Bokeh is one of those photography terms familiar to some, and foreign to others. And, whether you pronounce it “Bo-Kay,” or, “Bo-Kuh,” doesn’t really matter. What does matter, though, is having quality bokeh in a photograph, which can make an image more visually appealing. Poor bokeh adds the opposite. Distraction.
So, what is bokeh? It’s the blurry background, yeah?
Well. In a way, but not quite. Bokeh is not technically the blur itself, or even the amount of blur in the foreground or background of a subject. Bokeh is actually the quality of the out-of-focus, or “blurry,” parts of an image.
Background blur is the result of shooting with a shallow depth of field. You’ll see this choice being made often in wildlife, and portrait photography, where the photographer intentionally blurs the background (and sometimes portions of the foreground) so as to differentiate it from the subject. The subject remains tack-sharp and in-focus. Take a look at the below photograph (taken in Costa Rica by Backcountry Journeys’ own, Ben Blankenship).
Good & Bad
When it comes to bokeh, what is “good,” or “bad,” is relatively subjective. Generally speaking, good bokeh is determined by how smooth and “creamy” the out-of-focus area is. Often, the result of good quality bokeh is even round light balls.
Meanwhile, poor bokeh tends to have harsher edges, heptagonal light blurs and is distracting. So, perhaps to put it most simply: if the bokeh is creamy and smooth and does not distract, it’s probably good bokeh. If it’s awkward and distracting, like the example below, it’s likely bad.
It is important to know that bokeh is created by your lens, not your camera. Because of this, different lenses will render bokeh differently due to their optical designs. Generally, portrait and telephoto lenses with large maximum apertures (like f/2.8) yield more pleasant-looking bokeh than do the cheaper zoom lenses.
Achieving Quality Bokeh
Get good bokeh by shooting at the largest aperture possible (smaller f/#s) while getting close to the subject. Obviously, this is not a static distance, or aperture because you can only get so close to things like wildlife, yet you can still photograph wildlife from a distance with quality bokeh. Remember, bokeh depends a great deal upon the type of lens you are using, and as with most things, the better the lens, the better the bokeh. Typically, fixed, or “prime” lenses and fast aperture pro-model zoom lenses will allow you to get good bokeh.
Test Your Bokeh
Would you like to see if your lens will produce good bokeh? If so, read on and follow along with your camera and best lens.
Step One – Setup
Set up an object at eye level, with space between it and background with some color. For this experiment, I set up Chewbacca on my tripod, using the Christmas Tree I recently put up in my living room. The colors from the lights are perfect for this, but I digress. I placed the tripod roughly 5 feet in front of the tree with nothing else between the two.
Step Two – Camera
Next, I set my camera to Aperture Mode, then dialed the aperture to its widest (For me, this was f/2.8). I then stood as close to Chewbacca as possible where the camera could still find and lock in focus.
Step Three – Snap
Lastly, I snapped a picture of Chewbacca. He was completely in focus, while the background was soft, fuzzy, and pleasing to the eye. The circular reflections should be round and soft, with no hard edges.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.