Trends in photography, like all trends in society, come and go. One trend in recent years that I am glad is finally, at least from my observations, waning is obsession with bokeh. I have talked about it a time or two, but I became interested in exploring it some more late last week when a fellow photographer was in town and at my suggestion he borrowed my 200mm f/2.0 ED-IF Nikkor, a lens with notable ability to render good bokeh.
Anyone who reads the photography press or photography forums on the internet knows that “bokeh” is a variously-pronounced Japanese term that means “blur” or “haze.” It is used to describe the character of the out-of-focus region of images. Also as the press and forums point out, bokeh is not how much the out-of-focus areas are blurred, but how the out-of-focus area looks. We talk about lenses having “good” or “beautiful” bokeh, or “bad”, “cluttered”, or “ratty” bokeh.
It’s a fairly subtle concept. About a year ago, one of my students found some images on the internet of Christmas lights that had been shot at a wide-open aperture and deeply out of focus. The image was part of a blogger’s “365 Bokeh” project, in which he challenged himself to shoot an image illustrating bokeh every day for a year. My student liked this image a lot, and wanted to create similar pieces in her own photography.
I explained the basics to her: to include flattering or beautiful bokeh in your image, pick a subject that will benefit from a clean background, pick a lens that exhibits good bokeh, and shoot at a relatively large aperture. She took a picture or two, showed it to me on the back of the camera, then asked, “Okay, now how do I get bokeh.”
Ugh. Bokeh isn’t on or off. It’s a word that describes a quality. Every image with an out-of-focus area has bokeh. Thinking back on that question, I should have said, “Practice.”
Bokeh isn’t a goal. It’s a tool in the toolbox, one that allows an image to take advantage of a clean, smooth, velvety background, one that enhances the subject and the image. You don’t make pictures of bokeh itself, at least not if you are searching for meaningful imaging.
Many of the forum participants who talk about bokeh are either asking what lens to buy that will give them great bokeh, or talking about what great bokeh they get from a lens they bought. Not many of them are talking about the concepts and emotions they shared with said bokeh. That’s the rub, really, with a photographic tool like a lens that will produce beautiful bokeh. Do we use it to create images that enhance the human experience, or do we use it to show off that we get really great bokeh?