Wikipedia defines Bokeh (pronounced boh-kay) as “the aesthetic quality of the blur, in out-of-focus areas of an image.” Bokeh is also defined as “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light.” Bokeh in of itself, is not a bad thing. The problem, as I see it, is when bokeh becomes the subject of the photo. Or more percisely, when bokeh becomes more important than the main subject of your photograph. At that point, it’s nothing more than a gimmick used solely for the purpose of catching the viewers eye. The photo itself has little to no value. It’s weak. So, even though the photographer has caught the viewers attention, there’s no sustenance to the photo to hold their attention.
Bokeh is not new, just newly defined
According to Wikipedia, bokeh “was popularized in 1997 in Photo Techniques magazine” and “appeared in photography books at least since 1998.” After hearing the term “bokeh” for the first time, I remember looking up the definition and thinking, “this is nothing new.”
The phenomenon of bokeh has been around long before the term ever existed. The basic principles of light and optics have not changed since the very first photos were made, so the effect of “out-of-focus points of light” has been around since the very first photographs. Looking in one of my old photo manuals from the early 80s, I see mention of the effect of mirror lens causing “out of focus rings of light.” Sounds like bokeh to me even though it didn’t have a fancy name back then.
Bokeh is the big buzzword all over the photography forums. Seems like every post has, “nice bokeh” or “fantastic bokeh, man.” I typically don’t hear beginning photographers talking about bokeh too much, mostly because they are concentrating on learning their craft. And the professional photographers, although very aware of bokeh, don’t obsess about it. The enthusiast photographers, however, really latched onto the term and effect. The only thing I can figure is that bokeh is an easy term to understand, an easy effect to spot, and an easy effect to create.
Enthusiast photographers want to sound like they know what they are talking about. I get that. They’ve worked really hard at learning their craft. They’ve spent countless hours reading books and making images. They are at that juncture where they want to be part of the photography community and to be noticed. I understand, and I am right there with them. But, please stop trying to impress others with your ability to use the latest and greatest buzzwords.
Using the term “bokeh” excessively is nothing more than a form of name-dropping. Just because you know one of the buzzwords of enthusiast and professional photographers, does not mean you are a great photographer, or even a good photographer for that matter. I’m not saying eliminate it from your vocabulary altogether, but definitely limit it down to the minor player that it is. Talk about a photos subject matter, it’s composition, it’s use of light and shadow, it’s ability to tell a story, and “oh hey, there’s some interesting bokeh there in the background.”
Bokeh should not be your main subject
One of my favorite images that I made is of an American Goldfinch perched on a limb in my backyard. As typical in most of my bird photography, I made the image with my diaphragm wide open to throw the background out of focus; isolating my main subject (the bird) from its background. In this photo, the background is a pine tree. The light colored pine needles did create some bokeh. I put my photo on Flickr and very rapidly got the comment, “nice bokeh, man.” Really? Looking at this photo, your only takeaway is “nice bokeh”? You didn’t find the pretty little miracle of nature (yellow bird) interesting? Or maybe the composition? If “nice bokeh” is the only thing you got out of my image, then as far as I’m concerned, my image is a failure. In this particular case, my Mother loves my Goldfinch photo and has a framed print in her home, so I do consider it a successful photo. But, you get my point.
A while back, I was on Flickr looking at a group shot of a family at some outing. It could have been a wonderful memory of Mom and the kids at some picnic or amusement park. Instead, the family was out in the open and facing directly into a late afternoon sun. It was obvious from all the squinting and scrunched up faces, that this was a very painful experience for them. I asked the photographer why he had posed his family looking directly into the sun. His answer was, “in order to get some really cool bokeh behind them.” Really? You made your family uncomfortable, caused them to make ugly faces and risked burning holes through their retinas in order to get some pretty out-of-focus circles in your picture?
When overused, Bokeh is nothing more than a cheap effect; an easy way to get a pretty picture that people will “ooh and aah” over. Stop worrying about, and going out of your way to produce, bokeh. If it happens, it happens. The only time you should purposely put bokeh in your photo is when it supports the message of your image; when it is a necessary part of the story. Bokeh needs to compliment, not overwhelm, your image. So, the next time you look at one of your images, if the first words out of your mouth are “nice bokeh,” dump the image and move on. You can do better.
What’s your opinion? Is bokeh an overused gimmick, an overused buzzword or a necessary effect for photographers?