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Camera Basics What is Bokeh
Reading time: 8 minutes - August 17, 2023 - by Markus Igel

Camera Basics #15 - What actually is bokeh? The magic of photography!

The magic of photography has always been characterized by the aesthetics of cropping and the play of light and shadow. The word bokeh comes from the Japanese and translates as "blur" or "haziness". Other adjectives that could describe bokeh in Japanese are: beautiful, silky, soft or incredible.
The bokeh effect should direct the viewer's gaze to the essentials - the main subject of your shot.

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Understanding Japanese culture (Zen philosophy)

In the Japanese language, there are many terms that stand for a certain aesthetic. This comes from Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism is all about harmony and tranquillity between different objects. A soft bokeh calms the mind, because it directs the gaze to the subject and has a calming effect on the eye, while a restless bokeh and the associated directing of the gaze tends to have the opposite effect, as the eye wanders through the image much more but does not find a point of rest.

Why is bokeh created?

Short answer: shallow depth of field or an open aperture.

But the more detailed answer follows now: Any lens can create bokeh. The distance to the aperture and the focal length play a role here, as does the sensor size. The aperture primarily determines how much of an image is in focus, but the distance can also influence this sharpness. As you can probably see by now, the bokeh depends on a number of factors.

For example, the depth of field in a macro shot can be very shallow even at an aperture of f/18, because the distance to the subject is much smaller.

Bokeh exists not only in the background, but also in the foreground. An old saying among photographers goes: "Foreground makes picture healthy", because the foreground and background can help to shape the middle ground in portrait, macro or landscape photography, among other things. A blurred path leading to the model guides the eye to the model in the center without distraction.

Bokeh characteristics

In order to determine the character of a bokeh, we have tried to explain the philosophy and reasons for a bokeh in advance. But now to the characteristics, which also determine the quality of the bokeh.

Bokeh is now an issue for every manufacturer, and rightly so. The characteristic is determined by the number of blades of the lens. The rounder the lens blade structure is, the rounder the bokeh balls will be. A good value for a pleasant bokeh is 9 blades.

Some vintage lens collectors may be familiar with swirly bokeh, as some gems such as the Helios 44-2 have it. Open aperture fixed focal lengths usually play a role here. Swirl is the term used to describe the effect in which the highlights in the image continue to turn inwards at the edges and the viewer is drawn towards the center of the image. Old lenses in particular exhibit this "error", as it is a calculation error in the lens groups. Today, this error is deliberately sought, because we are in a photographic age in which the imperfect is just perfect.

Special features of some lenses

Perhaps you know one or two special lenses. We've also had one of these in our blog in the past - the Canon RF 85mm F/1.2 DS cannot be compared with other lenses with the same aperture of f/1.2, as it has an extra coating on each individual glass element, which softens the bokeh balls even more and thus makes the overall bokeh look softer. But Laowa, Sony and Fujifilm have also built special lenses that have a certain characteristic that distinguishes them from other lenses. The manufacturer Lensbaby in particular has made a name for itself in recent years for the construction of particularly artistic lenses.

Anamorphic lenses offer a very special bokeh, these optics have always been used in cinema, but the flares in the bokeh are special. These are aligned horizontally and are created by distorting the compressed image. This makes the bokeh balls elongated.

The effect of the sensor

Every aperture you choose changes the strength and purity of the bokeh. The bokeh of a crop sensor such as APS-C or MFT is harder or sharper than the bokeh of a full-frame or medium format sensor. If you photograph with the same settings on different cameras with different sensor sizes, you will get a different image in each case, as the sensor size has an effect on the depth of field.

The influence of focal length

The depth of field effect, just like the bokeh, can be strongly influenced by the focal length. A telephoto focal length reduces the depth of field and brings the background closer (background is compressed) if it is out of focus. A wide-angle lens usually has a greater depth of field and the background appears further away than it actually is.

The classic 50mm lens offers a good compromise here, often offers a very pleasant bokeh and is available to many photographers for a small price.

Background and foreground for a pleasant bokeh

The sea or water can serve as a glittering bokeh sea when photographing an object in the foreground, other ideas for beautiful bokeh effects are:

  • Fairy lights
  • Street lights
  • Drops of water on a window pane
  • reflective surfaces
  • Puddles

It is important that your bokeh has a certain evenness, otherwise a certain unsteadiness can occur very quickly.

Bokeh in portrait photography

Where, if not in portrait photography, is bokeh so popular? It is one of the stylistic devices that is almost always used, as it helps both the storytelling and the composition of the image by drawing the eye to the model.

The best tips for bokeh in portrait photography

  • use a fixed focal length or zoom lens with a continuous open aperture
  • play with the distance from you to the model and the distance from the model to the background
  • experiment with leaves, flowers or other objects to create bokeh in the foreground
  • use the body, e.g. the hands or legs of your model, to guide the viewer through the focus
  • use the automatic focus modes for the face and eyes, if available
  • work with an aperture below f/2 or f/2.8 to achieve a nice cropping effect
  • use the Golden Hour for particularly emotional snapshots with a golden bokeh
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Bokeh at night with streetlights

In the recording of our Fototage you can see how Christian Laxander plays with the light and the settings of the camera with the Sony Alpha 7 IV in our shopping street:

Tips for photography in the dark

  • switch on your IBIS / image stabilizer, if available
  • use the image stabilizer of your lens
  • shoot with an aperture of f/2.8 if possible
  • use reflections from wet surfaces
  • play with the colors of the city at night

Bokeh in wildlife photography

Animal photographers, who often photograph dogs and cats, cannot do without a lot of cropping with a strong bokeh. The favorite lenses here are of course a 70-200mm with an aperture of f/2.8 and fixed focal lengths such as an 85mm or a 135mm. Animals move a lot and sometimes unpredictably; the telephoto range gives you a larger field of view. However, we'll only scratch the surface here.

DIY bokeh effects

We had an interesting and inspiring panel at the Photo Days from our dear Luise Blumstengel, who showed us a wide variety of creative techniques, including on the subject of bokeh:

You are probably familiar with photos of hearts or stars that are reflected in the points of light in the photo. This is relatively easy to achieve - you simply cut the desired shape out of black cardboard and then attach it to the front of your lens.

Creating artificial bokeh with Photoshop and co.

If you blur a sharp shot afterwards, you will usually end up with an unrealistic transition. In Photoshop, you can work with the "Lens blur" filter, where you can set different radii to create an artificial bokeh. You should have cropped your subject and possibly used AI to restore or balance the background beforehand. If you select this background and draw it sharply using the function, you will get a relatively acceptable result.

You can also use this lens blur effect in Affinity. To do this, you should first create a new live filter layer and then apply the lens blur filter. There you can control some properties and use them to influence the implementation of the filter.

Bokeh example from photos at night
Bokeh individualized with prism
DIY bokeh with a cardboard stencil in front of the lens

A little task for you:

Play with your camera and the settings of your aperture, as well as with the distance to the subject and see how the bokeh changes. This will teach you how to use your existing equipment and explore the limits of your equipment.

Show us your pictures on Instagram and/or Facebook and tag us @fotokochde! We look forward to seeing your results!


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