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What is Bokeh Photography? A Brief Guide on a Beautiful Aesthetic

What is Bokeh Photography? A Brief Guide on a Beautiful Aesthetic

Whimsical. Fantastical. Simple. Many words come to mind when thinking of bokeh photography, a popular photography aesthetic born from a Japanese word.

When you’re picking up photography as a skill or future career, one of your biggest concerns is invoking powerful reactions in your viewers. Everything from lighting to color grading plays a part in getting people to buy a product or follow your social media. Bokeh is accessible to beginner photographers by only requiring a few setting tweaks to instantly make a photo pop. 

Why is bokeh photography such a popular aesthetic and what can you use it for? This piece will break down this distinctive technique and its relatively easy settings to help you get started.

Source Image: Pixabay

Table Of Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. What Is Bokeh Photography And Why Is It So Popular?
  3. The Different Shapes Of Bokeh
  4. Which Lens Is Best For Bokeh Effect?
  5. Conclusion: Bokeh is a Wistful and Romantic Addition to Any Portfolio

an example of bokeh photography showing colorful lights through a chainlink fence

Source Image: Pixabay

What is Bokeh Photography and Why Is It So Popular?

Bokeh is a photography aesthetic characterized by soft, bubbled light. This term uses the Anglicized spelling for the Japanese word ‘boke’, a noun that refers to a blur or a haze.

This photography effect regularly appears in not just photography portfolios, but commercials and even filmmaking. Its ability to instantly create a powerful atmosphere makes it popular among photographers of many skill levels.

Using this technique enables you to achieve the following.

Creating a Dreamy or Whimsical Mood

Since bokeh transforms lights into soft and round shapes, our imagination automatically connects it to similar sights in everyday life. Whether they appear like bubbles or dandelion puffs, bokeh easily creates dreamy, whimsical moods. 

This technique is wonderful for making the viewer feel like a kid again by softening and brightening up the backdrop. 

Cultivating a Nostalgic and Relaxed Atmosphere

Have you ever felt your vision blurring because you were tired or buzzed on a good drink? Some of the most popular photography recreates sensations we feel in everyday life – enter the nostalgic side to bokeh.

Bokeh lends a relaxed touch to distant light strings, car lights, or the setting sun. It almost makes the viewer feel as if they’re blinking their way into a relaxed sleep. On a similar note, bokeh regularly makes its way into holiday photography by picking up on the viewer’s nostalgia of last year.

Creating a More Readable Photo With Strong Depth Of Field

If a viewer doesn’t know what’s going on in your photo, they’re going to skip right past it. Bokeh is an aesthetic that draws upon the photography fundamentals of depth of field.

Since bokeh backgrounds are blurred and soft, the subject pops out all the stronger. This pop-out effect is both a practical benefit as well as artistically significant. This intense contrast immediately makes the viewer pay attention not visually and emotionally.

It’s a Relatively Simple Technique to Learn 

Learning your way around new photography equipment and subtle details like f-stops is time-consuming, to say the least. Bokeh is not just beautiful, it’s relatively easy to learn.

Since you need to learn the basics of shallow and wide depth of field, bokeh will naturally follow suit. With just a few minute adjustments to your lens, you’ll immediately see the results of your efforts. 

What is the Difference Between Blur and Bokeh?

Since bokeh is literally just the Japanese word for blur, is there any real distinction to be made? The short answer: absolutely.

Bokeh doesn’t refer to blurring the subject or incredibly small parts of a photo. This aesthetic overwhelmingly focuses on blurring most or all of the background. Likewise, this blurred background often has extra texture or enhanced colors – it’s almost as much of an appeal as the subject.

When Did Bokeh Become Popular? 

Bokeh first popped off in 1997 thanks to a photography magazine. While boke was the original spelling, bokeh would come out on top as the go-to word just a year later. 

an example of classic bokeh with separated gold circles behind a close up of a white rose

Source Image: Pixabay

The Different Shapes of Bokeh

Bokeh is deceptively simple, but has different shapes you can utilize. Keep in mind these shapes have a dozen different names, but you’ll get the gist based on their description. 

Learning how to use bokeh starts with recognizing the different forms it takes. With this ability, you’ll be able to mix and match each one to best suit the needs of your photo.

an example of hollywood bokeh showing colorful light bubbles in a cityscape

Source Image: Pixabay

Classic Bokeh (or Hollywood Style)

Easily the most distinctive form of bokeh are the colored bubbles frequently seen in major films. In fact, that’s how this bokeh style earned its name – Hollywood bokeh. 

Many films and shows use this aesthetic to bring greater attention to the actors. It’s also a great way to add a little atmosphere to a scene. The bright colors and distinctive shapes add a sense of wonder to everyday cityscape photography.

an example of onion bokeh showcasing a close up of a ladybug on a grass stalk

Source Image: Pixabay

Onion Bokeh

This bokeh earned its title by making light bubbles with heavy overlap, not unlike slicing a bunch of onions on a cutting board. Also called onion ring bokeh, this style can be both favored and unwanted depending on your tastes.

Some photographers don’t like the smudged and glassy look this bokeh style has. In fact, onion bokeh can crop up if you have issues with your lens not being smooth or even enough. On the other hand, photographers can enjoy onion bokeh for its extra soft texture. 

an example of hexagon bokeh photography showing hexagon shaped light behind a blue polar bear christmas ornament

Source Image: Pixabay


Not all bokeh has to be soft and indistinctive. Hexagon bokeh adds an interesting sense of texture with its angular edges and occasionally transparent colors. 

Hexagon bokeh is a solid choice when you want an effect that leans toward dramatic instead of whimsical. The harder edges draw the eye more quickly and can stand out almost as much as the subject.

an example of swirly bokeh showing a couple standing outside beneath dappled sunlight

Source Image: Pixabay


While the majority of bokeh focuses on altering light sources, it can still be used for the entire background. Swirly bokeh provides both the classic light bubble effect while ‘swirling’ other elements.

The above photo is a wonderful example of swirly bokeh, using this technique for two main reasons. Not only does the swirling and blurring background add to the romantic atmosphere, it also brings the central figures into sharp focus.

an example of soap bubble bokeh showing colorful lights against a dark backdrop

Source Image: Pixabay

Soap Bubble

Do you want the classic round bokeh shape, but with a little more texture? Soap bubble lives up to its name by giving you a bold shape with extra iridescence. 

Take a look at the above photo to see the soap bubble in effect – notice how there’s a thicker rim of light on the outside, but softer or transparent colors on the inside. 

a close up of a black sony camera lens against a white background

Source Image: Pixabay

Which Lens is Best for Bokeh Effect?

Creating bokeh is easier when you understand depth of field and how to use it with different lens. The list below will explain which one is best and why:

Steer Clear of Wide Angle Lenses

Bokeh fundamentally relies on a shallow depth of field to create its signature blurring and bubbling effect. Wide angle lenses ‘flatten’ both the subject and the foreground, reducing blur significantly. 

Use Fast Prime Lenses to Start With

The prime lens is, well, prime for bokeh thanks to having a wider aperture. This flexibility allows you more wiggle room to whittle down your focal lengths to get some truly shallow depth of field.

The best lens for bokeh include a fast prime 85mm lens or a 50mm lens. Both give you the ability to drastically bring forth your subject, automatically blurring and stylizing the background into a number of bokeh effects. Try going for f-stop settings between f/1.8 to f/1.4.

With a fast prime lens, you’ll easily be able to create Hollywood-style bokeh as well as hexagonal and soap bubble.

Try Telephoto Lenses for Softer Bokeh

Another great camera lens for beginners is the telephoto lens thanks to its naturally shallow depth of field. You can also create much softer bokeh effects without much effort. 

If you prefer the softer bokeh effects, try switching to a telephoto lens instead. Since these lenses create extra compression, your bokeh effects will be softer and more compact. 

Try f-stops between f/1.8 to f/2.8 with your telephoto lens. That said, you can go as high as f/5.6 and still get a distinctive blurring effect.

an example of hollywood bokeh photography showing a person in the rain surrounded by streetlights

Source Image: Pixabay

Conclusion: Bokeh is a Wistful and Romantic Addition to Any Portfolio

Bokeh photography is an aesthetic for the history books. It’s not unlike a garnish on a delicious plate of food, offering a finishing touch that brings the entire piece together.

Bokeh is a term referring to the aesthetic of soft and bubbled lights in the background. This term originates from the Japanese word boke for blur. This technique relies on a shallow depth of field to bring the subject into sharp focus, blurring and stylizing the background in turn.

Creating bokeh starts with getting comfortable with different camera lenses. Fast prime lens and telephoto lens are both ideal thanks to their shallow depth of field. With a few tweaks to your f-stops, you can create compelling and whimsical bokeh. Bokeh even comes in different styles such as Hollywood-style, swirly, and soap bubbles.


Curious to enhance your bokeh photography with other skills? Check out the following posts: