What is Bokeh in Photography and How to Achieve It


How are you?

Have you taken any new photos where you used the technique of blurred backgrounds, also known as bokeh? Why am I asking?

Because today, we will be talking about a fantastic and exciting aspect of the world of photography. We will explore bokeh, a phenomenon in photography where part of our photo (or the entire photo) is blurred. This is the wow effect that we get when we separate the essential part of the photo from the background or the foreground (or both). As a result, when looking at the photo, we only focus on the sharp part, which is truly appealing.

I have researched what bokeh is, how it is created, and how to achieve it in your photos. You will learn about its history, technical aspects, and practical tips for achieving the best results.

Let’s dive into the content!

What is bokeh in photography? Definition, significance in photography, and history

Bokeh is an aesthetic phenomenon in photography that refers to the appearance of a blurred background or foreground in a photo while the main subject is sharply exposed. The word originates from the Japanese word “boke” (暈け), meaning blur or haze.

It is a significant element in photography as it allows us to focus on a specific subject or object while creating a soft and attractive look for the photo. It adds depth and dimension to the image and emphasizes the emotional tone of the photo. It is often used in portrait, macro, and sports photography. I use it most often during those times as well.

Bokeh is a popular element in digital photography today, allowing us to create beautiful photographs. Photographers of all levels use it to create appealing images, and with different lenses and techniques, we can achieve various effects. Yes, I like it a lot, too. I probably use a large aperture too often, and then only a tiny part of the picture is in focus. I’ll fix it next time. 😛

Japanese cherry, with a blurred background
Japanese cherry, with a blurred background.

History of bokeh

The term “bokeh” comes from the Japanese word “boke” (暈け), meaning blur or haze. It emerged in the photographic world in the 1990s. It was first used by Mike Johnston and Paul Johnson in an article for Photo Techniques magazine. Since then, the term has become established among photographers and has become a popular element in evaluating the quality of lenses and photographs.

Although the term appeared only in the 1990s, background blur in photography had been present long before. Photography pioneers in the 19th century were already using selective focusing techniques to achieve a blurred background appearance. However, at that time, the emphasis was more on the technical aspects of photography and less on aesthetics.

Technological advancements continued. Photographers began to become more aware of the aesthetic aspect of a blurred background and its impact on the perception of photographs. They explored various ways to achieve bokeh and tested new lenses with larger apertures and shorter focal lengths.

Bokeh in the Japanese language

The term originates from the Japanese language and is derived from the word “boke” (暈け or ボケ), which means “blur” or “haze.” The addition of “-h” at the end of the word was added for easier pronunciation in English. In photography, bokeh refers to the aesthetic blur of the background created by selective focusing and specific lens properties.

Japanese culture and aesthetics are strongly connected with nature and refinement, emphasizing beauty in simplicity. In this sense, bokeh in photography aligns with the Japanese sense of aesthetics, as it offers visual softness and gentleness while emphasizing the main subject of the photo. It allows us to create balanced and minimalist compositions in line with the Japanese aesthetic of “wabi-sabi,” which finds beauty in imperfection and transience.

Bokeh is popular and desirable in photographic genres such as portrait, macro, and landscape photography, as it creates a pleasant and visually appealing background that emphasizes the main subject and creates harmony within the entire image.

Understanding bokeh

Background blur

Bokeh occurs when you focus on a specific part of the photo while leaving other parts blurred. This blur is achieved by using a larger aperture (a smaller f-number), which creates a shallower depth of field. This means that only a small part of the photo is sharp, while the rest of the photo becomes blurred. The background blur is more pronounced when our subject is closer to the camera and the background is more distant. Do you also love properly blurred photos? 😛

Light circles

Light circles are another important element of bokeh. They occur when light sources in the blurred background pass through the aperture and are projected onto our camera’s sensor or film. The shape, size, and intensity of the light circles depend on the aperture, lens quality, and characteristics of the light sources.

Light circles
The magical world of light circles.

Types of bokeh

Good bokeh is characterized by a soft, smooth, and pleasant background blur that does not distract from the main subject.

Bad bokeh, on the other hand, causes distracting or unpleasant elements in the blurred background, such as harsh edges or unnatural shapes. You can fix it using a program like Adobe Photoshop, but I’ll write about that another time. Just for your information, if you’re interested, you can find these instructions on YouTube.

Creative bokeh involves using various techniques and accessories, such as special apertures, filters, or templates, to create unique and interesting blur patterns and light circles in the background of the photo. This allows photographic artists to express their creativity and add a personal touch to their work.

Technical aspects of bokeh


The aperture is an opening in the lens that controls the amount of light entering the camera. The size of the aperture affects the depth of field, which directly influences bokeh. A larger aperture (a smaller f-number, for example, f/1.8) creates a shallower depth of field. In other words, only a small part of our photo will be sharp, making the background more blurred.

To achieve bokeh, we need to choose a larger aperture (for example, f/1.8, f/2.0, or f/2.8). The aperture size depends on the desired effect and the lenses available. It is essential to experiment with different apertures to find the one that best suits your photography style.

Focal length

The focal length is the distance between the lens and the camera’s sensor or film. A longer focal length (e.g., 85mm, 135mm, or 200mm) increases the background blur and, therefore, enhances bokeh. Lenses with a longer focal length are popular in portrait photography, where bokeh is of utmost importance. Try taking a photo of a person at home. On the first photo, choose the smallest focal length, say 24mm, and on the second, the largest, say 70mm. Then compare the photos.

The optimal focal length depends on the desired background blur and the type of photography. For portrait photography, focal lengths between 85mm and 135mm are recommended, while macro photography uses lenses with a focal length of 100mm or more.

The distance between the subject and the background affects the intensity of the bokeh. A greater distance between the subject and the background results in a stronger background blur and more pronounced bokeh. It is also essential to place the subject closer to the camera, increasing the depth of field. So, the more millimeters on the lens, the closer the subject and the more distant the background.

portrait photography and blurred backgrounds
Portrait photography and blurred backgrounds. Now you can imagine what the portrait looks like if the background is further away.

Adjusting distance techniques

Experiment with various distances between the subject and the background to find the right combination. Use different angles when shooting to emphasize bokeh. Move closer or further from the person or object you are photographing to adjust the depth of field. The background is also crucial; in fact, the background is very important. I often describe to someone how important the background is. If someone asks me if I can take their photo while we are in a place with a very inappropriate background, I show them a portrait taken at sunset with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background as a comparison. The person next to me immediately understood what I meant. Yes, the background is everything!

Choose a background that will help you achieve the desired bokeh effect. For example, use light sources such as lights or sun rays passing through trees to create interesting light circles and enhance background blur.

Don’t limit yourself to technical aspects alone. Experiment with different compositions and aesthetic approaches. In this way, you will develop your unique photography style and learn how to make the most of bokeh to enhance your photos.

Achieving the desired bokeh: Practical tips

Camera settings

How do I set up my camera? The first thing I always check is my lens. I make sure I’m using a lens with a large aperture, such as f/1.8 or f/2.2 (I have a 1.8 and a 2.8), which allows more light and creates a more blurred background. Next, I set my camera to autofocus and get as close as possible to my subject. This helps me emphasize bokeh and create sharpness on the desired object. If you are photographing static objects, you can also try manual focusing. This way, you’ll have more control over the point you want to be the sharpest.

In the settings, I don’t forget about the distance between the subject and the background. The greater this distance, the more blurred the bokeh will be. And of course, to achieve truly magical results, I love to photograph during the golden hour, when the light is warm and gentle.

Avoiding complex backgrounds

To achieve a beautiful and unobtrusive bokeh, avoid complex backgrounds with lots of details or contrasting elements. Simple backgrounds, such as solid-color walls, soft patterns, or natural scenes, will contribute to creating a softer and more pleasant bokeh. Of course, feel free to experiment. If you want a vivid, energetic photo, ignore my previous instructions! 🙂

portrait with a simple background
Portrait with a simple background.

Experimenting with different light sources

Light sources in the background, such as lights or sun rays, can create interesting light circles and add depth and dynamism to the blurred background. Try shooting with various light sources, such as city lights, candles, or reflections on the water surface, to achieve diverse and exciting effects. Or try using Christmas tree lights in the background. This creates a unique effect that you must try.

Choosing the right camera for the best bokeh

As a photographer, I am always amazed by how different factors influence my photographs. One thing that particularly intrigued me was the impact of the camera sensor size on bokeh. Up until now, I have mainly focused on aperture and distance in the article, but I have found that the sensor size also plays a significant role in creating that magical blurred background.

In general, larger sensors, like those found in DSLRs or mirrorless cameras, allow for a more blurred bokeh. This means that with a camera with a larger sensor, it is easier to create that beautiful soft background that we all love.

Compared to larger sensors, compact cameras and phones have smaller sensors, which can make it difficult to create a blurred background. However, even with these cameras, bokeh can be achieved if appropriate settings are used, such as a wide aperture and a greater distance between the subject and the background.

I discovered for myself that sensor size does indeed affect my bokeh, with a larger sensor allowing for a more blurred bokeh. So, if you want truly outstanding results, use a camera with a larger sensor. Of course, this does not mean you should replace your camera on the first day. First, make the most of the gear you already have. If you see the need for a new piece of equipment that will take you to the next level, then consider upgrading or purchasing. Even with a compact camera or phone, you can create beautiful shots if you use the right settings.

concert photo
Concert photo. In the photo is the lead singer of the Slovenian band Čuki. I took the picture using a Sony A7 III camera and a Sony 50mm f1.8 lens.

Choosing the right lens for the best bokeh

Fast lenses are those with a larger aperture (e.g., f/1.8, f/1.4, or f/1.2). These lenses allow more light to enter the camera and create a shallower depth of field, leading to more pronounced bokeh. Fast lenses are ideal for low-light situations and creating strong bokeh.

Prime lenses or zoom lenses with a low f-number are also excellent for achieving bokeh. Prime lenses, which have a fixed focal length, are often better for achieving a softer bokeh due to their optical design.

Which lenses are suitable for bokeh?

I have compiled a list of some of the best lenses from various brands, such as Sony, Canon, Nikon, Sigma, and Tamron, with which you can achieve top-notch results.

Of course, there are more lenses suitable for achieving excellent blur. This list is an excellent starting point for exploration. It is essential to choose a lens that suits your photography style and needs.

List of Sony lenses

  • Sony FE 50mm f/1.8
  • Sony FE 85mm f/1.8
  • Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM
  • Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS
  • Sony FE 135mm f/1.8 GM

List of Canon lenses

  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM
  • Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM
  • Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM
  • Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM

List of Nikon lenses

  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G
  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G
  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR
  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 105mm f/1.4E ED

List of Sigma lenses

  • Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
  • Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Ar
  • Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
  • Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sports
  • Sigma 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM

List of Tamron lenses

  • Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC USD
  • Tamron SP 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD
  • Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4 Di USD
  • Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2
  • Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD

What is the difference between bokeh and blur?

Bokeh and blur are two terms often used in photography and refer to different aspects of a blurred background. Bokeh is an aesthetic effect of blur, characterized by its softness, smoothness, and shapes of light circles that result from light sources in the background. It is a consequence of selective focusing, lens aperture, and lens quality. It is an attractive and desirable effect in many photographic genres, such as portrait, macro, and landscape photography.

blurred photo
Blurred photo.

Blur, on the other hand, is a more general term that refers to any part of a photograph that is not sharp. Blur can be a result of improper focusing and the movement of the subject or camera during shooting. It is also used deliberately to create a blurred background and emphasize the main subject. Blur itself is not necessarily aesthetically appealing or unappealing; it depends on the context and how it is used in an individual photograph.

Thus, we see that bokeh is a special type of blur that has specific aesthetic characteristics and is considered an attractive effect. While blur is a more general term that encompasses everything that is not sharp in a photograph, regardless of aesthetic value or purpose.

When to use bokeh and when not to use it?

As I mentioned before, I sometimes overuse a large aperture. There are also moments when I realize that this will not be a good idea, and then I reduce the aperture size. In which cases do I use which function?

When I want to create a blurred background in my photographs, I use the bokeh effect. This allows me to emphasize the subject and eliminate distracting elements in the background. It is especially effective in portrait and macro photography, as it makes it easier to focus on details and facial features.

A lens I can use to achieve this is my Sony 50mm f1.8 or the Tamron 28-75mm f2.8. Of course, the best effect is at 75mm when I am close to the subject and the background is far behind.

However, I am aware that bokeh is not suitable for all situations. When I want to capture the entire scene and display more details, I avoid using this effect. For example, when photographing landscapes or architecture, I want to maintain sharp edges and clear textures throughout the frame, so I prefer to opt for a greater depth of field.

But still, there are exceptions. Sometimes I see that a photo will be more beautiful if the front part of the image is blurred. Then a photo is created, like the one below.

A landscape photograph
A photograph of nature with a blurred foreground.

Can we create a bokeh effect with a smartphone?


We can create a bokeh effect using a smartphone! Although DSLR and mirrorless cameras typically offer greater control over creating the effect, smartphones are also capable of producing beautiful blurred backgrounds. With the help of modern cameras and advanced features such as portrait or macro mode, it’s easy to achieve the bokeh effect. We just need to focus on the right distance and find the appropriate lighting, and then we can create true bokeh magic in our photos.

When selecting the right mode, ensure that the object we want to photograph is close enough and separated from the background. Then, illuminate the object, focus on it, and take the picture. If necessary, the background blur can also be adjusted after the photo has been taken.

Android phone

If you have an Android phone, you can use the “Live Focus” or “Portrait Mode” feature (depending on the phone model), which is usually found in the camera settings. Some testing and exploration are required to achieve the best results.

iPhone phone

I have an iPhone (model SE; I really like this phone because it’s small and I can carry it easily in my pocket without even noticing it’s there). On the iPhone, find the “Portrait Mode” feature, which is located at the bottom of the camera screen. That’s it. Take pictures. Experiment.

Using apps

By using apps like Snapseed or Adobe Lightroom, you can gain additional control over the bokeh effect. By adjusting the depth of field and other settings, you can create just the right amount of blur for your photos.

Bonus photo, made with DALL-E 3

I added this graphic later.

As I have written in my more recent posts, I have been exploring artificial intelligence tools quite a lot lately. I’m very impressed. Check out the post about the aspect ratios that DALL-E 3 can handle. I also described some prompts and added a few examples of pictures.

The second post is about how I can now talk to a robot. Something that, a few years ago, I couldn’t have imagined would be possible. Well, the bonus photo is made with DALL-E 3 and depicts a skateboarder skating towards the sadly demolished Twin Towers – World Trade Center.

What do you think?


So, we’ve reached the end of our article on creating a beautifully blurred background or foreground in our images. What do you think about this article?

Here’s a summary of the main key points

  • Bokeh is the blurring of the background in photographs. It’s a result of selective focusing and lens characteristics.
  • Aperture, focal length, and distance between the subject and background are key factors affecting bokeh.
  • Fast lenses and lenses with larger apertures are excellent tools for achieving the desired bokeh effect.
  • Experimenting with different techniques and light sources can help us develop our style and improve the bokeh in our photographs.

Finally, a few thoughts

Photography is an artistic expression, so I encourage you to experiment with different techniques, lenses, and light sources. This will help you achieve results that best suit your style and vision. Don’t be afraid to try new approaches and learn from your experiences. By experimenting and practicing, you will develop your unique style and learn how to create beautiful bokeh that will enrich your photos. I know that sometimes it’s easier to stick with tried-and-true methods and not experiment. But you must know that stepping out of your comfort zone is when you learn the most. Venture into the unknown world, and you will return full of new knowledge and experiences. Trust me, it’s worth it!

Also, I invite you to follow me on social media, where I regularly post updates. This way, you’ll stay informed about new content.

See you! 🙂

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