A History of Bokeh and How It Has Changed Photography

The spelling of “bokeh” to describe out-of-focus areas wasn’t used in relation to photography until as recently as 1997, so how has it come to dominate discussions about the qualities of a lens to the point that manufacturers have to mention it with every new release? This in-depth video explores the use of bokeh over the centuries from 16th-century oil paintings to today’s digital cameras.

Bokeh has a fascinating history (for photographers, at least), and it’s interesting to see how in some ways, the obsession with bokeh is very much a recent phenomenon, making you wonder whether lens design has led to this preoccupation or vice versa. The fastest lenses are generally regarded as the most desirable, but as the video notes, this has not always been the case.

Hollywood and movie-making have definitely been an influence, though there are some notable exceptions. The 40s and 50s saw some directors go to great lengths to try and make every shot in focus from the foreground to the background, with one of the most famous examples being Orson Welles’ "Citizen Kane." Better film stock and brighter lights brought advances that cinematographer Greg Toland was keen to take advantage of, allowing the viewer’s eye to move around the frame and take in every tiny detail should they wish.

Is bokeh here to stay? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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30 Comments

Momchil Yordanov's picture

The correct spelling is TONEH, of course...

Ivan Lantsov's picture

over use over rate

William Nicholson's picture

Had my wife listen to this, maybe now she will realize I know what I am talking about. Some times we just have to let others explain to our loved ones. Finally she allowed me to show here how to use the settings on her I-phone and now she has that blurry back ground of the Christmas tree. Ugh some people.......

Mike Ditz's picture

In the film days to get what we called a soft background or blowing out the background since apparently the word bokeh had not yet been invented we used long fast lenses because that was a popular look. Every fashion photographer or wannabee needed a 300mm f2.8 or a 200mm f2 to make the model stand out from the background.
I think today the bokeh is a little overdone and it becomes a major part of the picture, not a little something extra.

Karim Hosein's picture

Not necessarily true. I make the model stand out from the background at f/4.0 to f/8.0.

The only thing I used a long fast lens to do, was to get images from a distance in a poorly lit room, such as at a runway show, an indoor sport event, or a theatre.

Mike Ditz's picture

What focal length are you using at f4 -f8 ?
You may be missing out a great feature of long fast lenses.
Depends on what you are going for and the distance from the camera to the subject and subject to the background.

Karim Hosein's picture

«What focal length are you using at f4 -f8 [sic] ?»
Anywhere between 70-100, —D-type, not that it matters much. But you are almost asking the wrong question. At the perspective correct viewing distance, DoF is only dependent on two things; the distance to the subject, and the aperture diameter. Bokeh in dependent on that plus subject to object distance (and a few other things, not necessary for this discussion).

I typically have the model stand 3-4 m from the camera. The background is usually at least another 2-3 m behind the model for studio shots. Because the diameter can be given as f/N, focal length may be an issue, but not really, as f/4 on a 100 mm lens is 25 mm diameter, while on an 150 mm lens —F-type equivalent— it is 37.5 mm.

In other words, if I am getting enough light in at f/4 on a D-type, (and at EI = ISO 100/21°), then the same exposure on an F-type will yield even less —albeit negligible— DoF. At f/4 and less, it is too easy to get one eye in focus and the other one out, or get both eyes in focus but the nose/forehead/chin/ears out.

I have no need for a razor-thin DoF and I highly suspect that no one else does either. Separating the subject from a busy background does not require an f/2.8 aperture, much less an f/1.4.

Because wider apertures lead to increased CA and other adverse effects, it ought to be reserved for when low-light (or special effects) demands it. I am missing out on nothing. When I need it, it is there. I simply rarely have any actual use for it. I do not shoot theatre as much as I used to, (hardly ever, in fact), and most of my events in the past five years have been outside, (and non-existent in 2020).

Mike Ditz's picture

All righty then....everyone shoots differently

Karim Hosein's picture

It does not matter how one shoots; the optics is the optics, and geometry is geometry.

Mike Ditz's picture

Ok, we seem to approach things differently and are talking past each other.

Ian Browne's picture

Bokeh!! I had never heard the word in film days. Has to be one of the more ridiculous sales tactic in the digital photography IMO.
Something is really wrong when a blurry background is seeming considered more important than the actual subject . Bit like the BS about ultra narrow depth of field some rave on about. Lets get rid of the word in 2021

Another couple of words to get rid of in 2021 would have to be "shoot" and "shot" -- horrible words to describe the "gentle" art of photography. Sorry; very much of topic while the police are looking for the "shooter" who "shot" 20 people ---- must have used a canon! :lol:

Have a happy and safe Christmas folks and please don't shoot the kids :)

Timothy Turner's picture

I took a shot of a house blew it up and burned the foreground. Photography is such a violent hobby.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Oh, I'm shootin' the kids, their kids, and their family dog. I do it every year. :D

John Ohle's picture

Lets not forget about framing people then hanging them and if there is any burning I think I will dodge as well. Anyway lets see how this thread develops...

I'm here all week folks, try the beef and don't forget to tip your waiters. : D

Ian Browne's picture

Hang'em! As a former picture framer I hate the word --- I always suggest the ''photo/picture could be displayed on the wall''

Timothy Roper's picture

Basketball terminology is the same way. In this time of violence, do we really need to tell kids to go out and "shoot" some hoops. It makes them think of shooting in general, and risks having them think is then okay to shoot people. And a "shot clock"--what is that, a North Korean execution timer?

Ian Browne's picture

Interesting thoughts Timothy; and interestingly enough I can live such terminology because in my mind shot/shoot basically means to propel an object like balls, bullets, projectiles, arrows, throw a stone/stick .

Timothy Roper's picture

So, when someone tells you that you have a shot at something (like, say, a job you're interviewing for), you have no idea what they mean?

Ian Browne's picture

No; "shot" is not really a problem for me in that case --- have used the word like that myself .

Ian Browne's picture

Great to see some other people agree me. However, you and I are never going to change to use of those horrible words in photography :( . Maybe Fstoppers could lead a charge (??)
I often use this photo to get the message across. A 2009 self portrait taken with the theme "threatened". Yep; I am (was) a real shooter many years ago and now pay the price with shot up hearing
cheers :) . Doesn't feel like Christmas Day; I went bush shooting LOL this morning so I better see if I have any good shots LOL on Lr5. However the light is generally shot in the Australian summer so not too exited .

Lawrence Huber's picture

Way overused and obsessed about.
Actually shows a limited mental capability and is very funny to read about it.
Gives a reason to get the mental midgets to buy a better bokeh lens than learn how to take a photograph. Or youTubers something to blather about.
Oh well, I guess I was ahead of the curve with my old 1960's 58mm f1.2 lens.

JERRY Casciano's picture

Again as an accomplished photographer who ACTUALLY WORKS.... I am always amazed as to how new or younger photographers drone on about “stuff “ that computers do in a click... make up..... contrast.... focus.... filter effects.... glitches repaired etc.....
Who NEEDS a make up artist... filters... Leica lenses.... etc.
I remember sitting in a storm HOPING lightning would strike the Empire State Building from my “camp out” angle... never happened.
The point :
In the new BS world of photography we live in today, just put lightning and the Empire State Building together.....
And my point again:
This very scenario is EXACTLY WHY I consider photography today TOTAL BS.
No skill today.... JUST be a talentless computer hack.... make your own bokeh and tell Zeiss Leitz... and Canon to take a hike

SAD. :

Ian Browne's picture

Great and so true thoughts Jerry
Once I started to understand that photography was about LIGHT, the quality of that LIGHT, and the shadows from that LIGHT I started to get some decent photos and the camera used did not make a lot of difference. Not sure broken --- um sorry; 'bokeh' lol made much difference because I never looked at it .
Too many are confused about ''photography quality'' and "photograph quality''
I love the comment "best viewed big" --- so I can count the pixels too? :lol: . Or are you covering your **** photography skills with shiney pixels .

Douglas Goodhill's picture

The first indication of the problem was the dematerializing of photography in the digital era. This led to an army of untrained photographers whose only solution to composition is to make the background out if focus rather than deal with it. The industry response is to sell the most expensive lens possible, not the best (what ever that may be). F64 where are you?

Mike Ditz's picture

What do you mean by "dematerializing"?
Isn't making the background OOF a way of dealing with it? That has been a common practice for ...years.

Karim Hosein's picture

«…[BOLD] only [/BOLD] solution to composition is to make the background out if focus rather than [INS] other ways to [/INS] deal with it.»
There. I fixed it for you. I thought Douglas made his point quite clear.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

By dematerializing I meant that a majority of the images produced are not printed but remain as electronic images. This is one of the huge changes between film/paper and digital/screen. Another difference I never see referenced is the delay in seeing the result between a film and a digital exposure. That quiet period while the image sits latent is a time for reflection lost when you push a button and see the result.

EDWIN GENAUX's picture

A very great history of a modern use of "Fast Glass"! Yes all my film lenses where 1.something and was for the handheld moments for a faster shutter for a sharp image and a tripod was always handy and used for low light times. Prism filters were used for effects but as stated time to see results. Yes today fast glass is used for the blur and expensive. Great also for astro Milky Way capture for the light gathering the eyes will never see like a microscope sees the very small. But too fast and the blur effects close objects when doing a night capture landscape and also if lights of a city blown out bright lights. But the old becomes the new Petzval lens for the shaping of the bokeh.

Tdotpics photography's picture

yes

Tdotpics photography's picture

this is so true