Bokeh in Pictures
by Mike Johnston
The Sunday Morning Photographer a weekly photo.net column:
April 4th, 2004
Good morning! I'm pleased to announce this week that THE SUNDAY MORNING
PHOTOGRAPHER will soon be translated into German as well as Polish. I'll give you more
details next week.
As far as the book is concerned, keep your fingers crossed. The latest corrections
are in, and if all goes well, there won't need to be any more proofs after this next one.
I'll be updating this news too. Have a good Sunday!
I first learned about "bo-ke" or boke in 1995, from Carl Weese, who learned
about it from our mutual friend the oracular and extreme Oren Grad, who holds eight
Master's degrees, three Ph.D.s, and an M.D., and who evidently taught himself Japanese so
he could read Japanese photo magazines. (Perhaps I exaggerate these facts, but only
slightly.) I then commissioned and published three articles about it in the March/April
1997 issue of Photo Techniques back when I was editor
one each by John Kennerdell, who is an American ex-pat living in Bangkok, Oren himself,
and Harold Merklinger, a high-ranking research scientist in the Canadian defense
establishment. It's one of the few issues of that magazine that sold out. My own
contribution was...er, a letter. I decided that people too readily mispronounced
"boke," so I added an "h" to the word in our articles, and voilá,
"bokeh" was born. A Google search for the word "bokeh" just now
resulted in approximately 13,300 hits. Seems the idea's gotten around.
Actually, to be precise, what I had noticed was not just that people mispronounced the
word as it was commonly spelled, but that they had a tendency to ridicule it, making lame
jokes about it as if it rhymed with "smoke" or "toke" or
"joke." Actually, even spelled boke, it is properly pronounced with bo as in
bone and ke as in Kenneth, with equal stress on either syllable. It is a Japanese word
meaning, roughly, "fuzzy," and it is used to describe old people with cobwebs in
their heads among several other things including the out-of-focus areas of
photographs, which, I'm told, might more specifically be referred to as
One of the curious aspects of the phenomenon for me was that some people then, and some
even now, respond to the idea scornfully or even angrily. Is this some sort of insistence
on conformity, as if you are supposed to look at certain parts of pictures and
not others? I never did know, and I probably never will. (But then, there are a lot of
things about my native culture that I will just never understand for instance,
rubber suits as erotic accessories, or why it would occur to anyone to hate black people.
What's up with that, anyway? I mean, I certainly know that race hatred exists
I just haven't got the faintest idea why.)
Now, I have to admit that I got somewhat obsessed with bokeh after I finally became
aware of it. It interested me, in particular, that different lenses render blur in
different ways. Even knowing that I take things a bit too far, though, it always seemed
strange to me that there are people who don't think it's valid to look at the blurry parts
Take this picture by Tony Rowlett, for example. It was made with a Leica Noctilux at a
fairly wide aperture. I don't think it's possible to look at this and not get interested
in what's going on in the out of focus areas, do you? If you really look at it, there are
some pretty amazing abstracted shapes and tones. Does anyone really look at a picture like
this and completely ignore all the blurry parts? I doubt it.
The most obvious way bokeh gets into pictures, of course, is simply as background. In
Robert Harrington's cruel but beautiful picture here, for instance, most of the area of
the picture is occupied by bokeh, even though it has nothing to do with the subject of the
picture. The picture might be as good with a plain white or black background. Still, if
you just look at the bokeh as it exists, it's hard to deny that the color and brightness
of the out of focus parts contribute to the sense of a certain kind of light, and the
feeling of the outdoors.
Here's a street shot by the excellent '50s photographer Dan Weiner, who has always been
one of my favorites. It shows that motion blur can blend with bokeh in interesting ways.
(It also shows just how little sharpness really matters in some pictures.)
Some artists go ahead and use bokeh as an integral part of their subject matter. Kim
Kirkpatrick made deft use of it as design, as figuration, and as a way to use color
abstractly in a large body of work he made over five or six or so years in the '80s and
It's true that some photographers seldom or never take pictures in which anything is
not sharp. For them, bokeh is not much of an issue when they're working, although it's
still pertinent when they're looking at other peoples' pictures. For the rest of us, well,
there's nothing to be scared of. It's just another arrow in the creative quiver.
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encourage the author if you haven't already done so, by going here. And be sure to tune in next week, as I
take cheap (but funny) shots at some of the denizens of the dpreview forums.