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Mastering the Basics - Bokeh and Photography

Bokeh is a Japanese word that roughly translates in English as haze or blur. Bokeh is defined as the way a lens renders unfocused points of light in an image.

Originally, the word bokeh came from the Japanese word boke. The English translation of bokeh was popularized in 1997 when Mike Johnston, the editor of Photo Techniques magazine commissioned several articles on the subject. Johnston altered the spelling of boke to bokeh to indicate the correct pronunciation to English speakers saying:

I decided that people too readily mispronounced boke, so I added an h to the word in our articles, and voilá, bokeh was born. A Google search for the word bokeh just now resulted in approximately 13,300 hits. Seems the idea's gotten around... it is properly pronounced with bo as in bone and ke as in Kenneth, with equal stress on either syllable

How to Achieve Bokeh - Equipment

At its most basic, creating bokeh requires a camera lens and compatible body. However, differences in lens aberrations and the aperture shape and range will cause different bokeh effects. When it comes to generating bokeh, a fast lens is ideal – that is, a lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or wider. The AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E, the AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D, the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM and the Sony FE 135mm f/1.8 GM are a few popular lenses for achieving pleasing bokeh. Smooth bokeh is especially important for macro lenses and long telephoto lenses because they are typically used in settings that require a shallow depth of field. While the depth of field describes the focused area in a photograph, bokeh refers to how the camera renders the light in blurred areas of an image.

Some lens designs create bokeh that is pleasing to the eye, while others can produce a more distracting effect. Disruptive, jagged-edged bokeh points are considered to be less ideal than smooth, organic and soft bokeh examples. When choosing a lens for bokeh, it is important to consider the number of aperture blades. While a 9-blade diaphragm configuration is good, there are lenses like the Sony FE 135mm f/1.8 G which boast an 11-blade aperture arrangement for fluid bokeh. In contrast, a lens with a 5-blade aperture diaphragm may be less effective in cultivating organic bokeh, creating more angular points of light.

Octagonal bokeh Vs rounded bokeh
Octagonal bokeh vs. rounded bokeh

How to Create Bokeh in Photography

To achieve a bokeh effect, photographers often employ a shallow depth of field (DOF) with an aperture setting of at least f/2.8 or wider. If possible, use a long focal length and increase the distance between the subject and background to exaggerate the bokeh effect, seeking out specular highlights like lights and reflections.

Bokeh points are often most visible around specular reflections and light sources. Depending on the subject matter, equipment and camera settings, this quality ranges from soft dots to dreamily unfocused backgrounds. Some filters can also be fitted to the camera lens to create bokeh in the shape of hearts, crosses or swirls etc.




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Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or Instagram.


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