Well Blur Me Down

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.

Hidden away - Port Fairy Victoria

Hidden away – Port Fairy Victoria

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).

Father and Son - Nunniong Plains Victoria

Father and Son – Nunniong Plains Victoria

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.

Butterfly - Townsville Queensland

Butterfly – Townsville Queensland

Old post and rail - Neerim South Victoria

Old post and rail – Neerim South Victoria

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.

Happy friends - Bali Indonesia

Happy friends – Bali Indonesia

Kiss Me (It's my party and I'll do what I want) - Werribee Victoria

Kiss Me (It’s my party and I’ll do what I want) – Werribee Victoria

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).

King Parrot - Mirboo North Victoria

King Parrot – Mirboo North Victoria

Baby Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo under an old Oak tree - Mirboo North Victoria

Baby Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo under an old Oak tree – Mirboo North Victoria

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.

Mossvale Park Awakens - Mirboo North Victoria

Mossvale Park Awakens – Mirboo North Victoria

Mossvale Park Awakens - Mirboo North Victoria

Mossvale Park Awakens – Mirboo North Victoria

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.

Old mate Ron by the campfire 40 years ago - somewhere in the Victorian High Country

Old mate Ron by the campfire 40 years ago – somewhere in the Victorian High Country

Ibis on Post - Townsville Queensland

Ibis on Post – Townsville Queensland

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.

4 thoughts on “Well Blur Me Down

  1. David Ruether

    Thanks for this article – it hits a “sore spot” of mine, and it gives me an opportunity to write a piece presenting what may be a minority view, but one that is perhaps worth considering…..;-)
    Since it is rather lengthy, I have placed it on a web page, at:
    (adjust your browser width for best readability…;-).

    David Ruether 6/16/2015

    1. Ray Post author

      Thanks David. Everything that you wrote is pretty much line ball with what I grew up with and trained/taught regarding photography.

  2. Stan Bowman

    I just came across this as David sent me a copy of his article and from that I came here. Bokeh(selective blur) can be an interesting way of organizing a photograph. Several years ago I got into an online discussion with a photographer who was criticizing the use of the iPhone by newspaper photographers because of the difficulty using bokeh on the iPhone, as if this were an essential tool for news reporting. It made me realize Bokeh has become a more popular tool in contemporary 35mm photography.

    Now I really do not have an opinion as to whether Bokeh is good or bad, it just is. However Bokeh may be a useful tool for drawing attention to an object/s in a scene but it is a photographic phenomena and not grounded in how we actually see the world. We see everything in focus as our eyes adjust instantly to depth change without our awareness. Everything simultaneously looks in focus.

    Is it a tool to be avoided if it is not grounded in how we see? Not really. Photography is and always has been about picture making. As David said in his article a photograph is really just different from the way we see. A landscape or portrait painting is also. If we are picture making in photography then the use of Bokeh depends upon whether it makes the photograph better. But as always that will be a matter of opinion.

    1. Ray Post author

      Thanks Stan

      I agree and any tool/technique that enhances one’s photography is entirely valid. Back in my early days of photography, Bokeh didn’t exist, as it’s a relatively new term. Certainly we used selective blur when necessary but, for some nowadays, it seems almost an end in itself. I guess the point that I was trying to make is not to overdo things and try and provide images that have context as well as being visually pleasing.

      Bokeh also appears to have become so popular, that the iPhone now has a feature that artificially creates that background blur. Soon we’ll see that in DSLRs et al.

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