Boke(h) explained, a bit

Ice and bokeh

A popular monthly photography magazine recently ran a brief article with the header: ‘What does ‘bokeh’ actually mean?’ The magazine’s answer was: ‘Bokeh is the effect that’s created by blurred lights in out-of-focus areas’. This is not strictly correct, although a common misconception. So I thought I might spend today’s post on the subject of boke(h).

Butterfly

The reason for the bracket is that the word, in the original Japanese, has no ‘h’: the ‘h’ is there so that non-Japanese speakers do not pronounce it like broke but without the ‘r’. Here’s how OxfordDictionaries.com defines bokeh: ‘the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photographic image, especially as rendered by a particular lens’. So, bokeh is not just discs of light like those in the images above. It is also the smooth background in the picture below.

20120714-200535.jpg

If you are trying to create bokeh, your results are going to depend on a number of things including your lens. On the whole, good quality prime lenses produce smoother, better quality bokeh. In the picture below, the nine-sided (really, I counted them!) highlights behind the kittiwake are the result of the lens picking up the sparkles in the sea beyond the cliff.

bird in Northumberland

At first sight the bokeh lights make a pretty background. But let’s take a closer look at those nonagons.

Not so nice! That would not make a very pretty print. My 70-300mm zoom lens does not make great bokeh.

On the other hand, my 100mm macro lens, a beautiful little prime, does rather nice, creamy bokeh.

Ah, that’s better.

Also, your choice of aperture will affect bokeh lights. In the shots below, the one on the left is at f2.8 and the one on the right at f5.6.

demonstration of aperture effect on bokeh

Equally, the distance from your focal point will change the bokeh. Below, the aperture is f2.8 in both shots but look at the difference in the bokeh lights when I move closer to the flower in the second shot.

effect of distance on bokeh lights

If you want the science, there is a website that explains it all. Good luck. In the meantime, here are some random thoughts about bokeh. Bokeh is good if you want a nice uncluttered background that does not distract from your subject. Let’s compare two shots of damselflies mating.

damselflies

Wow. I got them in full mating pose here, making a ring. But that background is fussy. It detracts.

mating damselflies

Here, the amorous couple is only in half-hold position, but the background is less distracting. It is a better image because I am communicating to the viewer rather than simply making a record. (Mind you, the camera club judge still complained about the light bit of bokeh top right – you can’t please everyone all of the time!) Of course, you have to balance using an aperture wide enough to throw the background out of focus but not so wide that only part of the subject is sharp. But then no-one said it was going to be easy and that’s all part of the fun.

As for those ubiquitous bokeh lights, I prefer them when they are not distracting, or if they are made to be part of the image, as in the first shot in this post and the not-hugely-brilliant-but-suitably-illustrative shot below.

dandelion seed

One final thought. Bokeh is not limited to backgrounds. The shot below exploits the impact of out-of-focus areas in front of the focal point.

web and refraction

It can be effective deliberately to focus past objects to add a soft, dreamy look,

pyracantha blossom

or the feeling of having just happened upon the subject, by peeping through the undergrowth.

crocus

That’s enough bokeh from me. Do you have a favourite bokeh shot or tip? Perhaps you find the term slightly irritating, or is that just me? Feel free to share in the comments.