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.


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.


(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.


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.


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



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.



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.



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.


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.



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.


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:


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!




Cant wait to see your results! As always feel free to add me as a friend on Facebook and tag me!

Dani Diamond | Facebook | Facebook Page | 500px | Instagram

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Isn't it mostly photographers who visits this site?
This kind of article seem mostly aimed at people who have never picked up a camera before.

It may seem standard to those of use who have made a career of creating images but three are also quite a few non-pros and beginners who come to Fstoppers for info as well. I like seeing posts that dive into the writers own methods to create their images and wish more of the authors here would do the same.

Great write up Dani, I picked up a few things I hadn't considered before!

Mike thanks bud. Glad you picked up something useful here.

"A photo without bokeh is unappealing to the eye" really? I guess Annie Leibowitz, Bresson, Arbus, Adams.....and so on, got it all wrong. None of them used bokeh as a crutch like you do. All of them are legends. You do the math.

I'm not sure that's a relevant reply to what Dani just said.

I can understand why some readers disagree with what the writers say. I can understand why those readers would want to voice their discontent. I can understand just how annoying titles designed for copywriting and SEO purposes--rather than relevance--actually are. Yet, I think that criticism is best done in a constructive manner free of ad hominem attacks. You are more likely to frustrate these writers, than you are to fix the problems you see.

I'm not saying this applies to you @reggeee:disqus , because I don't know you well enough to assume, but I think a lot of people who criticize the writers on fstoppers see the attention, success, skill, clientele, or whatever of the author and think the only way they can feel confident in their own skills is to bring the author down. I am not free from this burden; I've caught myself poised at the comments box too many times to not know jealousy and lack of confidence in myself actively influence my responses. Give credit where credit is due. You will find inspiration abounding, enjoy life more, and even see a greater potential for your own dreams. The way in which you view others is how you will view yourself.

In response to the body of the criticism itself, I would like to point out that all of the photographers you named are either editorial or fine art photographers, whereas Dani is more commercial and retail based. The distinction between the two is that Leibovitz, Bresson, Arbus, and Adams are accountable for communicating personalities and emotions, while Dani is responsible for packaging them. It may not be Art (big 'a'), but it is at least a rewarding and respectable trade--one which manages to call itself art (little 'a') at the same time.

Now, if you actually read this, I first apologize, and second encourage you to respond. Whether you find something useful in this, or nothing at all, I would like to know. And again, I apologize. Please forgive me. I wouldn't wish a reply this long on my worst internet enemy.

David Leyland's picture

Excellent article covering all aspects of bokeh and great to see your process. Thank you Dani.

>Bokehliscious photos. That is the ultimate goal for any photographer no matter the experience level.

Really? Says who? Ultimate goal maybe if you want to hide poor composition :)

(and think about the really great photographers, few of them rely on bokeh to impress).

From this post

comes this quote

"...Why does this fad thrive? I think I have an explanation. If most of your photograph is not going to be in focus, you need not worry about composition. And composition is not only the most crucial factor in taking a good photograph, it is also its most challenging aspect."

You could argue the same for lighting importance.

I too found his assumptions about the importance of bokeh a bit over the top. Sure, I like it to, but it needs to be paired with great light and great composition.

With this being an article on Bokeh, I felt the emphasis to be spot on. He did stop to speak about lighting and composition, but touching on too many topics can make an article feel overly-generalized or confused. With the focus remaining on a single technique, I feel like he was really able to get more in-depth on the subject, and help to deliver some useful insights to those that haven't been working photographic (or cinematic) professionals. And although he didn't speak intensely on the need for strong lighting or composition, the images used for the article both exemplified those needs. For me, the strongest example of composition was the first posted for location; the division of color space in the bokeh surrounding the subject provided complementary tones of color drawing from the earth tones of her clothes to the left, while the cool blue tones on the right complemented the brighter blues of her eyes. In short; I love the examples, which made this a very pleasant and enjoyable read.

Tim, thank you. You clearly got the point of this article. We need more positive people in the world like you. Like you mentioned, I wasn't trying to hit up every aspect in portrait photography. With each article i write I chose a single topic to delve into. Yes, bokeh may not be the most important aspect and it may have come off that way but I was trying to show its importance.
At the end of the day photography is all about personal preference and this article is only an opinion.

Dani, I think you didnt get the Point of Marksetgo's post. Nobody said anything about changing the Focus of your articel, bit the Statement "Bokehliscious photos. That is the ultimate goal for any photographer no matter the experience Level." is simply nonsense. I dont think that is the ultimate goal for any landscape photographer ;) I dont get, why some People feel the need for this king of over-the-top Statements that simply are not true. you could have written something like " desireble for a lot (or even most of the) Portrait photographers".
And labeling someone as negative person, just because they have a different oppinion and express it, is not the way to go in my opinion.
PS: great photos and nice article (with a few Statements like the mentioned that made me think "come on", but i dont care^^)

You mean positive "MILKY" people?;)

Dani, it's not a matter of being negative. It's that making sweeping statements and very general assumptions to make an article appear grandeur that wear on you after a while. It reminds me of everytime I see "Guy goes home and YOU WON't BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!" link bait type posts all over the web.

Sure, I understand that you see a need for great light and composition, and your images show that. You do great work, you should be proud of that. But you shouldn't be too proud to admit that you make some over the top statements in the article that could easily be fixed with a couple of words. If I were a new and aspiring photographer, I might come away from this article thinking that bokeh needs to be my primary focus when shooting.

I understand how frustrating it is to see asinine, negative, unfounded statements on articles you write, I share a desk with another F-Stoppers writer. But I don't think that's what I did. If you're going to write articles for professionals that sometimes have a similar level of knowledge that you do, you need to be open to a little reasonable criticism.

Your article made some great points and showed some beautiful images, I just think it could have used some tweaking to not come across as sensationalist and as assuming as it did. Cheers.

Is it OK if I share this article in my blog with a small excerpt and a featured image with a link to this article? I just started out at photography and want to document anything and everything I learn.

Go for it!

Thanks Dani

It is a good article, but bokeh is NOT everything. I think it is overused at times, too. Don't forget that the environment can be part of the storytelling process of the image and its content can be just as useful/important as the subject.

That's really a load of crap, times change, as much as some people hate to accept that. Bokeh is so popular because PEOPLE LIKE THE WAY IT LOOKS, simple as that. It's not important what some stubborn industry dinosaurs think, what's important is how moved the average person is by a picture. And the fact is that digital cameras have become so ubiquitous that everyone can take an infinitely sharp picture, so bokeh becomes something magical, something the average camera can't do extremely well. Also the quality of bokeh has increased greatly, making that wonderful 3D effect even stronger. Having said that I do agree that bokeh "being the ultimate goal for any photographer" is a bit of a stretch.

Spy Black's picture

I'm surprised that, as someone who loves bokeh as much as you do, you chose to use the 85mm f/1.4 G, a lens that sacrificed bokeh for it's sharpness at the principle point of focus. Consider comparing your G sometime to it's predecessor, the 85mm f/1.4 D. You may be surprised.

@spy_black:disqus Sharpness comes before bokeh. Couldn't be happier with the bokeh and sharpness my D800 + 85 1.4g produces.


Thanks for the article, Dani, enjoyed your site as well. The complimenting colors consideration for bokeh is something new for me to consider. Being new to photography I've fallen in the trap of focusing on my gear too much early on, articles like this is what gives me the opportunity to grow as a photog.

I did, however, found the sharpness of the eyes a bit too sharp, almost distracting maybe. Wondering how much of the sharpening is done in pp?

Spy Black's picture

I'm glad you're happy with the G. I personally find it's bokeh to be too nervous and stratified for my tastes, especially with high frequency backgrounds. The D may not be as sharp (although it's no slouch), but it retains the bokeh that made the 85mm f/1.4 a legendary optic for bokeh.

Great article! Thanks for the post! Fstoppers get's put down too often. For a student learning photography, it is a site I check daily because it's full of useful things for me to learn and probably useful reminders for professional or "super-professional"(know-it-all/stuck up/ignorant) photographers!

Keegan, thanks bud, glad you enjoyed the article. The topics I chose to write about are articles I wish I had read years ago.
Some people don't grow up being taught how to appreciate things and knowing when not to say something if it's not nice. One thing I've learnt from writing here, can't make everyone happy in life.

Definitely, but you certainly are making a lot of people happy and helping them learn so I'm definitely very thankful! Awesome work Dani!

Great article and beautiful photos. Thanks for sharing.

That second to last photo was fucking amazing. Woaw.

Jozef Povazan's picture

Nikon 85f1.4G is a great short tele for creating nice portraits but I would definitely mentioned the reason why is that so.. It is because it can focus 80cm to its minim focusing distance. If I am working outside the 70-200 f2.8G VR II can deliver pretty much the same look or even better if I have enough distance. Indoor, 85 rocks because of the sizes of the rooms do not allow to create same compression with 70-200 due to a long minimal focusing distance... Otherwise any lens with big aperture can create amazing bokeh, you just have to know how to use it :) like 24 f1.4G a killer machine if you can handle it :) And btw, I had worked with both 85 f1.4G and also cheaper 85 f1.8G and honestly if you nail the focusing and composition with them both of them deliver amazing effects... just against the light shooting gives a bit of edge to f1.4 due to a nano coating IMO... so the lens plays a role here but it is still the photographer who delivers... because with f1l4 if you are not careful or your objects just moves a bit... hm you are done :). Thanks.

Beautiful work Dani. Thank you for all the great tips. I can't wait to put them in to practice next time I shoot.

great pictures indeed, cool article also.