What is the Bokeh Effect?


What is the Bokeh Effect?

The “bokeh effect” refers to the quality of the blurring in the out-of-focus portion of a photograph – for example, when a streetlight in the background just looks like a fuzzy white ball. The name comes from the Japanese “boke”, which means blur or haze. Technically, bokeh occurs every time the background of a photo is blurry, but people usually distinguish between “good bokeh” which is soft, round, and pleasing to the eye, and “bad bokeh” – which is just blur.


How Do I Create the Bokeh Effect?

The key to creating any sort of bokeh is to ensure that part of your photo is out of focus. So that means that you just do all the things you normally do to create an in-focus image, but the reverse. (Go here if you need a review of depth of field). So you’re going to want to minimize your exposure time and use a low aperture like f/1.8 or f/1.4. If it’s not turning out the way you would like, try increasing the relative distance between your subject and the background you are trying to blur. That doesn’t mean that you need to move the background! If you just move closer to your subject, the background will grow relatively more distant by comparison.

If taking a photo with the bokeh effect is too tricky for you, or if you have an old photo that you would like to add it to, then there is always photo editing. Corel PHOTOPAINT X7 has added a powerful Bokeh Blur effect, which makes the whole process quick and easy. Check out this tutorial on the Bokeh Blur tool to learn how it’s done.

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How Do I Create “Good” Bokeh?

The quality of the bokeh is determined by the quality of the lens. Generally, high quality lenses produce soft, attractive bokeh. Think of the soft bokeh in a professional portrait, for example. That said, no matter what the quality of your lens, you can improve the quality of your bokeh by ensuring that your aperture is as low as possible and choosing a colorful background. Streetlights or leaves in the sunlight will produce interesting bokeh; a plain grey wall will not.

Not sure of the difference? Take a look at these examples of good and bad bokeh.

xvga_Parrot at Sunset

When Should I Use the Bokeh Effect?

As with all photographic techniques, knowing how to create the bokeh effect is only half the battle; you have to know when and why you should use it. The first thing to say about this is that it is partially a matter of taste – you should use the bokeh effect whenever you think it makes your photo look better. That said, there are a couple situations where it can be especially useful.

Probably the most common use of the bokeh effect is in portraits. In professional portraits, the photographer is always careful not to allow some object in the background distract from the subject. If you are in a studio, then this is quite straightforward. But if you don’t control the environment, then it take a little more ingenuity to get rid of all possible distractions. By blurring the background, the bokeh effect will make distracting objects into colorful blobs, which should keep the viewer’s gaze firmly on the subject. And of course, everything that is true of a portrait is equally true of product photography or macro photography; basically, anytime you want to take the focus away from the background, its time to use bokeh.

Here are a few examples of bokeh being used to draw attention to the subject of the photo – taken from our Animal Photography Contest.

xvga_In an eagles eye
xvga_dc00000332pce_Christmas Tea

Another cool effect is what I call the streetlight” or “Christmas Tree” bokeh. This is where you make a light source appear blurry and sometimes star-like. It’s a wonderful way to add mood or ambience to a photo. Nothing says artsy like a night-time shot with some blurring, far off lighting in the distance.

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