How to Get the Bokeh Effect in Smartphone Photos

Bring out your artistic side with this attractive photography effect

Young girl with flower in hair from the side with a blurry background
The white circles in the background of this photo are an example of bokeh. Wikimedia Commons

Bokeh photography is popular among DSLR and film camera shooters, but it's now possible to mimic the effect on a smartphone camera. As demonstrated in the above photo, bokeh is the quality of the out-of-focus areas of an image, precisely, the white circles in the background, which in digital photography is caused by the shape of the camera lens. It's a technique that adds artfulness to portraits, close-ups, and other shots where the background doesn't need to be in focus. Once you recognize it, you'll start seeing bokeh everywhere. 

What is Bokeh?

A blurred portion of a photo with the bokeh efffect
A close-up of the bokeh effect. Jill Wellington.Pixabay

Bokeh, pronounced BOH-kay, derives from the Japanese word boke, which means blur or haze or boke-aji, which means blur quality. The effect is caused by a narrow depth of field, which is the distance between the nearest object in focus and the farthest in a photo.

When using a DSLR or film camera, a combination of the aperture, focal length, and the distance between the photographer and the subject, creates this effect. Aperture controls how much light is let in, while focal length determines how much of a scene a camera captures, and is expressed in millimeters (i.e., 35mm).

A narrow depth of field results in a photo in which the foreground is in sharp focus, while the background is blurry. One example of bokeh is in a portrait, like the first photo above, where the subject is in focus, and the background is out of focus. Bokeh, the white orbs in the background, is caused by the camera lens, usually when it's at a wide aperture, which lets in more light.

Bokeh Photography on Smartphones

On a smartphone, depth of field and bokeh work differently. The elements needed are processing power and the right software. The smartphone camera needs to recognize the foreground and background of a photo, and then blur the background, while keeping the foreground in focus. So rather than occurring when the photo is snapped, smartphone bokeh is created after the picture is taken.

How to Get a Bokeh Background

A photo of bubbles floating in the air with a blurred background
Another example of the bokeh effect. Rob/Flickr

In the photo above, shot with a digital camera, the photographer had some fun combining bubbles with bokeh, where much of the scene is out of focus. A smartphone with a dual-lens camera will shoot two pictures at once and then combine them to get that depth-of-field and bokeh effect. 

While newer smartphones have dual lens cameras, it's possible to get bokeh with only one lens by downloading a third-party app that will give you the tools to create the effect. Options include AfterFocus (Android | iOS) , Bokeh Lens (iOS only), and DOF Simulator (Android and PC). There are plenty of others available, too, so download a few apps, give them a try, and pick your favorite.

If you have a flagship phone from Apple, Google, Samsung, or other brands, your camera probably has a dual lens, and you can get bokeh without an app. When you take a photo, you should be able to choose what to focus on and what to blur, and in some cases, refocus after you take a picture. Some smartphones also have a dual-lens front-facing camera for artful selfies. Take some practice shots to perfect your technique, and you'll be an expert in no time.