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Best lenses for bokeh: fast primes that are perfect for blurring backgrounds

Best lenses for bokeh
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The best lenses for bokeh will typically be prime lenses with wide maximum apertures. These lenses are perfect for portraits, weddings, still lifes or street photography, for example. They help you make your subjects stand out from their backgrounds, and give backgrounds a soft, creamy blur that's highly prized by photographers. 

Some of us get obsessed with the sharpness of lenses and how much infinitesimally fine detail they can resolve. But for soft and dreamy images, bokeh is more important. 

• Video guide: What is bokeh?

Bokeh is a measure of the pictorial quality of defocused areas within an image. The trouble is, you can’t really measure it, as there’s no scientific test for good bokeh. It’s more a matter of subjective opinion, but there are still some conventional rules. 

As with most things in photography, however, rules are only there to be broken. Bokeh is important when you're choosing the best lens for portrait photography, the best macro lenses (where you can't escape background blur!) or even the best lenses for food photography, where shallow depth of field and soft backgrounds are part of the modern style.

For starters, if you’re after good bokeh, you’ll need a tight depth of field. When choosing a lens, it’s therefore only natural to pick something with a telephoto focal length and a wide aperture rating. Both of these factors will help you to shrink the depth of field and isolate the main subject, by blurring the background. Fast 85mm primes are a particular favorite for use with full-frame cameras, whereas the best 50mm lenses can make great 'bokeh' lenses for crop-sensor camera bodies. 

However, shorter focal lengths can also be useful, enabling you to get closer to your subject and gain a tight depth of field by using a short focus distance. You’ll also be able to squeeze more of the blurred background into the frame, thanks to the change in perspective and wider viewing angle. 

With all that in mind, here are some top choices to suit a wide range of cameras, and budgets…

Canon

(Image credit: Future)

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM

A cheap and cheerful choice for Canon APS-C DSLR owners

Specifications
Mount: Canon EF
Elements/groups: 6/5
Diaphragm blades: 7
Autofocus: Stepping motor
Optical stabilizer: No
Minimum focus distance: 0.35m
Maximum magnification ratio: 0.21x
Filter size: 49mm
Dimensions: 69x39mm
Weight: 160g
Reasons to buy
+Cheap to buy+Smooth and quiet autofocus
Reasons to avoid
-Bokeh not that smooth-Performance not great wide open

This Canon full-frame compatible 50mm prime is really cheap. Even so, it’s nicely made, with n autofocus system based on a stepping motor, which gives smooth, ultra-quiet transitions ideal for movie capture, and the mounting plate is metal rather than plastic. Although it produces a natural perspective on full-frame bodies, the lens is often preferred for APS-C format Canon cameras, where it gives an ‘effective’ 80mm focal length, more ideal for portraiture. The bokeh is a little lacking in smoothness, and when stopping down, defocused lights take on a slight heptagonal shape. For bokeh and for all-round performance, this is a major upgrade over Canon’s previous 50mm f/1.8 but it’s still a bit of a poor relation in terms of smooth and dreamy blur compared to some of the more expensive lenses here.

(Image credit: Digital Camera World)

Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM | A

This Sigma 'Art' lens is a top choice for Canon full frame DSLRs

Specifications
Mount: Nikon F, Canon EF, Sigma, Sony E, L-mount
Elements/groups: 14/12
Diaphragm blades: 9
Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring)
Optical stabilizer: No
Minimum focus distance: 0.85m
Maximum magnification ratio: 0.12x
Filter size: 86mm
Dimensions: 95x126mm
Weight: 1,130g
Reasons to buy
+Superb image quality+Good value
Reasons to avoid
-Very big-And very heavy!

We’ve always considered this Sigma to be abnormally large and weighty for an 85mm f/1.4 lens, but that was before the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2 burst onto the scene. Even so, despite having a less outsized aperture rating, the Sigma is still physically slightly longer than the Canon and nearly as heavy, weighing in at 1,130g. Ideal for a wide-range of cameras, this full-frame compatible lens is available in Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E and Leica L mount options, the last of these making it eminently suitable for Panasonic’s new S-series bodies. The up-market build includes an aspherical element and two SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements, in an optical path that comprises 14 elements in total. Autofocus is courtesy of a conventional ring-type ultrasonic system with the usual full-time manual override. We’ve seen a slight onion ring effect in the bokeh of some Sigma lenses, appearing as concentric circles with feint lines within bokeh discs of defocused lights and bright spots. That’s not really an issue with this lens, which delivers super-smooth, high-quality bokeh. The quality is also maintained very well when stopping down. It’s undeniably big and hefty but its image quality is fabulous. All in all, it’s our top choice for Canon and Nikon SLRs, as well as for Panasonic full-frame mirrorless cameras.

(Image credit: Digital Camera World)

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM

Canon RF mirrorless owners should start saving for this superb lens

Specifications
Mount: Canon RF
Elements/groups: 13/9
Diaphragm blades: 9
Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring)
Optical stabilizer: No
Minimum focus distance: 0.85m
Maximum magnification ratio: 0.12x
Filter size: 82mm
Dimensions: 103x117mm
Weight: 1,195g
Reasons to buy
+Exceptional image quality+Fabulous bokeh
Reasons to avoid
-Dwarfs the Canon R bodies-Big... and expensive!

Canon seems on a mission to compensate for the relatively slimline, lightweight bodies of its new mirrorless full-frame cameras by launching big, heavy lenses! This 85mm f/1.2 is a prime example in every way, and its price tag is pretty massive as well. The premium glass includes aspherical and UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) elements, along with high-tech Air Sphere Coating and BR (Blue spectrum Refractive) optics. The overall construction feels particularly robust, complete with weather-seals and fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements. A ‘DS’ version of the lens is also available, featuring a Defocus Smoothing Coating, not that it really needs it. The BR optics do a great job of minimizing axial or ‘bokeh fringing’, virtually eliminating coloured fringes around outlines of objects in front of and behind the point of focus. The overall quality of bokeh is absolutely fabulous, making the most of the super-fast f/1.2 aperture rating, and it remains terrific when stopping down a little. Despite the price, its overall performance and image quality make this lens worth the money.

Fujifilm

(Image credit: Digital Camera World)

Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2 R APD

The ultimate 'bokeh' lens for Fujifilm X mirrorless camera owners

Specifications
Mount: Fujifilm X
Elements/groups: 11/8
Diaphragm blades: 7
Autofocus: Stepping motor
Optical stabilizer: No
Minimum focus distance: 0.7m
Maximum magnification ratio: 0.09x
Filter size: 62mm
Dimensions: 73x70mm
Weight: 405g
Reasons to buy
+Fast maximum aperture+Portable and affordable
Reasons to avoid
-Reduced light transmission-Bokeh good but not great

Tailor-made for Fujifilm’s APS-C format X-mount camera bodies, this lens has an effective focal length of 84mm in full-frame terms, thanks to the 1.5x crop factor. However, because depth of field is more dependent on ‘actual’ rather than ‘effective’ focal length, you can still struggle to get really smooth bokeh. Aiming to solve the problem, this lens not only has a super-fast f/1.2 aperture rating but also adds an ‘apodization filter’, which is lacking in the more basic edition of the XF56mm. The internal filter has a radial, graduated neutral density, which becomes darker towards the edges of the frame. The aim is to give so-called bokeh discs from defocused lights and bright points a softer edge and make them less obtrusive. A drawback of the apodization filter is that it reduces the transmission of light through the lens. For example, when shooting wide-open at f/1.2, the exposure value equates to using an aperture of f/1.7. The net result is that bokeh is beautifully smooth, much more so than in Fujifilm’s 23mm f/1.4 lens, but bokeh discs can still have fairly hard edges. Nevertheless, this ‘APD’ lens goes the extra mile to ensure that you get really creamy bokeh from an APS-C format camera, matching the quality you’d usually associate with full-frame shooting.

Nikon

(Image credit: Digital Camera World)

Nikon AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8G

A good low-cost option for owners of Nikon APS-C (DX) DSLRs

Specifications
Mount: Nikon F DX
Elements/groups: 8/6
Diaphragm blades: 7
Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring)
Optical stabilizer: No
Minimum focus distance: 0.3m
Maximum magnification ratio: 0.16x
Filter size: 52mm
Dimensions: 70x53mm
Weight: 200g
Reasons to buy
+Cheap to buy+Soft in the corners wide open
Reasons to avoid
-Bokeh adequate but not great-No distance scale

Compact and lightweight, this lens is specifically designed for DX (APS-C) format Nikon DSLRs, on which it gives a natural viewing perspective, roughly equivalent to using a 50mm ‘standard’ prime on a full-frame body. The f/1.8 rather than f/1.4 aperture rating and the fact that the lens only needs to produce a relatively small image circle, to fill an APS-C sized sensor, help to reduce the physical size as well as the cost. The construction is quite simple, with just eight optical elements including one aspherical. There’s no focus distance scale on the lens and, whereas most of the other lenses on test have a nine-blade diaphragm, this one only has seven. Bokeh is reasonable for such an inexpensive lens but less smooth than you get from pricier lenses. The aperture actually remains fairly well rounded when stopping down a little, despite the relatively low count of diaphragm blades. A fairly ‘fast’ standard prime for DX format cameras, the quality of its bokeh is good rather than great. All things considered, though, it’s a pretty decent budget buy.

(Image credit: Digital Camera World)

Sigma 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM | A

Sigma's big-bokeh beast is brilliant for full frame Nikon DSLRs

Specifications
Mount: Canon EF, Nikon F, Sigma, Sony E, L-mount
Elements/groups: 17/12
Diaphragm blades: 9
Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring)
Optical stabilizer: No
Minimum focus distance: 1m
Maximum magnification ratio: 0.12x
Filter size: 105mm
Dimensions: 116x132mm
Weight: 1,645g
Reasons to buy
+Excellent all-round image quality+Superb bokeh
Reasons to avoid
-So heavy it needs a tripod collar-Huge 105mm filter size

In a bid to take bokeh to the max, Sigma has created a 105mm telephoto lens with a super-fast f/1.4 aperture. Nikon also makes an AF-S 105mm f/1.4E ED lens but, in our tests, we’ve found that the Sigma produces slightly better bokeh. It’s also considerably less expensive. Typical of Sigma’s Art lenses, including the 50mm and 85mm f/1.4 options, the 105mm is big and heavy. Particularly so, in this case, as it tips the scales at 1,645g and comes complete with a tripod mounting ring, which is pretty essential to maintain a good balance when shooting with a tripod or monopod, especially in portrait orientation. Optical refinements include an aspherical element, three top-performance FLD (‘Fluorite’ Low Dispersion) elements and two SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements. Both axial and lateral chromatic aberrations are negligible and the overall quality of bokeh is beautifully soft. If anything, the depth of field generated by the focal length and f/1.4 aperture can be a little too tight but bokeh remains very good when stopping down. Billed as the ‘bokeh master’ this lens lives up to its claims but it’s a bit of an unwieldy heavyweight, especially for prolonged periods of handheld shooting.

Nikon Z 50mm f/1.2 S

(Image credit: Nikon)

Nikon Z 50mm f/1.2 S

The best money-no-object bokeh lens for Nikon Z cameras

Specifications
Mount: Nikon Z
Elements/groups: 17/15
Diaphragm blades: 9
Autofocus: Stepping motor
Optical stabilizer: No
Minimum focus distance: 0.45m
Maximum magnification ratio: 0.15x
Filter size: 82mm
Dimensions: 90x150mm
Weight: 1,090g
Reasons to buy
+Very fast aperture+Supreme build and optics+Decent bokeh quality
Reasons to avoid
-Very big and heavy for a 50mm-Premium price

Ok, for the ultimate in bokeh, look no further than the Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct. You probably will though, because very few of us can afford to blow $8k on a lens, however special it is. The Z 50mm f/1.2 S is currently the next best thing - it's much lighter than the Noct, and around a quarter of the price. Bokeh quality is generally very soft and creamy and even bokeh discs remain quite well-rounded across most of the frame. Longitudinal or ‘axial’ chromatic aberration, also referred to as ‘bokeh fringing’ is very negligible, even when shooting wide-open, and there’s virtually no onion ring effect in defocused lights. Overall, the Z 50mm f/1.2 S delivers beautifully creamy looking bokeh. When it comes to in-focus areas, this lens delivers incredible sharpness and contrast for such a ‘fast’ lens. Factor the high-end, weather-sealed build quality, plus premium extras like an OLED display, L-Fn button and additional customisable control ring and the Z 50mm f/1.2 S is a superb prime lens for any shooting scenario requiring beautiful bokeh.

(Image credit: Digital Camera World)

Nikon Z 50mm f/1.8 S

This is the perfect 'budget' bokeh lens for Nikon Z mirrorless cameras

Specifications
Mount: Nikon Z
Elements/groups: 12/9
Diaphragm blades: 9
Autofocus: Stepping motor
Optical stabilizer: No
Minimum focus distance: 0.4m
Maximum magnification ratio: 0.15x
Filter size: 62mm
Dimensions: 76x87mm
Weight: 415g
Reasons to buy
+Terrific sharpness across the frame+Very attractive bokeh
Reasons to avoid
-Only f/1.8, not f/1.4-Quite expensive for a 50mm f/1.8

Can't stretch to Nikon's Z 50mm f/1.2 S? This f/1.8 alternative is considerably cheaper, but almost as good. Its optical path features 12 optical elements, and also includes two aspherical and two ED elements. The addition of Nano Crystal Coat helps to minimize ghosting and flare. Typical of Z-mount lenses, the lens features a stepping motor instead of a more conventional ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system. Due to its slightly narrower f/1.8 aperture rating, you can’t get quite such a tight depth of field as from the Z 50mm f/1.2 lens, but defocused areas are still beautifully smooth. This lens also keeps coma to a minimum, which helps retain well-rounded defocused bright spots towards the edges of the frame. Nikon’s Z 50mm lens is also stunningly sharp even wide-open.

(Image credit: Digital Camera World)

Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S

Another brilliant Nikon Z 'bokeh' lens, and ideal for portraits

Specifications
Mount: Nikon Z
Elements/groups: 12/8
Diaphragm blades: 9
Autofocus: Stepping motor
Optical stabilizer: No
Minimum focus distance: 0.8m
Maximum magnification ratio: 0.14x
Filter size: 67mm
Dimensions: 75x99mm
Weight: 470g
Reasons to buy
+Compact and light to use+Excellent bokeh characteristics
Reasons to avoid
-Only f/1.8 not f/1.4-Not quite as sharp as the Z 50mm

Want to shoot portraits with great bokeh quality? This Z 85mm f/1.8 is the perfect choice. Unlike the Z 50mm f/1.8 S, it has no aspherical elements but still retains two ED elements plus Nano Crystal Coat. Construction is fairly compact and lightweight but build quality is very good, with the same comprehensive set of weather-seals. The quality of bokeh is deliciously soft and creamy: defocused areas actually look smoother than from Nikon’s older AF-S 85mm f/1.4G for SLRs, despite the Z-mount lens’s narrower aperture rating. Defocused lights also look better rounded, when shooting wide-open as well as when stopping down a bit. This lens is wonderful for both sharpness and blur, proving once and for all that you can get beautiful bokeh from an f/1.8 lens.

Olympus/Panasonic

(Image credit: Digital Camera World)

Olympus M.ZUIKO Digital 45mm f/1.8

This tiny Micro Four Thirds portrait lens is also highly affordable

Specifications
Mount: MFT
Elements/groups: 9/7
Diaphragm blades: 7
Autofocus: Stepping motor
Optical stabilizer: No
Minimum focus distance: 0.5m
Maximum magnification ratio: 0.11x
Filter size: 37mm
Dimensions: 56x46mm
Weight: 116g
Reasons to buy
+Very compact, light and affordable+Good sharpness and all-round quality
Reasons to avoid
-Bokeh less attractive at smaller apertures-Outclassed by the (pricey) 45mm f/1.2 Pro

A great thing about the Micro Four Thirds format is that it really puts the ‘compact’ into compact system cameras and lenses. That’s mostly thanks to being based around a relatively small image sensor with a 2x crop factor. This means this small 45mm f/1.8 lens has an effective focal length of 90mm in full-frame terms, delivering portrait-friendly reach. As we’ve said before though, depth of field is more dependent on the ‘actual’ rather than ‘effective’ focal length, so the modest aperture rating of f/1.8 makes good bokeh a challenge for this lens. There’s also the fact that the aperture is based on just seven diaphragm blades rather than nine although, naturally, that makes no difference if you’re shooting wide-open to get the tightest available depth of field and give bokeh the best chance. As it turns out, sharpness is pretty good across most of the image frame but, even when shooting at the widest available aperture, bokeh is a bit glitchy and lacking in smoothness. Bokeh discs are quite well-rounded when shooting wide-open but take on a noticeable heptagonal appearance when stopping down a little. This lens is competitively priced, at only about a quarter of the price of the Olympus 45mm f/1.2 Pro, but bokeh is comparatively disappointing and lacking in smoothness. As ever with MFT lenses, this Olympus prime will also fit on Panasonic G-Series mirrorless cameras, and the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K.

Sony

(Image credit: Digital Camera World)

Sony FE 135mm f/1.8 G Master

It's at the top of the tree for Sony owners, both in quality and price

Specifications
Mount: Sony FE
Elements/groups: 13/10
Diaphragm blades: 11
Autofocus: Dual linear motors
Optical stabilizer: No
Minimum focus distance: 0.7m
Maximum magnification ratio: 0.25x
Filter size: 82mm
Dimensions: 90x127mm
Weight: 950g
Reasons to buy
+Superb all-round optical quality+Beautiful bokeh
Reasons to avoid
-Pretty big-And pretty expensive too

Sony’s G Master lenses have earned a solid reputation for overall performance and image quality in general, and for beautiful bokeh in particular. Typical of the breed, this 135mm f/1.8 prime utilizes XA (eXtreme Aspherical), Super ED and regular ED elements in its construction, along with an 11-blade diaphragm that maintains a particularly well-rounded aperture when stopping down a bit. For hands-on aperture control, there’s a physical aperture control ring with one-third f/stop click steps and a straightforward de-click switch to enable smooth transitions during movie capture. Autofocus speed can be a little pedestrian in some fast-aperture primes but the Sony’s dual XD (extreme dynamic) linear motors go about their business with speedy precision and in virtual silence. The lens also features two customizable AF hold buttons on the barrel, as well as an autofocus range limiter. Along with impressive sharpness and contrast, the lens delivers sumptuously smooth bokeh, helped not only by the long focal length but also by the sheer optical quality. The only slight niggle is that defocused lights near the edges and corners of the frame can take on a very elliptical appearance. The upsized sibling to the Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 G Master, this 135mm lens delivers similarly superb all-round performance and gorgeous bokeh. The tough decision is which focal length you find more appealing.

Sony FE 50mm F1.2 G Master

(Image credit: Sony)

Sony FE 50mm f/1.2 G Master

Superb bokeh at closer focusing distances

Specifications
Mount: Sony FE
Elements/groups: 14/10
Diaphragm blades: 11
Autofocus: XD Linear Motors
Optical stabilizer: No
Minimum focus distance: 0.4m
Maximum magnification ratio: 0.17x
Filter size: 72mm
Dimensions: 87x108mm
Weight: 788g
Reasons to buy
+Great bokeh quality+Scintillating sharpness, even at f/1.2+Robust, weather-sealed build quality
Reasons to avoid
-A bit bulky-Heavy vignetting at f/1.2

Where the Sony FE 135mm f/1.8 G Master has a minimum focus distance of 0.7 metres, Sony's 50mm f/1.2 G Master lens lowers this to 0.4 metres - useful for closer still life or food photography. Bokeh quality is still beautifully smooth, especially when shooting at f/2 or wider. This is also an appreciably smaller lens than its 135mm sibling, and is reasonably lightweight for an f/1.2 lens. Even so, it goes extra-large in terms of features and performance. The weather-sealed construction feels of fully professional-grade quality, there are two customizable function buttons that fall naturally under the thumb in both landscape and portrait orientation shooting, and the manual aperture ring comes complete with a de-click switch for stepless control during video capture. Unlike most ultra-fast lenses, the Sony maintains spectacular sharpness across the entire image frame, even when shooting wide-open. There’s noticeable vignetting when shooting at f/1.2 but this is rarely an issue when backgrounds are blurred, and automatic in-camera correction is available anyway.

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Best Panasonic lenses
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Best Sony lenses

Matthew Richards

Matthew Richards is a photographer and journalist who has spent years using and reviewing all manner of photo gear. He is Digital Camera World's principal lens reviewer – and has tested more primes and zooms than most people have had hot dinners! 


His expertise with equipment doesn’t end there, though. He is also an encyclopedia  when it comes to all manner of cameras, camera holsters and bags, flashguns, tripods and heads, printers, papers and inks, and just about anything imaging-related. 


In an earlier life he was a broadcast engineer at the BBC, as well as a former editor of PC Guide.