Boke(h) explained, a bit

Ice and bokeh

A popular monthly photography magazine recently ran a brief article with the header: ‘What does ‘bokeh’ actually mean?’ The magazine’s answer was: ‘Bokeh is the effect that’s created by blurred lights in out-of-focus areas’. This is not strictly correct, although a common misconception. So I thought I might spend today’s post on the subject of boke(h).

Butterfly

The reason for the bracket is that the word, in the original Japanese, has no ‘h’: the ‘h’ is there so that non-Japanese speakers do not pronounce it like broke but without the ‘r’. Here’s how OxfordDictionaries.com defines bokeh: ‘the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photographic image, especially as rendered by a particular lens’. So, bokeh is not just discs of light like those in the images above. It is also the smooth background in the picture below.

20120714-200535.jpg

If you are trying to create bokeh, your results are going to depend on a number of things including your lens. On the whole, good quality prime lenses produce smoother, better quality bokeh. In the picture below, the nine-sided (really, I counted them!) highlights behind the kittiwake are the result of the lens picking up the sparkles in the sea beyond the cliff.

bird in Northumberland

At first sight the bokeh lights make a pretty background. But let’s take a closer look at those nonagons.

Not so nice! That would not make a very pretty print. My 70-300mm zoom lens does not make great bokeh.

On the other hand, my 100mm macro lens, a beautiful little prime, does rather nice, creamy bokeh.

Ah, that’s better.

Also, your choice of aperture will affect bokeh lights. In the shots below, the one on the left is at f2.8 and the one on the right at f5.6.

demonstration of aperture effect on bokeh

Equally, the distance from your focal point will change the bokeh. Below, the aperture is f2.8 in both shots but look at the difference in the bokeh lights when I move closer to the flower in the second shot.

effect of distance on bokeh lights

If you want the science, there is a website that explains it all. Good luck. In the meantime, here are some random thoughts about bokeh. Bokeh is good if you want a nice uncluttered background that does not distract from your subject. Let’s compare two shots of damselflies mating.

damselflies

Wow. I got them in full mating pose here, making a ring. But that background is fussy. It detracts.

mating damselflies

Here, the amorous couple is only in half-hold position, but the background is less distracting. It is a better image because I am communicating to the viewer rather than simply making a record. (Mind you, the camera club judge still complained about the light bit of bokeh top right – you can’t please everyone all of the time!) Of course, you have to balance using an aperture wide enough to throw the background out of focus but not so wide that only part of the subject is sharp. But then no-one said it was going to be easy and that’s all part of the fun.

As for those ubiquitous bokeh lights, I prefer them when they are not distracting, or if they are made to be part of the image, as in the first shot in this post and the not-hugely-brilliant-but-suitably-illustrative shot below.

dandelion seed

One final thought. Bokeh is not limited to backgrounds. The shot below exploits the impact of out-of-focus areas in front of the focal point.

web and refraction

It can be effective deliberately to focus past objects to add a soft, dreamy look,

pyracantha blossom

or the feeling of having just happened upon the subject, by peeping through the undergrowth.

crocus

That’s enough bokeh from me. Do you have a favourite bokeh shot or tip? Perhaps you find the term slightly irritating, or is that just me? Feel free to share in the comments.

26 thoughts on “Boke(h) explained, a bit

  1. This is an excellent post Rachael and so helpful… This http://helensphotomania.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/white-feather/ was one of my early photos with my macro lens and I still love the Bokeh ( and yes it is a rather annoying term! ) and again this early one http://helensphotomania.wordpress.com/2012/02/19/melting-snow-on-lavender/ ( I don’t think I’d even heard of the word at this point! ) and particularly the bottom shot in this series http://helensphotomania.wordpress.com/2012/04/06/phew-this-is-the-100th-day/

  2. A really helpful post, thank you! Your shots are stunning and very inspirational.
    I think it’s time for me to buy a new lens…..

  3. This explains such a lot to me. I’ve seen the effects but I did not know how they were achieved. I understand a straight forward depth of field effect but I know nothing about bokeh. Really enjoyed the blog.

  4. What an excellent instructor you’d make, Rachael! I really enjoyed this post – not only because of your stunning images, but also because of how you described the concept so well. On a side note, I would be eager to pick out a new lens, and wonder what you’d recommend? Right now, I only have an 18-200 mm lens. I’d like to do more macro photography and portraits, and I’m finding that my camera’s current lens doesn’t allow me to blur out the background as much as I’d like, even when set to the lowest f/stop. This might also be my sensor’s limitations too.

    • Hi, Tricia. Thank you! Perhaps it might not surprise you then that I did work in training for several years 😉 about the lens, I would suggest you get a good macro lens, making sure it goes as wide as f2.8. I can’t remember what camera you have. But you may remember I did a post a while back about my first macro lens, the Sigma 50mm f2.8 DG Macro. A super lens and not very expensive (about £250). 50mm is a great portrait length and I found it adequate for bugs too on my cropped sensor body but too short on my full frame body. It is also quite light, which would be an advantage for a traveller such as yourself.

      • Rachael, belated thanks for sharing your expert advice! I know that this would be comparing apples & oranges, but I’m now considering a new lens vs. external flash for my Nikon D5100. I know it’s hard to say which accessory would be a more practical purchase, but can you share any insight? 🙂 Lens-wise, i like the idea of your suggested macro. And last week, I was looking at Nikon’s SB-700 flash. Ah, decisions, decisions!

      • Hi Tricia. I can only say that I have a flash gun and a macro lens and I use the former about twice a year and the latter every day! I suppose it depends on your type of photography. For a portrait shooter or someone who works predominantly indoors, a flash gun is a must. For the outdoor shooter, it’s less useful.

  5. Great explanation. The term “bokeh” has been bandied around and used correctly and wrongly so many places. It was hard when I was trying to learn what bokeh was and achieve it! There was one extremely pompous flickr group who only wanted bokeh photos, fine, but they weren’t willing to teach people how to do it or what exactly it was. “Perfect bokeh only please, everything else will be deleted”. Charming!

    I love my prime lens for enabling me to get some beautiful bokeh shots. I’m with you – I like it when the bokeh is part of the shot and has a reason to be there.

    • Thanks, Jaina. Yes, some Flickr groups can be annoying. One sometimes wonders what their purpose is, if any. Prime lenses are so good. If only one could carry the weight around, it would be nice always to use primes. In reality, the zoom lens is a practical necessity. But wouldn’t it be nice if zooms could reproduce the quality of primes! Dream on, Rachael 😉

  6. Annoying word though I confess I used it once or twice while still in the flush of new love with my newly bought lens. Now I keep it to myself but still agonise over occasional little light-coloured patches like your fussy judge. I had a bloody SOFT DRINK CAN of all things turn up recently as a light blue patch in the bottom of a pond (bloody Koreans) – didn’t even notice it in the viewfinder.

    This article is a brilliant summary – I learned a lot, or had a lot of suppositions confirmed. Ta.

  7. Pingback: Adding a bokeh background | Focused Moments

  8. Pingback: Week 5 – Flower Bokeh

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