What is the Bokeh Effect in Photography?

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If you are new to photography you have probably only recently learned about the concept known as “bokeh”. It is Japanese in origin and refers to blur or a blurry quality, and in photography it is a very recognizable technique.

bokeh photos

“bokeh blues” captured by Jeff Laitila (Click Image to See More From Jeff Laitila)

Let’s first understand the fundamental differences between soft focus and bokeh. In soft focus photography there is an intentional blurriness added to the subject while the actual edges are retained in sharp focus, but in bokeh it is only an element of the image that is intentionally blurred. Additionally, bokeh tends to emphasize certain points of light in the image as well.

Bokeh tends to appear in the areas of an image that remain outside the focal region. Because of this the most common technique used to add it is a shallow depth of field created through a wide open aperture.

In order to create an image that contains what is known as “good” bokeh, the photographer must first find a subject which is easily captured in a close up or short focal distance. For this discussion we’ll select a daffodil blooming in the bright spring sunshine. We will want to be sure that the sun shining down on the bloom is also apparent in the background behind it. This is the way to allow the points of light behind the flower to be forced out of focus and create the round blooms which are so common to images relying on bokeh for their overall effect.

bokeh effect in photography

“Blue is my color” captured by Edgar Barany (Click Image to See More From Edgar Barany)

We’ll position the camera on a tripod and use the manual settings to focus the flower sharply. The next step is to actually un-focus the bloom slightly so that the background is completely blurred, but the flower is still a recognizable item. We must then decide upon the exposure settings for this image, and this involves the proper shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

Because we don’t want any graininess to ruin the prints of this image we will raise the ISO no higher than 400. This means that we will want to also keep the aperture open wider to allow a shorter shutter time too (remember that high ISOs and long shutters are the most common reason for digital noise).

For this exposure an f/5.6 is selected and a shutter speed of 125 is what the meter recommends. The wide open aperture creates an even shorter depth of field, and the background that we have already forced into a blur is going to become even more unrecognizable and dotted with brilliant points of light. This is what is referred to commonly as good bokeh.

About the Author:
Amy Renfrey writes for DigitalPhotographySuccess.com. She’s photographed many things from famous musicians (Drummers for Prince and Anastasia) to weddings and portraits of babies. Amy also teaches photography online to her students.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks for this great article. Bokeh is so beautiful and can really help showcase the environment of a photograph by highlighting out of focus light sources. I am a wedding photographer in Los Angeles and find that by using a smaller lens I can highlight the bokeh during receptions that usually take place at night. I have even played around with bokeh filters that you can buy or make yourself. The filters allow you to turn the bokeh into different shapes like hearts, stars, flowers, etc. It is really cool experimenting with bokeh as it can really turn a photograph into a beautiful and unique composition. Thanks again!

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