Updated: Oct 6, 2022
“Bokeh” is a term to describe the quality of out-of-focus areas in a photograph, both in the foreground and background. Although some aspects of bokeh are subjective, everyone seems to like creamy, smooth bokeh, whereas the infamous “onion rings” are unwanted in photos and probably better left as a food.
Naturally, photographers want the best bokeh possible. In a general sense, that means out-of-focus areas that are smooth rather than roughly textured, and not attracting undue attention with unusual shapes. Today I’ll cover some of the things that can improve bokeh in your photos, from choosing the right lens to even using software corrections.
1. Choose the Right Lens
Sometimes you can buy your way to fame, and that’s certainly true with getting better bokeh. Let’s say I want a prime in the classic portrait focal length of 85mm. Checking on B&H Photo, I find 21 of them just in Sony E mount, with eight of them having a maximum aperture of f/1.4! However, if you bought all of them, you’d find that not all of them produce the same quality of bokeh. Why is this so?
Pretty much every optical feature of a lens – from aperture blades to special elements – affects bokeh. For example, let’s take a look at how aperture blades can affect specular highlights, which is just one aspect of bokeh:
As you can see, the shapes start out large and circular when you’re shooting with your aperture wide open. They shrink and become more jagged as you stop down. However, all three lenses also have very different shapes in the background.
Why are these shapes so different? The answer is that out-of-focus highlights in an image take on the shape of your lens’s aperture blades.
For instance, the top row is the Pentax A 50mm f/1.7 lens. It has six aperture blades, which make the balls turn into hexagons when the lens is stopped down. On this lens, the aperture blades form almost a perfect hexagon when stopped down, giving the background blur sharp protrusions that are especially aggressive.
Such designs are prevalent on older, manual focus lenses. This is important to keep in mind because these lenses have made a bit of a comeback since the rise of lens adapters and mirrorless cameras.
Anyway, moving down to the middle row taken by the more modern Laowa 50mm f/2.8 2X macro, you can see that the aperture blades are better behaved here and never produce the shuriken bokeh of the Pentax. This lens has seven blades rather than six, producing heptagons that are a bit closer to circles.
Finally, we come to the bottom row produced by the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G lens. Unlike the other two lenses, the bokeh balls remain fairly circular even when the lens is stopped down to f/2.8.
Is that because of many more aperture blades? No. In fact, the Nikon still has seven blades like the Laowa. The difference is that they are rounded in the Nikon.
While distinct hexagons may be chic in some circles, if you want rounder bokeh balls, aim for rounded aperture blades. Generally, good modern portrait lenses have many rounded aperture blades, such as the Sony FE 85mm f/1.4, which has 11!
Is the number of blades and their roundedness the only thing to look for in a lens? Not exactly. Unfortunately, lenses can have a variety of other problems like chromatic aberration, coma, and distortion, all of which can affect bokeh. The remedy is to read reviews like our lens reviews at Photography Life, which demonstrate a variety of lens properties and comparisons against other lenses.