“Bokeh” originated from the Japanese term boke, which means “haze” or “blur”. In photography, “bokeh” refers to the aesthetic quality of blur in a photograph. Bokeh is often found in areas that are not in focus, and most visible where points of light are present.
These specular highlights and reflections are transformed into blurry dots that can greatly add visual impact in your composition.
Not all bokeh are the same, the quality usually depends on the lens design and aperture. A fast lens is ideal in capturing distinct bokeh, and the aperture shape and size likewise impacts the shape and size of bokeh. For example, apertures that are polygonal in shape will create polygonal bokeh while those that have more circular blades will create round ones.
Example of polygonal bokeh:
To achieve great looking bokeh, it is best to use the widest lens opening in order to get a very shallow depth of field. Apertures of f/2.8, f/2, f/1.8, f/1.4 are often used.
This photo of piano strings was taken with a focal length of 105mm and an aperture of f/2.8. The wide lens opening resulted in a very shallow depth of field where only the middle portion of the photo is defined and sharp. The background and foreground are out of focus and you can clearly see the round bokeh in the highlights. Also, notice that the farther away the bokeh are from the area in focus, the larger and more undefined the bokeh edges appear.
Close-up and macro shots are great at showing off bokeh but you can also have a bokeh-filled shot by distancing the subject from the background.
Bokeh may appear in your photographs without you consciously trying to make them prominent, but you can also deliberately include them in your compositions to enhance the overall appeal. You can try to find ways to relate the subject to the bokeh background, such as in this creative shot below:
If you want to get creative, why not make your own bokeh shapes instead of the usual round or polygonal shapes created by the aperture. To make your own bokeh designs, first cut out a piece of thick, opaque paper that you can place over your lens like a lens hood. Cut out the bokeh shape in the center of the paper. There is a technical way to find out how big the shape should be, which involves a lot of measurement and computation. To keep it simple, just make the shape small at first, you can always cut a bigger shape if needed.
Example of heart-shaped bokeh:
More tips when shooting bokeh:
- Use colored points of light to create colored bokeh. Holiday lights are fun to use, they are portable and you can easily drape them in the background.
- Bunches of bokeh grouped together can sometimes appear distracting. They could lose their individual shape and become one large blown-out highlight. Try to keep the points of light nicely spaced.