The Word “Bokeh” Has Been Completely Usurped

As much as I love making beautiful images, and as much as I love using selective focus, I don't say that this image has "lots of bokeh," because it doesn't.
As much as I love making beautiful images, and as much as I love using selective focus, I don’t say that this image has “lots of bokeh,” because it doesn’t.

As someone who appreciates language and its correct, accurate use, I am aggravated to conclude that the photography community has completely usurped and perverted the word “bokeh.”

Old lenses like this 1960s-era Minolta 28mm have very different looks than today's computer-designed lenses.
Old lenses like this 1960s-era Minolta 28mm have very different looks than today’s computer-designed lenses.

Originally, this term, sometimes loosely translated from Japanese as “blur” or “haze,” referred to the quality of out-of-focus portions of a photograph. Thus, it didn’t describe how far out of focus something was, nor did it describe how much of a photo was out of focus.

It’s been vernacularized. Since we live in a society of abbreviators, it has become a catch-all abbreviation for any occasion we use or see selective focus or shallow depth of field.

“Wow. Look at all that bokeh!”

“You need a 50mm f/1.2 to get more bokeh!”

“I’m a bokeh slut.”

“This lens is a bokeh beast.”

“This tree’s leaves look like bokeh.”

Selective focus is an excellent tool in the photographic toolbox, but it should never be a goal into itself.
Selective focus is an excellent tool in the photographic toolbox, but it should never be a goal into itself.

We’re all using this term incorrectly, which continues to erode the beauty and precision of language. A good analog for it might be “LOL,” which once stood for “Laughing Out Loud,” but which today is a word unto itself. LOL.

I used the "portrait" mode on my iPhone 7 Plus. It creates a false selective focus with a false bokeh, which I guess we could call fokeh.
I used the “portrait” mode on my iPhone 7 Plus. It creates a false selective focus with a false bokeh, which I guess we could call fokeh.

Another enduring myth of photography is the sensor size myth. We see it every day: photographers buy large sensors because they have “better bokeh.” In fact, sensors have  no effect on bokeh at all, and their effect on selective focus is thoroughly misunderstood. Depth of field is the result of aperture, focal length and magnification. The reason it is so prevalently associated with sensor size is that with a larger sensor, you have to move closer to the subject to fill the frame with the same lens. Moving closer makes the depth of field shallower, but the sensor size does not.

Maybe what fools most of the people most of the time is that photographers don’t move closer and end up with more of the image out of focus, as in the following examples…

This is an image made with my d700 - a so-called "full-frame" camera (a 36x24mm sensor) - with my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 at f/2. Compare it to...
This is an image made with my d700 – a so-called “full-frame” camera (a 36x24mm sensor) – with my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 at f/2. Compare it to…
... this image made with the same lens, same aperture, same distance, same ISO, same lighting. The only difference is the size of the sensor - the Nikon D80 has a so-called "cropped" sensor (24mm x 15mm). Look at the out-of-focus area. See any difference?
… this image made with the same lens, same aperture, same distance, same ISO, same lighting. The only difference is the size of the sensor – the Nikon D80 has a so-called “cropped” sensor (24mm x 15mm). Look at the out-of-focus area. See any difference?

Sorry full-framiacs.

This is all part of a sour evolution of photography from mastery to money. Not only do the camera and lens manufacturers want you to believe their myths, they encourage consumers to espouse these myths, and they do. Not only do we hear a lot of “should I buy XYZ?” but also a frightening amount of “you should but XYZ.” It’s an unambiguous victory for commerce, but a crippling obstacle for artistry.

These are plums I grew this spring. I photographed them with my AF-S 35mm f/1.8 at f/2.0.
These are plums I grew this spring. I photographed them with my AF-S 35mm f/1.8 at f/2.0.

2 Comments

  1. I’m using the term metaphorically in my new Twitter handle, BrainBokeh, which I thought was hilarious, but only to an audience of one. Smile.

    There are photography forums with threads over 1,000 posts long arguing about how to get “the best bokeh”, which is as stupid as arguing about “the best scrambled eggs” — because it comes down to *taste* in the end.

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