Blur or Bokeh (Japanese for blur which sounds fancier, a bit like jus instead of sauce/gravy in cooking circles), is an effect describing the out of focus background (and even foreground) elements of a photograph. The intent is for the subject matter to dominate and grab one’s attention, while distracting background details disappear into a smooth and subtle out of focus blur. Many photographers strive to achieve this look to give their photographs a ‘unique’ appearance, but then so does World + Dog nowadays.
One important aspect of bokeh is how the background blur is displayed, it can be pleasant softness or harsh out of focus highlights, depending on how the lens performs, amongst other things. It’s a photographic technique that can produce very pleasing results, but it’s one of those techniques that can sometimes be overly or poorly used (depending on one’s point of view).
When I suggest ‘sometimes poorly used’ that’s entirely my personal view because, as with anything photographic, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes out of focus blur just happens and it’s not something that you have any real control over, such as when photographing close-up subjects, for here depth of field is always going to be limited and the background will inevitably be blurred to a fairly significant degree (unless you use a very wide angle or fisheye lens). However, at other times, you can have full control over the level of background blur to isolate your subject and it can be very effective if the subject is able to stand on its own merits.
Judicious use of blur can be beneficial, especially if scenes have very distracting backgrounds and the like, as it helps to moderate the ‘mess’ that busy backgrounds can produce; somewhat like converting photographs to black & white when there are distracting colours in some scenes (as I noted in a previous post). And there are times when you need to cheat a bit and do some blurring or other effects in the computer to render similar effects that can’t be achieved in-camera. As I pointed out at the beginning, the technology is getting to the point where it can almost be done automatically, amongst other effects; new software technologies are constantly challenging the old optical techniques.
Wildlife photography lends itself to significant playing around with background blur as, in nature, the background is invariably messy when it comes to photographing some subject matter. So you can often get away with very significant blurring of the background, while maintaining the context of the photograph. But it’s important to consider what can/should be totally isolated and what might need to be kept recognisable. Such was the case with a cheeky King Parrot on our veranda (background irrelevant), compared to the forlorn baby Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo trying to remain unnoticed on the ground amongst the leaves and branches of an ancient Oak tree (background far more relevant).
Sometimes separating the forest from the trees can be difficult, but place and context is what needs to be kept in mind if the story is to hold together. Well, depending on the story that you’re trying to tell. There are times when context is vital and then the surroundings will be essential in providing the context to the subject and so needs to be recognisable. To have something in focus and everything else around it completely unrecognisable, you may as well have taken the photograph in a studio with a non-descript background, a blank wall or the like. Unfortunately, there are some who think that this technique in some way enhances their photographs and subjects, and that becomes the main focus (pun intended) of their photographic technique.
You may have noticed that in a number of the photographs that I presented, the backgrounds were completely blurred as they were fairly tight portraits and similar, with the background effectively cropped out. When it comes to wider, more expansive scenes, I think it’s important not to blur the background to such an extent that it becomes unrecognisable and, in some cases, doing so can actually become distracting. Having an identifiable background adds the necessary context to a scene, ensuring a more memorable result (it complements/completes the story). It can also reignite memories of exactly where that photograph was taken so many years ago and the events that it involved.
I’ve deliberately not included examples of photographs on the interwebs that I feel go overboard, as these things are personal preferences and it’s not my place to selectively contest the work of others, especially without an opportunity for fair rebuttal. You can always Google ‘bokeh’ or ‘lens blur’ and see if you can spot such photographs; they do kind of stand out once they’re pointed out.