Jose Torres Photography | The Ultimate Guide to Bokeh

The Ultimate Guide to Bokeh

The Ultimate Guide to Bokeh

Bokehliscious photos. That is the ultimate goal for any photographer no matter the experience level. When “bokeh” is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind is the lens and the aperture. Although both play vital roles in bokeh, there are a few key elements that play an even more important role in achieving the finest milkyness in a photo. These requisites aren’t often discussed or even seen as necessary.

Three years ago, I picked up my good friend’s DSLR for the first time. The first question I asked him was “how do photographers blur out the background and keep their subject sharp?” It was bokeh that attracted me to photography and to this day, melting away the background and separating it from my subject is still one of the most important things to me.

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Bokeh, in laymen’s terms, is the appealing characteristic of an image’s blur or the undefined expanse of a photo. The best way to understand the purpose or the aesthetic value of bokeh is to comprehend how the human eye visualizes the three dimensions of length, width and height or how the eye see things as 3D. In order to see things as three dimensional, the human eye compares the foreground to the background of the subject, or what is in front and behind the subject.

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(Images used in this article  – Dani Diamond Photography)

When looking at a photo without bokeh, the eye can’t register the foreground or background of the image because there are no separating “layers.” As a result, the image will look 2 dimensional and the subject won’t pop, making the image unappealing to the eye. Bokeh, both in the foreground and background, gives the illusion that the subject is 3D even though the image is, in fact, 2D. For the subject to really stand out and look three dimensional, the eye needs a foreground or background to compare the image to. It’s important to remember the more blurred the bokeh is, the less distracting the bokeh and the more the subject is separated from the bokeh causing it to look 3D.

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Being conscious to use colors for the bokeh that compliment the subject’s colors can take images to the next level. About a year ago, while watching Dexter (great show), I noticed that on the tight headshots of the characters, there always was a blue tone in the bokeh. After thinking about it for a few days, I came to realize that blue complements yellow and people have a yellow/orange tone to their skin. To compliment skin tones, they put blue color in the background. Using complementing colors makes the image more appealing.

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Here is a graph showing complimenting colors (Colors directly opposite are most complimenting):

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When planning out shoots its important to use locations that have good potential for bokeh. Personally, I don’t have to think too hard when shooting in New York City. Urban areas usually have colorful things everywhere. I find grassy areas, such as parks to be difficult when trying to achieve good bokeh. Grassy areas usually allow for only one color in the bokeh: green. Utilizing a colorful location gives way for varying bokeh colors, which make an image exciting and engaging.

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Distance is key in achieving a more blurred and milky bokeh. It is important to remember that the more distance there is between a subject and the background, the more blurred the background will be. “More distance” means hundreds of feet, not five feet. Additionally, the closer you are to your subject the thinner your depth-of-field. Shallower DOF results in a more creamy background.

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Equipment is important when achieving the greatest bokeh.  There are no definite rules when choosing equipment, but some lenses lend to better bokeh. Personally, I shoot most of my portraits using an aperture of f1.6 or f2 and my go-to lens is the 85 1.4g. A few years before upgrading to the D800, I shot with a 50 1.8. Here is an image taken by Rey using a D90 & 50 1.8d (A $125 lens). There is no explanation necessary.

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The recommended portrait lens is an 85mm on a full frame camera and 50mm on a camera with a cropped sensor. The 85mm range lends to the perfect balance between bokeh while simultaneously enabling the photographer interact with the subject.


The concept of the “Golden Hour” has been discussed to death and it will continue to be talked about. The reason for this is because it is crucial in achieving beautiful images. The “Golden Hour” plays an important role in bokeh. Aside from evenly distributing light on the subject, it spreads light equally over everything around including the background. When taking portraits when there is harsh sunlight, it is easy to notice that the bokeh will be extremely harsh, and the highlights will always be blown. This leads us to another important aspect of lighting.

Unless an image’s background is white overall, it is best to make sure that the brightest area of the image is the subject’s face. A viewer’s eye is always attracted to the brightest part of the image first.

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Many of the prime lenses on the market these days allow for vignetting to some degree when shooting at wider apertures. This can be a good thing, the highlights of a photograph should be at the center of an image and vignetting allows for the highlights to be at the center of an image. As mentioned above, a viewer’s eye is attracted to the lightest part of the image first, the viewer’s eyes should not have an excuse to wander away from the center of the photo.

Dodge & Burn

This may come off as ridiculous for some, but dodging and burning bokeh is important. For those who have read the importance of contrast and sharpness in a previous article, this concept applies to bokeh as well. Dodging and burning bokeh can make it stand out in its own way. It’s important to do this minimally because he bokeh should not be distracting, it should be pleasing, a compliment to the subject. A good guideline to follow is to burn the edges and dodge center.

Color Balance & Tones

Color balance is an underrated adjustment layer in Photoshop. This adjustment layer allows you to target highlights, midtones and shadows and fool around with the color tones. The color balance adjustment layer is simpler to follow than the curves layer for tones. Don’t worry about affecting the subject, it can be masked out later.

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Contrast around the subject will allow for an image to pop. Putting highlights right behind the subject will cause for an image to stand out. The reason for this is contrast. However, if the subject has very light hair this concept will not apply as much, here is an example:

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As you can see, the highlight around the subject further separates the subject from the background.

The last topic I want to touch on is bokeh for wide shots. When shooting wide, it is challenging to get a thin DOF. This is why the Ryan Brenizer’s method is so popular now-a-days. By taking a series of images using a telephoto lens and stitching them to get one wide shot, you are getting the DOF of a telephoto lens, but the focal length of a wide lens. Here is an image taken by Ett Venter using the method. Rebecca Britt’s upcoming article featuring Ett on how to create Brenizer images will further explain this concept!

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