A few letters more

My younger brother qualified as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Ophthalmologists at the tail end of last year. The award ceremony was on Friday in London.  The list of qualifications after his name resembles a tin of alphabetti spaghetti.

Mr Mog

Mr Mog

Some fuzzy thoughts

Or: Can we start paying attention to the bit in focus, please?

Something has been bugging me for a long time, and it’s only recently that I’ve been able to put my finger on it solidly enough to order my thoughts.  That something is the fetishism of bokeh.

There is a good chance, if you’re not a photographer, that you’ve never heard or seen the term before.  It’s originally japanese, and is pronounced in two syllables: bo as in bone, and ke as in kennel.  The h was added, as the lore goes, by Mike Johnston, of The Online Photographer fame, to hint at the proper pronunciation (people were rhyming it with soak).  Properly, and in context, it refers to the out of focus blur in a photograph.  In Japanese it refers to a mental fuzziness, such as you might get with dementia or a hangover – not a notably positive connotation.

More often than not the internet claims that bokeh is the quality of the blur.  I’m not going to argue that blur can have different flavours – some smooth and creamy (buttery is the term du jour), and some relatively harsh and rough.  There’s even a term for it in Japanese: bokeh-aji. Without turning into a linguistics blog, how the heck can we talk about good and bad bokeh, if bokeh is itself the quality of the blur? Good bad blur, is a bit of a head melting thought.  Further, it’s entirely subjective; all ‘good’ can mean in this context is ‘I like it’.  In this piece,  bokeh means the blur, and bokeh-aji means the style, flavour, or taste* of the blur without suggesting that one style is objectively better than any other.

A short while ago I was on the commuter train home, and there was a guy with a high-end Canon (the various large bits of white glass were my first clue) halfway down the carriage.  Surprisingly, what with it being an english commuter train, the guy standing** next to the camera carrier made a comment about the L attached to the xD Mk y.  The shutter monkey replied (I’m quoting from memory), “Well, you need to spend the cash to get bokeh – that’s the only way to separate the subject out”.  I sincerely hope I’ve been very subtly wound up – but I suspect it’s a case of All the Gear and No Idea, since it’s the biggest pile of arrant rubbish I’ve heard in a long time (and I have to hear everything that comes out of my mouth!).

Let’s sort out the second bit first – Bokeh is not the only way to separate your subject from the background. However, if you only frequent digital photography forums, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.  Off the top of my head, you can separate by:

  • Add lighting (to the subject, or background, or both).
  • Using colour.
  • Using tone.
  • Using selective saturation. (I don’t like this, but knock yourself out.)
  • Adding a backdrop to hide the background.
  • Moving the subject to be in front of a cleaner background.
  • Some or all of the above.
  • Something else of which I’ve not thought.

To be fair, these ideas require more thought than buying a fast lens and  jamming it wide open – and none of them scream loudly to the world that you’ve have a ‘pro’ rig.  Often, though, the above techniques will result in a more interesting photo.  And risking breaking a window in my glasshouse, I’m as guilty as the next guy of falling back to this technique more often than is, perhaps, strictly necessary when getting the ‘safe shots’ on an event shoot.

Anyway, onto ‘you need to spend the cash to get bokeh’.  Ummm, no.  Time for a picture.

On the theme of Wheels

A close up of the jockey cog on a Boris bike, with more bikes out of focus in the background.

This was taken with an inexpensive, yet nonetheless wonderful, point and shoot in May 2012, gifted from the AD.  I’m rarely more than 10ft from the camera.  You can find its successor’s successor in Argos for £70.  Even better, I jammed it into (Shock! Horror! More Shock!) Auto to get the shot***.  This picture has sold, and won more than one competition.

The trick is, apart from paying attention to the Laws of Physics, to have your subject (well, point of focus) very close, and your background relatively distant.  If you want an idea of relative distance above go look at a Boris Bike stand the next time you’re in London.  No expensive glass, or even a DSLR involved.

All that aside, why do so many photographers camera enthusiasts focus (*ahem*, sorry) on bokeh?  I can’t think of a single great photograph (and I stand ready to be corrected) that has bokeh as its primary grantor of greatness.  I suspect it’s one, some, or all of three reasons.

First, most lenses are sharp enough.  Pixel peeping, IQ comparisons, and endless test shots aside (frankly, who has the time?), the real world sharpness of lenses is good enough for most purposes. On interweb forums ‘Can easily generate bokeh‘ is an easily demonstrated differentiator, now that everyone has sharpness at screen resolutions.

Second, it sounds like an artistic term and can be used to in a psuedo-critical manner, without it being necessary to hold a strong, considered, nuanced, opinion about the matter.  It’s enough to remember that the blurrier the background the better (Woohoo! Measurable Art!), then you can throw off comments like ‘Great bokeh!1!’, and  ‘Good DoF’, and litter the world with even more meaningless drivel whilst sounding authoritative.  By the way, does anyone know what bad Depth of Field is?

Third, as a first approximation it allows you to subtly tell the world that you have expensive gear****.  And expensive gear is automatically good, because, as we all know, it’s the camera that makes the shot.  In the same way, my keyboard writes great sentences.

A thousand-ish words later (plus a thousand for the pic, I guess), I just don’t get why there’s so much attention is paid to the blurry bits when the photographer has heavily hinted they’d like your attention elsewhere, and why the world spends so much time trying to measure it.

* From what I understand, this is the closest translation.  It leaves me idly wondering if there’s a higher incidence of synaesthesia in Japan than in the Anglosphere…

** Not surprising, what with it being an english commuter train.

*** The camera Canon Powershot SX130IS in question allowed a slightly closer focus in Auto than in other modes.

**** But see above – with a bit of effort, you can do it on a cheap camera too.