I love bokeh. Well, really, who doesn’t? Bokeh is a term derived from the Japanese boke-aji (ボケ味 for those of you who read Japanese), which translates as “blur-quality.” Not to be That Way, but seriously: leave it to a culture that finds serenity and beauty in raked gravel to notice that the out-of-focus is often more lovely than the actual subject of a photo. Partly intentional, largely accidental, bokeh refers to the wildly and often beautifully out-of-focus background effects achieved when one part of a photograph is in focus and the rest is not.

That’s the important part, that first phrase: “partly intentional, largely accidental.” So much of bokeh depends on a fairly precise and unpredictable (at least for me) interaction of lens, focal length, light, weather, and probably the phases of the moon and alignment of the planets that it’s almost magical. It’s an effect that, to me, is like a little extra prize I discover when I first open the photo files. Oh sure, I may have had some idea that the close-up focus of a photo will likely result in interesting background effects, but I, at least, can’t accurately predict it. (If other, more clever, photographers have this whole “creating bokeh” thing down to a science, please don’t tell me; I’m perfectly happy with the “almost magical” thing.)

It’s the unpredictability of bokeh that makes it so appealing, I guess. I can plan and control and manipulate to my heart’s content, but I still can’t do everything. Bokeh is like a lovely little reminder that I do not control the world. (That I need lovely little reminders that I don’t control the world is, I suppose, an issue I should be exploring in more depth, perhaps with professional assistance.) I’ve included some of my favorite examples of bokeh from my photography here, because I can.  This is, after all, my blog. You want your bokeh samples shown, write your own blog about it.

 In any case, the bokeh becomes at least as important as the main subject, providing a flat and abstract background from which the focal subject emerges. Bokeh is a function of light and lenses that transforms an otherwise good image into art. Recently, I’ve been obsessing with the fish in the new little ten-gallon aquarium I put in my kitchen. Earlier, I know I said I’ve been obsessing with the snails, but I’m also obsessing with the fish. (The plants and bubbler seem safe from obsession for now, but I make no guarantees.)

I’ve been using a macro lens, as I’ve also mentioned before: a 105mm 1:2.8 Sigma DG Macro lens, and various manual and pre-set settings on a Nikon D90. For my through-the-glass-and-water aquarium shots, I’ve been using only the camera’s built-in flash, although I’ve also played around with supressing the flash and using only ambient light from the kitchen fluorescents and the little bulb in the aquarium top. The trouble with those shots, of course, is that the exposure times are longer, and the goldfish tend to move around a bit more than the snails do. More rapidly, at least.

So here are two examples of what happens when a macro lens is focused on a goldfish. Remember, we’re interested here not just in the fabulously captured little fishly faces, but in the blurry background as well, and how nicely it all works together.

 Close-up of a calico fantail goldfishclose-up of a calico fantail goldfish

What I really love about these is the way the fish blend into the background, the way their already-colorful bodies become part of a big, abstract, kaleidoscopic flatness. It emphasizes the clarity of the bits that are in focus (their eyes and mouths particularly), and manages at the same time to transcend the banality of “oh that’s blurry” by virtue of the extensiveness and drama of the blur. I suspect that the action of light through the water that’s behind the little fellas, and the motion of the water itself, plus the motion of their fantail fins wafting about all work together to contribute to the overall effect. In any case, it’s not just out of focus; it’s beautiful.

It’s not just macros of goldfish where this can happen. Here are two other examples of what I tend to think is pretty remarkable bokeh. One resulted from the interplay of late afternoon sun and leafy trees (using a Sigma DG 70-300mm lens), the other from focusing close-up on something other than a fish (in this case, molten glass in a glass blowing demonstration at the Orange County Fair, with a Nikon DX 18-105mm.

 ball of molten glass at glass blowing demonstrationShirtless young man walking out of a clearing

I’d love to take credit for it, but the effect took me by surprise when I downloaded these from the Nikon. Oh, wait a moment.

Er, rather, I mean: The bokeh effects were totally planned by me, using expert care and skill, and I could do it again any time. If I felt like it. Really.