Bokeh- Just Say What it is: Out of Focus

bokeh |bōˈkā|
noun Photography
the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photographic image, especially as rendered by a particular lens.  ORIGIN from Japanese.

Do you want to sound like a professional photographer? Coherently use the word “bokeh” in a sentence or conversation. And use it correctly. It’s the Japanese word used to describe the out of focus areas of a photograph.

When used effectively, the out of focus regions is a photograph can add to the subject. Pin points of light are rendered as bright spots.

It’s a technical term that helps define the quality of the lens. When out of focus pinpoints of light are even, the lens is said to be high quality. The more expensive portrait and long glass produce the best bokeh.

The funny thing is, spell check in word processing applications consider it a misspelling. The original way the word is spelled is “boke.” The “h” was added to pronounce the last syllable.

When Seattle photographer Jon Cornforth posted a photo of a puffin at sunrise in Iceland, he commented “look at that bokeh.” I seriously thought he was talking about a skin condition the bird may have.

Although I’ve been a professional for over 15 years, I didn’t know the meaning of the word until just a short time ago.

For this, I used out of focus Christmas lights to imitate pouring water. With some practice, one can use the bokeh of their lens to creat some stunning images.

It was only 4 or so months ago I learned of the meaning of bokeh. My girlfriend Heidi asked me to help her with her photo assignment to explain the bokeh in photographs. I had to look it up in the dictionary.

In my defense, the word is relatively new in photography. However, the effect is not.

At Western Kentucky University, we did study “circles of confusion” and how it relates to depth of field in a photograph. When you stop down the aperture, these “circles of confusion” get smaller and there is an apparent greater depth of field.

Which is why wide angle lenses have greater depth of field at the equivalent f/stop than telephoto lenses. The diameter of the aperture is smaller, therefore, the circles of confusion are smaller.

To be geeky and bring out my maths side: the diameter of the diaphragm at a particular f/stop is d=f/a. Where d is the diameter, f is the lens’ focal length and a s the aperture setting.

So for a wide angle (16 mm) and a telephoto (200 mm) both at f/22, the diameter of the diaphragm is .7 mm, and the diameter for the 200 is 9 mm. With the 16 mm lens, the circles of confusion are much, much smaller than the 200 mm and therefore has greater apparent depth of field.

Compare the two photographs below. Both were shot using an aperture of f/5.6. In the photograph using a 200 mm lens of the man walking his dog, the trees are out of focus, yet they are only half a block away. In the photo of the woman painting the Maroon Bells, shot with a 17 mm lens, the distant mountains are in focus enough to show detail. And they are more than 3 miles away!

At 200 mm, with an aperature of 5.6, the depth of field in shallow. Although the trees are just half a block away, they are out of focus. Compare this to the photograph of the woman painting. It too was shot at f/5.6 yet the distant Maroon Bells appear to be in focus.

At 16 mm in focal length, even at f/5.6, the depth of field is deep. The Maroon Bells are over 3 miles from the painter.

We didn’t call it bokeh, though it was fun taking photos using the effect, we just called it the Out of Focus area.

It’s nice to know what it is, but I think it has become photography’s most overused word in the past year. It’s gotten to the point where there are several Flickr groups dedicated solely to bokeh. A search of bokeh and Flickr reveals about a dozen groups.

As it turns out, the natural effect of a lens has become the subject. Most of the photos involve bright lights that are simply out of focus. Going over the photos, I don’t see much creativity. Just some out of focus lights in the background.

It is simply the result of a wide open aperture used on mid to longer focal length lenses. And when used correctly, can be an effective tool to draw the eye to your main subject. But the faster the lens, the more of an effect you’ll see.

Just point your camera towards some pin point lights, throw the lens out of focus, and voîla, you have a bokeh effect. Now that Christmas is here and there are decorations all over, it’s time to break out the lens and try to get that nice bokeh effect in your photographs. Just remember, the lights need to be out of focus.

Anyone with a high quality lens with a wide aperture (f/2.8 or larger) can create some stunning images with good bokeh. It’s not difficult at all.

There are also kits you can buy which take advantage of the high quality bokeh some lenses produce. These are simply holes cut out of an opaque substance and placed over the front of the lens. They come in various shapes from hearts to stars. The make the round out of focus lights into the shape of the cut-out. The kits sell from $15 to $200.

However, understanding your lens’ natural bokeh will help you create some stunning images. Use it as way to direct the viewer’s eye to the subject of your photo. But remember, it’s a tool for you when the opportunity arises.

Sarah Wolf, 14, of Aspen, Colo., relaxes in the shade of her popsicle stand. See the bokeh? Learn it’s effect, store it in your tool box and use it when you think it will add to your photograph.

Planning can let you capture some creative images. For example, tonight, I saw a commercial where someone was pouring water. So I set a string of Christmas light against a black background, set a glass on a table, had my brother-in-law Kurt hold a vase like he was pouring, and result is what you see here.

In less than 1/2 an hour (Ten minutes of set-up, 5 minutes of shooting, and 10 minutes post), I have a fun creative image in which bokeh was used to create a stream of water. I’m sure with some real planning, I could make some really good images using the effect.

During Christmas last year, I was taking some family photos. I saw an opportunity where a little one was being held facing me and in the background was the Christmas tree. Knowing the background would blur and the lights become circles, I shot away and ended with a nice photo. The result is the photo at the top.

Again, it’s a result of shallow depth of field and is a tool for your creative toolbox.

My suggestion is not to get hung up on a passing fad. But learn how to use the effect of the bokeh and move on. Keep it for the times when you can be really creative with it.

I think for next year, the buzz word should be “Circles of Confusion.”


  1. another great Blog Paul. the insite on this beeing a tool not a subject is a much needed side to the story .. i love however how you help teach how to make the most from the effect and create beautiful holiday photos .. once again with your great sence of humor and wonderful teaching skills your getting great photography teaching out to the masses .. thank you !!


  2. Excellent post. I’m very glad you didn’t mention anything about of those pesky Photoshop plug-ins that can now fake this look.

    Wonderful images used to illustrate this Paul.


    1. Thanks Peter

      When I first heard of the word, I looked it up on Wikipedia and referenced other sources. I was amazed that it is just the Japanese term for “circles of confusion” used to evaluate depth of field.

      And the fact it is relatively new boggles me. It’s a new word and way overused in my humble opine.

      Thanks Peter.


  3. Hi

    Strange word but simple concept – shooting with a high quality lens wide open really helps. Some similar effect can be achieved in Post but there is nothing like a well composed and executed shot. This one is of a model in a studio, but she is actually out of focus – I think this works well.

    Electric Ibanez :

    Cheers, Erik


    1. Hi Erik,

      Thanks for visiting. Nice image. I like the bokeh effect on the pearls.

      The word itself is Japanese in origin. And it’s a technical term.

      It’s become a buzz word for people wanting to sound intelligent about photography. What’s interesting is that the effect is used as a measurement of quality for the lens by determining its spherical aberration. ( The more even the disk of light, the higher the quality of the lens.

      If you look at my “Waterfall” photo, you can tell the rear element had a hair on it. Gotta love dogs.

      It’s fun to play with, but I believe it is so overused these days.


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