What the Heck is Bokeh?

If you’re new to photography, you’ve probably run across the term “bokeh” and wondered what the heck it means.

“Bokeh” is a Japanese word that means blur. Now in photography, there is good blur and terrible blur.

Terrible blur happens when your shutter speed is too slow to capture motion.

Kinda like this:

Good blur is intentional blur, like in this portrait I took of the lovely Allee Sutton:

Bokeh and shallow depth-of-field are often used interchangeably to describe background blur.

But they are not the same thing at all. Bokeh refers to the artistic quality of the background blur, not the blur itself. Specifically, bokeh describes the quality of blurred highlights in a photo. 

Confusing? It sure is. Keep in mind that not all shallow depth-of-field has bokeh, but all bokeh depends on the photographer choosing shallow depth-of-field for their image.

To clear things up, let’s look deeper into these terms.

Depth-of-Field Explained

Depth-of-field (DOF) is a measurement of the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in an image that are in sharp focus. 

The illustration below shows both deep and shallow depth-of-field. 

Deep depth-of-field means everything in front of the subject (in this case the girl) and behind the subject is in sharp focus. 

Shallow depth-of-field means only the subject is in focus. The area in front of her and behind her is blurred. 

(For more on the differences between aperture and depth of field, check out this post.)

The amount of DOF you see in an image depends on:

  • Sensor size (full-frame sensor produce shallower depth-of-field than crop sensors)

  • Focal distance (how far away you are from what you’re focusing on)

  • Aperture (f-stop) setting. Wide apertures produce shallow depth-of-field, and small apertures produce deep depth-of-field
  • Lens focal length (24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 105mm, 200mm, etc.) 

A landscape photo typically has deep depth-of-field. This means there is a large zone in front of and behind the focal point that is sharp. Everything from the foreground of the photo to the background is in focus. 

Like this photo of a vineyard I captured near Nashville:

Portrait photographers often shoot at shallow depths of field so that their subject shows separation from the background of the photo.

Using a shallow depth of field in portraiture eliminates background distractions that detract from the portrait.

Here is a great example of using shallow depth-of-field for a pretty portrait. 

The focus is on the model, not on the background. 

Bokeh isn’t Just Shallow Depth of Field

To create bokeh, you'll have your best results with a fast prime lens with an aperture of at least f2.8.

Lenses with longer focal lengths produce more extreme bokeh. The lighting also has to be right for the best bokeh. If you study photos with pleasing bokeh, you’ll notice they are back, side, or hair lit. 

Here’s another example. 

See the bokeh behind the foliage in this photo? Notice the photo not only has a shallow depth-of-field, but also features those round out-of-focus highlights. 

6 Tips to Create Beautiful Bokeh

Want to add a little ‘bokeh magic' to your photos? Try these six simple tips to capture some beautiful bokeh in your next session. 

Bonus: Creating Shaped Bokeh with a Homemade Filter

For this project, you’ll need a dark background with multiple sources of light, and a subject of your choice. A black or navy cloth with a string of Christmas lights strung across its width is perfect. If you can’t talk one of your kids into posing, just find a cool object for your subject.

Next, you’ll need to make your filter. 

Place your lens on a piece of black construction paper, trace around the lens, and cut out the shape. Leave enough room to create a little tab so you can easily remove the construction paper from your lens later. Trim around the edges so the construction paper fits tightly to the edges of your lens.

Draw a simple shape on the piece of paper you cut out. (Example: heart, triangle, star, circle, etc.) Carefully cut around this shape with a utility knife. 

Don’t make the cut out too big or too small or you won’t get the effect you want. About 1/2” is perfect. When you’re satisfied, place your filter and on your lens and secure with a little duct tape. Note: don’t tape the filter to the glass portion of your lens. The sticky residue is hard (if not impossible) to remove. 

With your filter in place on your lens, stand close enough to your subject so they are in focus, but your background and lights are not. Chose the biggest aperture your lens opens up to and shoot in manual or aperture priority mode.  

You should end up with an effect like this:  

Play around with this and have some fun! It's a great project to try on a rainy day when you can't shoot outside. 

Want to Learn More About Using Your Camera Settings Creatively?

Join me for a FREE camera training where I'll teach you how to use your camera settings to take more creative portraits and landscapes. Register now – slots fill up fast. 


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