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How to Create a Unique Bokeh Effect in Photography

9 min read

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Quick summary

Bokeh is a pleasing blur in a photo’s background, affected by aperture, focal length, and subject distance. The quality of this blur depends on the lens design, aperture shape, and lens elements. To enhance it, use a wide aperture and focus on a nearby subject, or opt for a lens that produces pleasing bokeh.

Bokeh photography is one of the charms of the art of photography. How the sharp image pops up from the blurry background makes a stylish technique that can produce appealing, professional-looking images. An excellent picture that you can be proud of to show to your family and friends.

Sure, many smartphones with dual lenses now have a field blur tool that can take nice bokeh, but if used to take photos with your camera, whether a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, you can see the difference with your bare eyes.

I will share my experience to help you explore and capture artistic and better bokeh, so you will know what kind of bokeh suits your style and how to capture it. So, let’s get started with the basics. 

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What is Bokeh? 

Bokeh relates to the aesthetic quality of the blur that occurs in out-of-focus areas, contributing to the overall image composition. It’s pronounced as BOH-kə or BOH-kay, with the Japanese pronunciation being [boke].

A beautiful bokeh refers to creating a sense of depth in a photo and isolating the subject from the out-of-focus background.

The word bokeh comes from the Japanese word boke (暈け/ボケ), which means “blur” or “haze,” resulting in boke-aji (ボケ味), the “blur quality.”

A lens’s optical effect causes bokeh. This effect results from the interaction between light passing through the lens, the lens’s glass elements, and the aperture within the lens. So remember, it’s the camera lens, not the camera, that renders bokeh. The distinct optical designs of different lenses result in varied bokeh rendering. Portrait and telephoto lenses with wider maximum apertures produce a more aesthetically pleasing bokeh than lower-cost consumer zoom lenses.

If you see circles in blurry bokeh shapes in the blurred background, that’s also part of the bokeh effect, which comes in many bokeh circles. We will talk about many types of bokeh quality later on.

Understanding Bokeh Photography

To learn bokeh photography, you need to understand the depth of field, which refers to the range in space that’s in acceptable focus. It’s a number, a measurement. 

focus, depth of field and blur.

Your lens is not capable of focusing at the same time. You can see not all part of the toy minivan is in focus. You have to prioritize a plane as your area of focus.

blurred background image of mini van.

A stunning bokeh is the result of a shallow depth of field. The shallower your depth of field, the more blurry your foreground, background, or both will be.

Adjusting the aperture in aperture priority mode alters the depth of field, influencing the bokeh quality you can achieve, with the shutter speed adapting to the chosen setting.

What Makes a Pleasing Bokeh?

To create a pleasing bokeh, the out-of-focus background blur should be soft and creamy, with smooth circles of light, without any hard edges, and beautiful transitions between the blurry areas.

So, when you see sharp edges bokeh with rough transitions between the blurry areas, you want to avoid that bad bokeh because its blurry quality is hard on the eye.

What Kind of Gear Affects the Amount of Bokeh?

The quantity and quality of a bokeh depends on many things. Not every camera and lens behaves the same regarding depth of field areas. Below, we will dive into each part one by one.

One way to find out how “bokehlicious” your lens is, is by dividing your focal length by your f-stop number. So, an 85mm f/2.0 technically has a creamier bokeh than a 50mm f/1.4 (42.5 is more than 35.7). 

Other factors make a lens produce an excellent bokeh, such as the optical quality, how much the element it has, the diaphragm blades and shapes, and so on.

Fast Lens

The more you open your aperture (decrease your f-stop), the stronger the out-of-focus background blur becomes, and the more lens blur appears. The easiest way to produce beautiful images with good bokeh is by using a fast lens or lenses with low f-stop numbers. 

A fast lens usually is a fixed lens. Meaning the lens only has one focal length. This lens can stop at f/1.4, f/1.2, or even f/0.95 for maximum bokeh. Fast lenses usually have a hefty price tag because of their large aperture and stellar optical quality. They also typically have more elements than the typical lens with a lower f-stop number, which produces high-quality images.

You can find a cheaper, faster lens to make a good bokeh with a maximum aperture of around f/1.8 to f/2.8.

bokeh portrait of a kid.

Telephoto Lens

Another thing to consider is using a telephoto lens. As your focal length increases, bokeh becomes more pronounced due to perspective compression intensifying the blurring effect. But the longer it is, the longer its Minimum Focusing Distance (MFD). MFD is the shortest distance from the focusing plane to the subject at which it can be sharply rendered, i.e., “in focus.” So, the longer your lens’s focal length, the more extended space you need between your camera and your subject.

A telephoto lens ranges from “medium” (ranges between 70 and 200mm) up to “super telephoto” (with a range longer than 300mm). Telephoto lens for portrait photography usually comes in the form of fixed lens (75mm, 85mm, 90mm, or 105mm). A standard telephoto lens that is longer than 100mm is usually a zoom lens and comes at a lower price than a fixed lens.

Using this lens can be tricky. A longer focal length requires a faster shutter speed, which is adjusted accordingly with your aperture settings so you won’t have a camera shake. If you’re in a low light condition, try using a tripod to have a steady shot.

focused portrait of a women on the street with background blur.

Vintage Lens

You can try using a vintage lens if you’re on a budget. Three countries produced them in the day: Japan, Germany, and Russia. 

  • Japan is known for lenses like Minolta Rokkor, Pentax, Fujinon, Yashica, Tokina, Ricoh, Canon, and Nikon.
  • Germany is known for lenses like Carl Zeiss, Isco Gottingen, Rollei, Pentacon, and Meyer Optik.
  • Russia is known for lenses like Mir, Zenitar, Industar, Helios, Jupiter, and Tair.

Some of those lenses are stellar and come with a high price tag back then. But now you can buy them at relatively cheap. The most common is the nifty-fifty lens. You can get a 50mm f/1.4 lens for under $100 depending on its condition and brand.

The advantage of using an old-school lens is that they have characteristics that make a great bokeh that I can’t get from another modern lens, providing an old-world atmosphere that creates nostalgia. Its strength lies in its unique bokeh; therefore, choosing a supporting background light source is necessary.

The downside is they are all manual lenses. So, it takes a lot of practice to nail the proper focus. 

bokeh photo of a cat.

Kit Lens

You must remember that every lens can blur the background to a degree.

A standard zoom kit lens typically has an f-stop number of f/2.8-4.0. The f-stop number increases along with your focal length. So, for example, if you have a zoom kit lens 18-55mm f/2.8-4.0, when you use it at 18mm, the largest aperture will be f/2.8, and when you increase your FL to 55mm, the largest aperture will change to f/4.0.

That being said, with that small aperture size, can you make a bokeh out of it? The answer is yes, with some adjustments. 

The most crucial factor in creating bokeh is the distance between the camera and the subject and between the subject and the background.

When focusing closer to the camera, the depth of field becomes shallower, resulting in more noticeable bokeh. However, if your subject is very close to the background, there may not be sufficient separation to form distinct bokeh circles.

So, to have maximum bokeh with your lens kit, focus as close as possible to your subject, use a wide aperture, and try to find a long or vast background behind it to create a more pronounced bokeh. Having a bokeh background with many trees and how much light at golden hours helps. 

But remember that you won’t get ‘Christmas lights’ kind of bokeh with the lens I’ve mentioned above.

Sensor Size

There’s been a lot of debate on this matter among photographers. Physically, sensor size has nothing to do with the amount of blur. But, in practice, it does.

Imagine using the same lens on two cameras, one with a bigger sensor and another with a smaller sensor. The smaller sensor camera makes you stand farther from the subject to get the same shot.

The subject’s distance affects bokeh; the closer you are to your subject, the more blurry and pleasing the background looks (bokeh). In this case, the smaller sensor camera will result in a less blurry background (less bokeh) because you have to stand farther away from your subject.

Of course, the two cameras’ size, weight, and price differ significantly. The full-frame camera is heavier, bigger, and more expensive than the APS-C camera. But for those unfamiliar with photography, I don’t think they can tell the difference when they see the result. 

photo using shallow depth of field.

Aperture Blades and Shape

The shape, number, curvature, and movement of the blades directly influence the shape and quality of the bokeh. A round and smooth bokeh is often considered aesthetically pleasing, and lenses with more circular or well-designed polygonal apertures can achieve this effect.

This effect happens because the shape of the wide apertures is a perfect circle when it’s wide open, meaning the shape of your bokeh will be circular, too. But once you increase your f-stop slightly, the differences in iris design become apparent.

How to Create a High Quality Bokeh Effect

Now, let’s talk about quality so your bokeh doesn’t only provide a blurry backdrop that draws attention to the subject. Still, it creates dreamy, eye-catching images and even otherworldly.

Several things influence the quality of bokeh. Let’s talk about it further.

Different lens manufacturers produce different lenses with unique characteristics. Each lens consists of multiple elements along with its optical structure. Here are some examples of how different lens designs can create different bokeh effects and shapes:

Cat’s Eye Bokeh

Cat’s eye bokeh, seen in fast lenses, is characterized by out-of-focus highlights taking on a distinctive oval or slit-like shape resembling a cat’s eye. This bokeh effect is accentuated when fast lenses are used at their widest apertures (e.g., f/1.4, f/1.8).

Cat’s Eye Bokeh.

When composing with off-center subjects, the cat’s eye bokeh effect becomes more pronounced, offering a visually appealing and creative element in photography.

Swirly Bokeh

Swirly bokeh, a particular vintage lens effect, is shaped by the lens’s optical design and specific aberrations. Vintage lenses, often simpler in design than modern ones, create this bokeh effect through spherical and chromatic aberration.

Swirly Bokeh.

The Carl Zeiss Biotar 58mm f/2.0 and Helios 44-2 58mm f/2.0 are well-known for their swirly bokeh. 

Soap Bubble Bokeh

Soap bubble bokeh, a characteristic of vintage lenses, is caused by their aperture blades forming a polygonal shape, unlike the rounded diaphragm blades in modern lenses.

The polygonal shape of the aperture leads to a distinctive bokeh pattern in the out-of-focus areas that resemble soap bubbles as background lights.

Soap Bubble Bokeh.

Mayer Optik Görlitz 58mm f/1.9 and 100mm f/2.8 are well-known for their soap-bubble bokeh.

Donut Shaped Bokeh

The central obstruction in mirror lenses causes donut-shaped bokeh. Many photographers like the doughnut-shaped bokeh lights, while others find it distracting.

You can get this donut-shaped bokeh effect in any mirror lens like Minolta RF Rokkor 250mm f/5.6 or Minolta RF Rokkor 500mm f/8.0. While this lens is relatively small compared with other ultra-telephoto lenses, it has its downside: it doesn’t have an aperture ring, so you only get one aperture.

Donut Shaped Bokeh.

Conclusion

As tempting as using bokeh-filled photos for everything, it doesn’t guarantee your photos’ uniqueness like any technique. Not every subject lends itself well to a bokeh background. 

For instance, if you’re photographing a broad scene or landscape, a shallow depth of field won’t work. However, bokeh photography can be a good choice if you focus on a single subject, like portrait, pet, macro, or still-life photography. 

While this may seem complicated initially, capturing it is remarkably easy once you get the hang of it. As you experiment with bokeh, you’ll discover plenty of options and arrangements to play around with. 

As with many photography techniques, the key to success is experimenting with your equipment and seeing what works best.

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A photographer who loves to capture moments on the street and cats using vintage lenses.
A photographer who loves to capture moments on the street and cats using vintage lenses.
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