The Casual Movie Lover’s Guide to the Bokeh Effect

If it’s not bokeh, don’t fix it.

By Meg Shields Published 30 June 2022

Welcome to How did they do that? – a monthly column that unpacks moments of cinematic magic and celebrates the tech wizards who made them happen. This entry explains how cinematographers achieve the optical byproduct known as the bokeh effect.


If your primary relationship with movies is as an audience member, the more technical aspects of cameras can be a little daunting. Between focal ratios and lumen measurement, it’s easy to get lost. I’m pretty sure there’s a circle of confusion joke in there somewhere.

As I mentioned earlier in this column, cinematography exists somewhere in the middle of the proverbial Venn diagram of “science versus art”. Filmmaking is a creative discipline, of course. But there’s also a good degree of optical physics involved – and that can be overwhelming if your wheelhouse is elsewhere.

Personally, the only way photographic principles make sense to my non-applied-science smooth brain is to see them on the big screen. first and work my way back. There’s something special about learning how sausage is made. And for most people, I imagine the gesture of curiosity isn’t too different: you see something good, you become curious, and you seek answers. Generally speaking the internet was a mistake. But being able to dig into the nitty-gritty of an art form you love is pretty special.

The bokeh effect

bokeh collage

Beau Travail, Psycho, Attack the Block, Eyes Wide Shut (top left to right)

Even if you’ve never heard the word “bokeh” before, I can almost guarantee you’ve seen it on screen hundreds, if not thousands of times. As I’ll mention a little later in this article, the power of bokeh is largely about working in the background, not drawing attention to itself, and reinforcing an impactful look and mood. immense on the “feel” of a given shot. . So if you’re enchanted by that painterly blur — or those fuzzy, soap-bubble-like circles of light that pop up from time to time — here’s your first step to understanding how the bokeh effect works:


How did they do that?

Long story short:

The bokeh effect describes the intentional exaggeration of out-of-focus elements in a shot. It is created when the foreground and/or background of a frame is deliberately blurred around the subject. Variations in camera lenses (aberrations, aperture, etc.) govern the aesthetic characteristics of bokeh.

Long long story:

First things first: why is the effect called “bokeh”? The term comes from the Japanese word ボケ (bokeh), which literally translates to “blur” or “haze”. Bokeh is usually pronounced BOH-Kə or BOH-kay. And if English speakers tease you for being wrong, you have my permission to tell them to suck eggs. The modified English spelling of Bokeh was first popularized in the Spring 1997 issue of Photographic techniques magazine, which contained three articles on the subject.

Generally speaking, when people talk about bokeh, they are referring to one of two things. (1) A type of aesthetically pleasing blur that is produced in out-of-focus areas of an image. And/or (2) recognizable lens aberrations that produce bubbles of colored light or star shapes in out-of-focus regions. So, it’s worth noting: those iconic little colored circles aren’t the only thing that’s bokeh. Anything outside the depth of field matters.

Bokeh describes a specific character or quality of blurry blur. It is not a matter How many blur there is or if there is is a blur, but rather What the blur looks and feels like. It can be subjective!

Bum Bokeh Beach

The Beach Tramp (2019)

Shallow focus techniques, like longer focal lengths and shallow depth of field, are key to increasing the blurry space in a shot and accentuating the bokeh effect. Another trick is to position the subject near a fast lens at the widest aperture. The closer you bring the camera to the subject, the shallower your depth of field will be and the blurrier your background will be. Also, it is ideal to have the subject far away from the background elements to exaggerate the effect that they are sharp and distinct and everything else is out of focus.

Because the effect is subjective, there is “good” and “bad” bokeh. Bad bokeh is often described as being “crispy”, overexposed, or showing a subject that has been caught out of focus. Good bokeh, on the other hand, is characterized by the presence of a bright, well-defined subject against a soft, creamy background often dotted with blurry pits of light. When evaluating whether bokeh is nice or not (you know, that thing we all do when we have friends over for dinner), it’s helpful to distinguish between the quality of the “soap bubble” light reflections and the quality of the light. whole Region blur.

Pain and Gain

Pain and Gain (2013)

Unlike more encompassing terms like background blur or soft focus, bokeh is a property of lenses rather than large images. And because bokeh is rendered by a lens (not a camera), different lenses render bokeh differently. Case and point: those iconic little soap bubbles that most people associate with bokeh.

When the bokeh shows up as blurry colored circles, what you see is an image of the camera aperture. Each lens has blades on its diaphragm that open and close, creating the aperture. The number of blades on a lens’ diaphragm will determine the shape of the bokeh. Fewer blades will create a more angular bokeh while more blades will create a rounder bokeh. So, to sum up: the lens diaphragm affects the appearance of reflected light in out-of-focus areas. This is probably a good time to mention that you can’t get the bokeh effect without distinct light sources (eg sunlight streaming through trees, Christmas lights, candles, etc.). There must be a distinction between light and dark areas in the background for bokeh to occur.

The narrative power of bokeh

On the one hand, I’m sure some cinematographers just use bokeh because it looks neat. Loving the way a dynamic balance between soft and crisp images looks doesn’t need any further justification. But to give credit where credit is due, let’s look at some of the more high-intent reasons filmmakers might want to incorporate bokeh into their shots.

Like any element of cinematic craft, bokeh is a tool that can accomplish a variety of subjective effects depending on the context in which it is deployed. At Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotelthe romantic qualities of the bokeh effect are on full display when Agatha’s warm smile beams in the afterglow of the carousel’s soft, swirling circles.

There’s also a strong case to be made that the bokeh effect gives shots a distinctly dreamlike quality; a dissolving abstraction that emulates the feeling of drifting towards something that is both murky and attentive. Is it a coincidence, in Eyes wide closed, that sleepy-eyed Dr. Bill is bathed in half-formed Christmas lights when he first learns of the secret high-society sex cult? Or that the Limbo-like Djiboutian club where Galoup is danced cleanly in Good work is dotted with pink spheres?

Bokeh Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems (2019)

At the other end of the spectrum, bokeh can also be used to create a feeling of claustrophobic hyperfocus. As Benjamin B. writes for American Society of Cinematographers magazinethe Safdie brothers film in 2019 Uncut Gems makes a compelling argument that “the personality and emotion of a lens resides primarily in the out-of-focus bokeh, which, like fragrance, is not visible…you get the feel of the bokeh, but you don’t get it.” don’t really pay attention to that.

Indeed, in the expert hands of Uncut Gems‘DP Darius Kjondji, bokeh takes on a painterly quality. “Almost like a rear screen projection,” says Kjondi. Continuing, Kjondji points out that another intention behind his exaggerated use of bokeh was to isolate the characters; put all the attention on them and reduce the rest of the world to swirling chaos. As quiet as it may be, bokeh is one of the main reasons Uncut Gems sounds like a decidedly modern entry into “anxiety cinema”.

Toy Story Bokeh

Toy Story 4 (2019)

I’ve left the weirdest use of bokeh for last. In recent years, a certain animation studio (which may or may not rhyme with “Bixar”) has made a concerted effort to train its virtual cameras to behave like real cameras. A virtual camera doesn’t organically produce bokeh (duh) because it doesn’t have a physical lens. But thanks to the emulation of real optical elements (depth of field, lens flares, etc.), films like Soul and toy story 4 are able to tap into the emotional and aesthetic characteristics of real cinematic choices like bokeh.

While bokeh isn’t always the result of purposeful aesthetic intent, it is nonetheless another element of the Jenga Tower of visual storytelling. So it makes sense that animators would be interested in teaching their virtual cameras to mimic their physical counterparts. Because even though bokeh can literally fade into the background, the effect is a powerful tool at a DP’s disposal. Be on the lookout. And ask yourself if the bokeh you spot is doing anything other than making the frames look particularly pretty.

Related topics: Cinematography, how did they do it?

Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor to Film School Rejects. She currently directs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How’d They Do That? and Horroscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman’s “Excalibur” on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She she).

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