A Visual Guide to the Different Types of Bokeh

Not all bokeh is made the same. Some kinds are clearly superior to others in the way that the bourgeoisie snubs their nose at the proletariat. Of course, I’m kidding about that; it’s all personal preference. But objectively speaking, there are many different types of bokeh out there. Luckily, we’ve studied and used the most lenses in real-world environments of any website. So we dove into our Reviews Index to look at bokeh shapes. Are there more? There could be, but these are more than sufficient for the modern photographer.

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Swirly Bokeh

Swirly bokeh is fascinating! I honestly wish it were available in more lenses. Of all the types of bokeh, it’s often the most unique. It’s typically associated with petzval style lenses. In a nutshell, it’s making the center very sharp and the outer edges less in focus. So, if you’re shooting with this style of lens, you can’t expect the edges to be in focus. Instead, you’ll have to always center your subject. It works best at wider open apertures. And the more you stop down, the lessened the effect becomes.

Because of this, swirly bokeh is one of the types of bokeh that will appeal to portrait photographers. Combine it with some sort of sepia preset and you’ll get an old-timey look. 

How to Get the Look

Some of the best ways to get it are to reach for a Lomography Petzval lens or a Lensbaby Twist for less than $200 for just the optic. Lomography’s Petzval lenses can be had easily on eBay. And various vintage optics can do this, like some from Helios.

Shaped Bokeh

Shaped bokeh is different. It takes the bokeh and literally turns it into a shape. Ever seen Scott Pilgrim vs. the world? It’s used often there. It’s an amusing look, but it can also be limiting. You need to use a very wide-open aperture at all times to get the results to pop. They’re fun to use for portraiture, and they’ll be fantastic with modern lenses as they’re super sharp wide open.

How to Get the Look

Years ago, SLRMagic used to make this lens called the Bokehmorphic. I can’t even find it anymore for the record, and it was hard to use, but fun. But you can also score these little stencils to put over your lens to shape the bokeh.

Onion Bokeh

For many years, this was just known as bokeh. Of all the types of bokeh, this is one of the weirdest to me. It’s so odd because of just how it came to be called this. Basically, onion bokeh is when you look at a bokeh ball and there are little circles in it. It happens with the vast majority of optics made before 2018. Someone, somewhere on the internet, decided that it was awful because they were pixel-peeping. Sony hyper-inflated it out of control. It was a problem if you want to call it that, with the way the optics were polished. And now, manufacturers have changed the polishing technique so that the optics are more smooth.

Personally speaking, I liked the onion bokeh look. It made the bokeh balls pop and gave images a more fascinating look.

How to Get the Look

Basically, pick up any lens made prior to 2018. It’s bound to have onion bokeh. Make sure there are bright bokeh balls behind your subject. That’s it; it’s that simple.

Smooth Bokeh

Continuing from the onion bokeh trend, smooth bokeh occurs when the optics are polished differently. The bokeh balls are smooth and don’t have an onion character. It’s bound to make you not cry if you can’t handle a bit of heat in the kitchen.

How to Get the Look

Sony G Master lenses are enormous on this look. Lots of Canon modern RF L lenses and Nikon Z S lenses are big on it too. 

Donut Bokeh

Donut bokeh is one of my favorites. If you’re not a fan of onions, maybe you’ll enjoy the sweet eye candy that is donut bokeh. Of all the types of bokeh, I’d also say it’s one of the rarer types. Donut bokeh typically only ones with reflex lenses–otherwise known as mirror lenses. The most modern of these lenses are the Canon RF 600mm and 800mm. However, as we saw in our 800mm test, this lens doesn’t do it. Part of the reason is that you specifically need a little blackened circle in the center.

How to Get the Look

Years ago, we tested the Tokina 300mm on Micro Four Thirds. That lens gives this type of bokeh. You need to find a telephoto reflex or mirror lens that has a little blackened circle in the center. This Carl Zeiss Lens in the Rare Camera Store does it too!

Soap Bubble Bokeh

Soap bubble bokeh is very cool! It’s kind of like donut bokeh, but with a thinner ring that’s more pronounced around the edges of the bokeh balls. It’s beautiful, but also means you’re getting a softer lens at times.

How to Get the Look

The new Canon RF 100mm f2.8 Macro  IS L lens has an option to do this. But so too do lenses like the Meyer Optik Trioplan 100mm lens.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.