What Is Bokeh and Why Are So Many Photographers Obsessed With It?

Bokeh, a term derived from the Japanese word "boke," meaning "blur," is central to the aesthetic quality of photography and videography. This phenomenon creates a soft, pleasing effect that can significantly enhance the visual storytelling of a photo or video.

Coming to you from Videomaker, this informative video delves into the intricacies of bokeh, explaining not just what it is, but also how it can be intentionally manipulated to elevate the emotional impact of visual narratives. The video breaks down the five key factors that affect bokeh: aperture, focal length, the distance between the camera and the subject, the subject's distance from the background or foreground, and the number of aperture blades in the lens. These elements combine to shape the bokeh effect, influencing its strength and form. For instance, a longer focal length and proximity to the subject can intensify bokeh, while the number of aperture blades alters its shape. 

Moreover, the video illustrates how bokeh is more than just a technical feature; it's a powerful storytelling tool. Filmmakers often use bokeh to convey various emotions and moods, such as romance, loneliness, or alienation. Classic film examples like "La La Land" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" are referenced to demonstrate how bokeh can create dreamlike atmospheres or whimsical moods. In "The Notebook," bokeh is used to evoke a sense of rebellion and carefree nature. Understanding and mastering bokeh allows filmmakers and photographers to create more immersive and emotionally resonant scenes. Check out the video above for the full rundown.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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In the film era, I followed all the famous photographers from Adams to Weston and I had never heard that term mentioned....must be a digital phenomenon.

It's not a digital phenomenon, we just didn't pay extreme attention to it in the West until around 2000. For instance, we acknowledged the donut rings of mirror lens blurred highlights were certainly dog-ugly. Mostly it was something sensed but not discussed. It was "I don't like that lens" without actually discussing why.

I was watching Casablanca recently and noticed a particular scene with particularly ugly bokeh. Before 2000, probably nobody in the West noticed it...but it was there.