There’s a lot of talk about bokeh and blurry backgrounds, especially in portrait photography.
There also seems to be a lot of confusion between what is background blur and what is a bokeh. Many photographers mistakenly think that background blur (or foreground blur) is bokeh.
They are two different things!
What’s the difference between background blur and bokeh?
Blurring the background is a great way to make your subject stand out, which is why it’s so popular with portrait photographers.
Plus bokeh adds a magical touch to a photo that you don’t see naturally, so it’s no wonder that it’s a popular photographic effect.
Part of the fun of photography is portraying the world differently from the way we normally see it with our eyes.
Understanding the difference between background blur and bokeh, puts you in creative control of your photography. If you know what something is, you can master it, so let’s look at both.
What is background blur?
This is obvious – the clue is in the name. Background blur is the out of focus area in a photo behind your subject caused by using a shallow depth of field.
This photo has background blur, but no bokeh.
It doesn’t just need to be the background that you blur either. Blurring the foreground works the same way.
How can you get a blurry background or foreground?
There are three main methods for achieving a shallow depth of field and therefore a blurry background, or foreground:
- Focal length
Depth of field is also affected by camera sensor size. Full frame sensors are better for achieving shallow depth of field than crop sensor cameras. That absolutely does not mean that you can’t blur your backgrounds with a crop sensor camera, it’s just easier on a full frame camera.
Read more about how to get a blurry background: Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition
The above image has background blur and foreground blur, but no bokeh.
What is bokeh in photography?
The first thing I’ll say about bokeh is that there are several ways to pronounce it and nobody seems to agree on the right way. I pronounce it bow (as in bowtie) kuh (sounds like huh, but with a k).
When we talk about bokeh, we’re describing the quality of the out of focus area. Not quality in the sense of good or bad, but in terms of the type of blur, the effect.
Bokeh is the out of focus blur of specular highlights and appears (usually) as circular shapes in an out of focus background or foreground. I think this is where the confusion has come in. Because bokeh is created in the out of focus part of a photo, by the nature of what it is, you don’t get bokeh in the in focus part of a photo.
The image at the start of this article perfectly demonstrates bokeh created by out of focus lights in the background. The bokeh in the below image is formed by wet pebbles on the beach in the out of focus foreground.
There’s bokeh in the out of focus foreground, caused by the out of focus specular highlights of the sun shining on wet pebbles.
Is there good bokeh and bad bokeh?
Many photographers argue that there’s good bokeh and less desirable bokeh, but this is subjective.
The shape of the bokeh is determined by your lens. Generally, because of the higher number of aperture blades that create a more circular shape in the more expensive lenses, they produce what is often considered a better looking bokeh. This type of bokeh is round and fuzzy, with no sharp edges.
Lenses with fewer aperture blades often create hexagonal shaped bokeh, which many feel is not ideal. But remember this is just opinion. If you like hexagonal, then there’s nothing wrong with it.
So what’s happening is that the shape of the lens aperture is reflected in the shape of the bokeh.
How do you create bokeh?
Any small object that reflects or radiates light can produce the bokeh effect in an out of focus background or foreground.
I’ve written a tutorial on how to create bokeh, which includes how to make a DIY bokeh filter for interesting shapes.
If you enjoy a technical read, I highly recommend this article on the B&H website.
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