Definition: Bokeh

Bokeh | Glossary entry

Bokeh, blur,

'Southbank Bokeh'. Out of focus lights on the Londons South Bank Arts Complex.

‘Southbank Bokeh’. Out of focus lights on the London’s South Bank Arts Complex. The shapes are not quite circular.
Click to view large and see the highlight shapes clearly.

In photography anything that is outside the ‘Depth of Field‘ will be blurred. The way the lens renders individual points of light that are out of focus, and the quality of the blur, is ‘bokeh’. This Japanese word meaning blur or haze is pronounced BOK-kay. The blur is created by a combination of the lens and aperture setting resulting in part of the image being out of the depth of field. The lens creates out of focus areas of the image when the circle of confusion is large enough to cause the sharpness to be lost. The aperture forms the shape of the circles of confusion. Its shape determines the shape of the light beams that are focused on the image sensor.

All lenses create blur

The bokeh that any individual photographic lens creates is the result of the unique characteristics of that particular lens. Its shape, any optical aberrations it exhibits; its situation in the photographic lens-set, the aperture and its shape, all affect the shape of the tiny circles that form bokeh. This combination of factors may create blur that is pleasing to the eye, or not. Photographic lenses that create more pleasing blur have higher sales value. Manufacturers therefore expend research and development resources to ensure that the bokeh produced by a lens is pleasing.

Bokeh is an important component of photographic composition. Photographers frequently create shallow focus so the out-of-focus area of the image does not draw the eye. This points the attention of the viewer to the area of the picture in focus, Thus, the important aspects of the image are emphasised.

Good quality blur can be a very pleasing part of an image, or it can be simply of no interest. In either case it creates an atmosphere and can modify the content of the picture in a positive or negative way. Consequently, as a controllable aspect of photography it is a way to affect the viewers understanding of the image.

Bokey is more than blurred bright lights

The picture above was taken, out of focus, with an eight second exposure at night. All the bright highlights are shown as ‘circular’ spots (except the ones that merge or were moving lights). Bokeh is often visible around strong highlights like light sources. Many people assume that these highlights are the bokeh. In fact it is not the highlights. Any out-of-focus blur exhibits bokeh. The highlights are only more prominent because of the intensity of the light that created them.

The nature of the blur

Bokeh tends to form a circle only when the aperture is at it widest. In some photographic lenses when the aperture is at its widest the iris is withdrawn behind the circular fixed aperture set into the diaphragm. At other aperture sizes the iris blades form the shape of the aperture and they do not form a perfect circle. Instead the blades form a shape which has sides corresponding to the number of blades. It is this which forms the shape of the most prominent highlights. In the picture above, taken at f8, if you look carefully, you can see that the highlights have eight sides (click here to see the image enlarged). This lens has circular bokeh at f 1.2 (wide open).

The tendency that bokeh has to form near circles is because of the shape of the aperture. However, it is possible to create bokeh of different shapes. For example, cut a heart shape into a piece of card and held on the front of the lens. Now shoot an image that will create bokeh. You will produce heart-shaped bokeh highlights. This Google images page on ‘shaped bokeh‘ demonstrates the point.

The character of bokeh

It is the way that bokeh looks that gives it its character. Each spot of light in a photograph is really a tiny near-circle. The aberrations in the lens never allow a perfect point of focus. So it is the look of the point of focus that provides the quality of the bokeh in the image. Of course, depending on your view point and the type of image you want to produce, the quality of the bokeh may be important.

Bokeh characteristics vary. Here generalizations are shown, but bokeh circles are rarely as well defined as this.

Bokeh characteristics vary. Here generalizations are shown, but bokeh circles are rarely as well defined as this.

The bokeh circles made by a lens will have specific characteristics. Lenses will vary both in the quality and shape of the shapes made. Different characteristics give a different out come in the final image…

  • One type is a well formed circle with a fringing edge (see diagram: type 1) and can have sharp edges and strong fringes. This represents a lens with poor focus.
  • A more neutral form is where the bokeh circle forms an evenly lit disc (type 2). The edge is defined by the absence of any more light in that circle.
  • The graduated bokeh circle is one that has a more intense central light gradually diminishing to the edge. The graduated form creates a softer, less discordant image for most purposes. It will blend easily with other bokeh circles around it. This is the most pleasing form.

In most cases bokeh is designed to be ignored or to help the viewer to find the sharp, well defined, parts of the image. Harsh and obvious shapes created by it will distract the eye.

Consider bokeh, consider your creativity

As with all compositional elements judgement is with the viewer. Success with bokeh is dependent on the photographers skills to use the bokeh that their lens produces to make the best photograph possible. Some forms of the bokeh circle may not be right for the photograph in production. However, that is part of the creative decision-making of lens choice and the making of the photograph. Furthermore, when buying your lens you should consider the quality of the bokeh. It has a big impact on the quality of the out of focus parts of your image. Consequently, it has an impact on your creative outcome.

Infinity and beyond

Bokeh has an infinity of uses and ways to help the photographer express their creativity. Getting to know how to control bokeh takes practice with your equipment. Remember, understanding it and skillfully creating the image you want with it takes practice.

Comments, additions, amendments or ideas on this article? Contact Us



Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photographer and editor of this site. He has also run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photogs.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
By Damon Guy see his profile on Google+.


Contribute A Definition?

Send us a definition of a photographic word or phrase...

Send us a definition for our list of photographic words and phrases. Simply write a clear definition and send it in. Include an original picture if you wish. Give us your name and a link to your website and we will credit your work.


find out more...Photokonnexion tips by email
If you enjoyed this article please sign up for our
daily email service.
Find out more