the smallest depth of field when you are closest to your subject. For the best bokeh have your subject as close as possible to your lens.
  5. Increase the distance from your subject to the background. The farther the subject is from the background the more out of focus the background will appear. That while help maximize the bokeh.

Testing the Bokeh of Your Camera and Lens 

Want to know how to find out what type of bokeh your camera and lens produces? If so testing your camera and lens to see what type of bokeh it produces is relatively easy.

Here are some easy to follow steps to check out the bokeh and learn what different lenses are capable of producing.
  1. Find a bright colorful background…possibly with some lights on it.
  2. Put your camera in aperture mode and select the largest lens opening possible (smallest F-Stop number).
  3. Focus on a subject close to your camera so the subject is in focus and the background is out of focus.
  4. Look at the out of focus area in the picture you just took. The amount and smoothness of the background blur will determine if the lens can produce good bokeh. Pay close attention to any light reflections. If they are soft, smooth circular reflections that are well blurred then you have a lens that can produce good bokeh.
  5. Remember bokeh is a subjective judgment…so the real test is does the out of focus area have a good quality blur that enhances the image or is does it distract from the image? Good bokeh is one that achieves the look you desire in your photograph.
  6. When comparing lenses or cameras remember that the bokeh produced by a lens can change in different situations and at different focal lengths. One lens might work better with a specific background than another. Also the distance you are from the subject and the focal distance of the lens will affect the quality of the bokeh. When comparing lenses it is possible that one will produce more pleasing bokeh under one set of conditions but the other lens might be better under a different set of conditions.

Is It Possible To Get Good Bokeh with Point and Shoot Cameras?

Usually bokeh is associated with DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras but what about smaller point-and-shoot cameras, are they able to produce bokeh?

The simple answer is generally not...but there are some exceptions, which will be covered further below.

There are several limitations inherent to point-and-shoot cameras that prevent most of them producing good bokeh. While almost any camera is able to produce a limited depth of field that results in the background being out of focus, the design of point and shoot cameras really limit their ability to produce smooth, nice looking bokeh.
 
Here are some of the limiting factors of point and shoot cameras as it relates to producing good bokeh.
DSX-HX1While the smaller point and shoot cameras normally will not produce good bokeh there are some of the "supper zoom" or "bridge" cameras that will. These cameras have longer zoom lenses which help produce bokeh and some even come with "professional quality" lenses with apertures as low as F2.8.

One example of this type of camera is the Sony DSC-HX1 High Zoom Digital Camera. Even with the smaller image sensor this type of fixed lens camera is capable of producing pictures with outstanding bokeh.

Here are a few examples of good bokeh taken with a Sony DSC-HX1:

DSC-HX1-bokeh

DSC-HX1-bokeh DSC-HX1-bokeh

As you can see even some cameras with small image sensors are very capable of producing outstanding bokeh.

If you want to try and see what if any type of bokeh your smaller camera can produce, just follow the same basic steps as listed above to maximize the bokeh captured by a DSLR.
  1. Set your camera to aperture mode if it has one. If it does not have an aperture mode try using the macro or portrait mode instead.
  2. Make sure your camera flash is turned off.
  3. Get the maximum separation possible between the subject and the background. Since the small image sensor of the camera has a greater depth of field, you need to get as much distance between the subject and background as possible.
  4. Try to use highly reflective backgrounds or backgrounds that have some lights in them.
  5. Get as close to your subject as your camera will focus and try zooming in to different focal lengths to see what type of bokeh can be produced.



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