A bokeh primer

Apple recently released it new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus smartphones. One of the features of the 7 Plus that the company touts is its ability to create bokeh, an effect that was previously only done by digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLR).

The bokeh effect is known by most experienced photographers, but probably not by many of the uninitiated. The term is attributed to Photo Technique magazine editor Mike Johnston back in 1997. back in 1997. It refers to the large out of focus highlights in the background of photos created by a shallow depth of field and is a pleasing effect, especially in portraits. Pronounced bo (as in bows and ribbons) and keh (as in kettle), it comes from the Japanese word boke, meaning blur, haze or fuzziness.

With a DSLR, bokeh highlights are created under certain conditions. It is easier to produce with a telephoto lens. A wide-angle lens has too much inherent depth of field. Simply put: you need to have a shallow depth of field for bokeh to be created and there’s often too much that’s in focus with a wide-angle lens.

Even with a telephoto one has to use wide aperture to create an effective bokeh, this usually means low light situations like night time or indoors photos. Outdoor photos taken under a full sun usually means smaller apertures that are too small to make an effective bokeh.

You also have to have your subject far enough away from the background to throw it out of focus. Too close to the background and everything will be sharp or close to being in focus to create an bokeh.

Lastly, there needs to be a source for the bokeh to begin with. Specular highlights in the background will be thrown out of focus to make those large rounded balloons. Any kind of light in the background will do: streetlights, porch lights, even flashlights. Christmas lights make the perfect background for the bokeh effect.


Apple’s new iPhone 7 Plus takes a different path to create bokeh. It has dual cameras, one with a wide-angle lens (as most smartphone cameras do) and another with a telephoto lens. To say “telephoto” is a bit of a stretch. It’s the equivalent of a 52mm lens on a DSLR camera, a little too short for a proper bokeh. Apple uses what it calls “computational photography” to create its out of focus highlights. The phone creates “layers” of focus and then melds them together to create an artificial bokeh.

No matter how bokeh is created, whether the old school camera/lens combination or new-fangled artificial intelligence way, to me, the effect in of itself alone is not enough to make a good picture. Photos of just bokeh alone can get old very quickly, but when you use it to serve as a colorful backdrop for your main subject, it can spice up your images.

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