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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Previous comments
ghalibhasnain's picture

Super article !! great share ... after months of love between Dani & Ett ... Outcome is good ! :D

Christian Webb's picture

Great stuff Dani. For those critiquing, realx. He did a great job regarding an aspect of photography that some photographers find appealing. Many of us already know about bokeh and all. But keep in mind, there are some out there who don't and are just learning and wanting to know "how to do that!" This is a great start. Isn't that the point here at FStoppers? Is bokeh everything? No. It's a creative decision based on what someone wants to achieve visually in their photographs. Dani employs it and employs it very well so, that said, great that he decided to share and did so in a very straight forward, clear way.

Brent Eysler's picture

With all do respect to Dani Diamond... Bokeh should not be the ultimate goal.
Bokeh is a useful tool, it can take a boring photograph or a complicated background and make it stunning. But it can also completely and totally detract from a story line.

The ultimate goal for a photographer, regardless of the skill level should be to make images that catch your create as Bresson said, a photograph that you will look at for more than two minutes.
To me, a photograph that relies completely on Bokeh does not accomplish that goal... there’s no sense of place, it can almost never move past the "That’s a cool photo." into the that’s a timeless photograph category...and really isn't that the ultimate goal of a photographer?

423234324's picture

you are all idiots.... brabbling all day on blogs....

P K H's picture

very nice article...thanks...

Sean Shimmel's picture

Dani, I read each of all these back and forth comments. I'll simply take the bird's eye view approach for mine... you crafted a very thoughtful piece with lots of detail and lush, vibrant imagery to support your ideas. I hope you remain strong with your creative vision and post lots more in the future.

Dani Diamond's picture

Sean thank you for the kind words.

KO KO's picture

Everybody relax, this is a god article, and we should all appreciate the author for taking the time to write it. Sometimes I find photographers are the biggest dicks of the art world. It's like any other "tool" in an art-form, it has its uses and its place. Appreciate what you can and save your "expert" opinion for your Facebook pals, unless of course you're creating work on the level of an Avedon. Cheers.

Donald Giannatti's picture

I think I just threw up in my mouth a little... what complete hogwash.

Devorah Kaye Goldstein's picture

Dani, overall very well-thought-out article. I have to disagree with your assertion, however, that a very wide aperture is necessary to create bokeh. I have gotten just as "pleasing" bokeh with the 70-200 f4 (and at relatively shallow distances) as I could with something more open because so much of this is based on camera-subject-background ratios. You do touch in this, yes, but I think the over-emphasis on very expensive lenses like the 85 1.4 can give new photographers the incorrect impression that the "look" is out of their reach. Even a kit lens, in the right circumstances, can deliver a beautifully dimensional image. (And yes my slightly squished-up looking profile image to the left -- why does that happen here? -- is by Dani.)

Dane's picture

Good stuff!

Nicholas Goodden's picture

WHAT??? "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. "

Manuel Lopez's picture

I came accros this article titled, "The Ultimate Guide To Bokeh", when I read it, it was all about Bokeh .Just like the title suggested. I clicked on it because I wanted to read about Bokeh and Dani delivered with beautiful portrait samples. I'm confused though, why are people complaintning about Dani's emphasis on Bokeh in an article titled "The Ultimate Guide To Bokeh". Thanks for the great article about Bokeh, Dani!

Dani Diamond's picture

@disqus_HBSwOHl9PU:disqus thanks man, glad you enjoyed it and found it helpful.

Dennis Smith's picture

Very good post, good information. Like the other details, the color chart, the burning and dodging. Nicely done.

Beryl Teitelbaum's picture

Thank you, this is awesome... Bokeh (despite not knowing the name) is what brought me to photography as well. This is great and it is driving me insane making me want to learn Photoshop better. Thanks.

David Mawson's picture

A introductory article that is also incompetent. 85mm is NOT a "recommended" portrait FL but an FL suitable (conventionally) to **headshots**. This is because, with FF, when the subject's head and shoulders fill the viewfinder you'll be at the right distance to get a flattering perspective - but distance alone, not the lens as this silly article implies, does that. So if you want a half body or full body shot, using a 50mm or even 35mm is an option. Hordes of bad photographers believe otherwise - and now even more will do so thanks to the author of this article. Good work, Dani!

As for the rot for about bokeh: it's a tool for a good photographer and a crutch for bad ones.

Paul Paul's picture

In the last image, the married couple look like miniatures in a diorama :)