What is the Bokeh Effect in Photography?

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.

learn to take bokeh photos

Photo by Maarten Elings; ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/80-second exposure.

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.

how to take bokeh photos explained

Photo by Dan Bergstrom; ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/30-second exposure.

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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8 responses to “What is the Bokeh Effect in Photography?”

  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!

  2. Lakshmi says:

    great article. I did not even know what the term meant! now I know. I wanted to enter a contest in Viewbug for this category. Not knowingly I took a photograph of a girl in bright sunlight in a park. It looks beautiful with Bokeh effect.
    Thanks for the tips. I will try them

  3. Ken Moran says:

    I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about the “bokeh effect”. It seemed to me to be just an interesting use of a very short depth of field, OK so it is particularly interesting when lights are beyond the depth of field. I teach photography in a public high school and photography has been a serious hobby since I got my first Omega enlarger and set up a darkroom in a largish closet. Using Depth of Field as an aesthetic element has been something that I cover on photo 1 along with Stop action, that’s fast shutter speeds and a moving subject for those of you who are wondering. Check out the work of Edvard Muybridge.
    So for the “bokeh” enthusiasts; a short depth of field can bring the viewers eye to your main element, another simple technique, but it’s not going to vastly improve your photography, that comes from understanding how to capture the image YOU want. And above all else having GREAT COMPOSITION !!

  4. Gerald Diamond says:

    I found you can get more interesting bokeh by using b&w transparencies in front of the lens instead of just cutouts.

  5. Tara Hudson says:

    This is exactly what I was looking for, thanks for this information!

  6. Hey Amy,

    I loved this article and your style of writing. I would appreciate if you emphasise the difference between soft focus and bokeh effect more.

    Though I don’t understand much, Your example of shooting a flower really helped the application of bokeh effect in practical

    Thanks, Amy,

  7. This article is great! As a wedding photographer, one of the most important aspect is to isolate the subject from the crowded environment. Bokeh not only creates distance between the subject and the background but also merges the colors. This allows photographers to select color that would pop the subject even better.

  8. Great explanation i just recently learn this technique clients love this effect

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