“Swirly bokeh” sounds more like a magic spell or complicated cocktail than it sounds like a photography characteristic. So what does the term actually mean and when is it useful in photography?
This page will answer all of your burning swirly-bokeh queries. We’ll explore the swirly bokeh effect, how to achieve it and when it’s most impactful in photography.
What Does Bokeh Mean?
The word bokeh comes from the Japanese word “ãƒœã‚±”, or “boke”, meaning blurred. A bokeh effect is where the background of an image is soft and out-of-focus. It’s a benchmark for good photography when it comes to portrait shots and other professional contexts.
If you’re looking for a quick-and-easy way to make your images more visually appealing, a strong bokeh is a great way to go.
What’s a Swirly Bokeh?
Technically speaking, a swirly bokeh is often the result of a defect or poor focusing on a particular lens. A swirly bokeh is an out-of-focus background with streaked and, well, swirly lines throughout.
In a world of modern photography that seems obsessed with ultra-sharp focus, this effect can be quite rare and pleasant. For a more dramatic, magical or movement-focused theme for your images, it can be fun to try out this bokeh effect when shooting.
How to Achieve Swirly Bokeh Effects
Not every portrait lens will be able to produce what you’re looking for. As a general rule of thumb, older lenses are the way to go. Vintage lenses can be even better, and more affordable, if you can get your hands on them.
The reason for this, is that the swirled effect is technically an error on the part of a lenses’ optics. Older devices typically don’t have the modern innovations that we’ve come to expect today.
It’s worth doing your research and making sure a particular lens will be able to blur your shots in the way you’d like it to. Bare in mind that with many of these lenses, manual settings may be your only option.
Temper Your Expectations
It’s worth noting at this point that even the most old-school, vintage, gem of a lens won’t just produce a swirly bokeh on everything you capture. You’ll need to choose the right subject and environment to get the effect you’re looking for.
As a general rule, backgrounds that are busier with lots going on lend themselves much better to a swirly effect. Less modern lenses struggle to process these backgrounds accurately and leave an interesting blur as a result.
Best Swirly Bokeh Lens – Our Top Picks
The list below contains our top picks for lenses that can produce interesting bokeh effects. Their strengths aren’t always quite so apparent in other areas but for interesting background blur, they’re some of the best.
1. Helios 44 2 58mm
This soviet-era lens comes with a lot of history attached to it. It’s compatible with Canon’s line of EOS cameras and produces some lovely photo results if you’re willing to play around with it. With a little patience and knowhow, this lens can produce some stunning shots.
The settings ring for aperture is reversed which you’ll need to get used to. Other aspects may be different to what you’re used to as well. If you’re willing to tolerate these quirks, the Helios 44 2 can create some truly unique photos.
- Compatible with Canon EOS cameras
- Produces beautiful photos if you’re patient
- Packed full of history
- The aperture ring and other settings don’t use modern layouts
2. Zhongyi Mitakon Speedmaster
This old-school lens is compatible with Sony E, Canon RF and Nikon Z-Mounts. It’s capable of some lovely bokeh results and is also remarkably fast for a lens this old. The 11-blade diaphragm for ultra-smooth bokeh effects.
The aperture range of f/0.95 to f/16 on the Speedmaster is comparatively huge; you’ll have more flexibility to work with than you might expect. The images this lens produces usually have fantastic colors that are wonderfully warm and soft.
If you have a compatible camera and are a bokeh fan, this one is well worth considering.
- Compatible with Sony E, Canon RF and Nikon Z-Mounts
- Beautiful soft colors
- Great for bokeh photos
3. Samyang F1.4/35mm
The bokeh results of this Samyang lens aren’t quite as pronounced as other options, but it can produce some stunning shots with the right background and subject. If you’re using a Canon M camera, this lens should fit just fine. It’s also compatible with some Nikon, Pentax, Sony A and Sony E cameras.
Check listings on Amazon, etc, to double check compatibility with your model. The anti-reflection coating on this lens goes a long way in keeping your shots crisp and clear. Some wonderful bokeh work can be achieved with lenses like this.
The removable petal-shaped hood on this model comes in handy surprisingly often. Overall, this is a great option for bokeh lovers.
- Decent compatibility with multiple brands
- Anti-reflection coating
- Great bokeh results
- Relatively expensive
4. Carl Zeiss Biotar 58mm f 2
This funky option is a little slower than its modern counterparts, but it will reward you with some stunning bokeh if you have the patience. The manual focus is smooth and relatively precise, just don’t expect any autofocus conveniences with this lens.
The background blur results on this Carl Zeiss lens are really something quite special. It’s worth taking the time to get to grips with it if you’re looking for a photo that’s a little more unique.
- Produces very unique photos
- Smooth manual focus
- Fewer modern conveniences like autofocus
5. Lensbay Twist 60 EF Lens
Sharpness is far from this lens’ forte, but that’s actually a good thing in the world of bokeh. The soft, muted tones of this accessory lend themselves very well to this type of photography. As with most of the options on this page, manual settings are your only option.
Don’t worry though, the focus settings work very well and are nice and smooth. You’ll need to use something else if you’re shooting moving subjects or rapidly refocusing on the fly though. Expect the edges of your frame to be quite blurred when using the Lensbay Twist.
This won’t be an issue if your subject is framed bang in the center, but will be disappointing if your photography needs something a bit sharper. Overall, this lens can capture some gorgeous shots if you know what you’re doing; it’s something of a tinkerer’s dream!
- Stunning results if you have the patience
- Responsive focus
- Compatible with Sony E, Nikon F and Canon EF
- Not one of the sharpest lenses in the world
6. MC-Zenitar 50mm
This one might be last on our list, but don’t let this fool you. The MC-Zenitar can take a phenomenal photo if you have the skills. This is a relatively modern lens, meaning you’ll have some of the contemporary conveniences that modern photographers enjoy.
It’s compatible with Canon EF mountings, so be sure to double-check your own camera before purchase to avoid disappointment. In terms of bokeh and unique effects for your photo, this is a great choice.
The two things that stand out with this lens are the soft, out-of-focus effect and the comparative speed of the unit. Both of these features make good bokeh photography much easier to master. The price point on this accessory is quite reasonable considering the results it can achieve.
- Relatively modern lens
- Comparatively speed with a wonderful out-of-focus effect
- Reasonably priced
- Not great for sharp images
As this is a pretty niche pocket of photography, the chances are that the person reading this is something of a hobbyist. This likely means you’re willing to splash out on less “useful” and more “special” lenses.
Having said this, it’s still worth considering what you expect out of a new lens. If you’re only interested in something that can produce unique bokeh, one of the cheaper vintage options on this list will serve you well. If you need a bit more versatility, though, it’s worth considering a more modern lens from this page.
A more modern lens can still achieve the out-of-focus result you’re aiming for while staying useful in a broader range of applications. Whichever lenses you choose, we hope you have fun using them!