Within photography circles, bokeh is an often discussed aspect of an image, and this is especially true over the last ten or fifteen years. If you aren’t sure exactly what bokeh is, don’t worry, you are not alone, as a lot of people misunderstand it. I will do my best to explain it to you and also explain why it’s not as important as many people think.
Bokeh is defined as the quality of the out-of-focus area of an image. It’s how well a lens renders blur, the aesthetics of it. It’s often described in terms like good, creamy, smooth, bad, harsh, distracting, swirly, soap bubble, and so forth. It’s very subjective, and you can use any adjective you want to help describe it. What might be characterized as good bokeh by you might be described differently by another person.
I don’t remember hearing the word bokeh spoken even once when I studied photography in college 20 years ago. It’s not that it didn’t exist, because obviously bokeh did exist, but it didn’t really matter. You either liked how a certain lens rendered blur or you didn’t, and few were trying to quantify it or rate it. Nowadays people spend a lot of time and energy searching for lenses that produce the best bokeh, analyzing reviews and charts that attempt to rate it.
You will hear terms like “bokeh monster” when describing a lens and “bokeh master” when describing a person. People will say that a certain lens produces a lot of bokeh, which doesn’t make any sense, because bokeh is defined by character and is not a measurement. It’s a misunderstanding of what bokeh is. You can’t have more bokeh or less. You can only have nice or ugly bokeh, or some other description of the quality of the aesthetics.
People confuse bokeh with depth-of-field, but they are two entirely different things. Depth-of-field is the amount of an image that is in focus, determined by the aperture, subject distance and non-subject distance, focal length of the lens, as well as the physical size of the sensor or film. A lot of people mean depth-of-field when they say bokeh. It’s a misunderstanding of terms! Depth-of-field is a mathematical calculation, while bokeh is subjective. Depth-of-field is objective and can only be described by measurement terms. A shallow depth-of-field creates a blur in a photograph, while bokeh is the description of the quality of that blur.
To achieve an out-of-focus area within an image, one needs to use a large aperture or focus really close to the end of the lens or both, which will create a shallow depth-of-field. A lot of people think that you need a large aperture, such as f/2, to achieve blur, but it depends on how close the subject is to the end of the lens. For example, in macro photography, you might have a shallow depth-of-field with an aperture of f/16 because the subject is so close to the lens. It is a math equation, and people have created calculators to help more easily understand what settings are needed to attain certain results. Generally speaking, you will have a smaller depth-of-field, which will render more blur, when using a larger aperture.
Rating bokeh is overrated. It’s something photographers on message boards talk about much too much. It doesn’t matter anywhere close to what some people would have you believe. The vast majority of people who view your pictures have no opinion whatsoever on the quality of the blur that they’re looking at. For anyone to even notice, there has to be something about it that stands out, such as swirly bokeh or really bad bokeh. Most modern lenses are precision engineered, so the flaws that make bokeh stand out don’t exist. Almost all newer lenses produce bokeh that’s at least mediocre, and most people, particularly non-photographers, cannot distinguish mediocre bokeh from great bokeh.
Bokeh doesn’t matter because it’s subjective. What looks mediocre to you might look fantastic to someone else. People have different opinions. As long as it’s not bad bokeh, which I would define as being distracting to the image, then I’m perfectly fine with the quality of the blur, however the lens renders it. It’s actually difficult to find a lens that produces bad bokeh. Perhaps some cheap zoom lenses are prone to it. Most lenses render blur decently enough that viewers don’t notice the quality of it and, perhaps more importantly, they don’t care.
Ansel Adams said, “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” A fuzzy image of a fuzzy concept might be worse. Either way, the point is that the concept is what’s most important, and the other aspects, such as sharpness and bokeh, are not particularly critical. You can have a great image with poor bokeh and a poor image with great bokeh. The quality of the bokeh has little to do with the outcome of a photograph. It’s better to spend time and energy on image concepts than technical qualities.
Bokeh is the quality of the blur in an image. I’ve already said that, but it’s a good reminder of just how insignificant it really is. Think about it, we’re talking about the background blur. There are so many other more important things that we could be discussing! Bokeh is a popular topic, and a lot of people want to know more about it and are searching the internet for opinions. It’s good to know what it is, but it’s not something to get wrapped up in. You either like how a lens renders blur or you don’t, and either way it’s not a big deal.