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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Bokeh—What It Is

To my post "Fame" the other day, chas3stix wrote, "Okay, so what the heck is bokeh? It's not in the Merriams online dictionary...," and donovanco said, "I first ran across the term 'bokeh' in the Leica-oriented magazine, LFI. I assumed it was some obscure German term. LFI articles on it assume that readers know the meaning of the word."

Since I did have a little to do with it (albeit very little, as you'll see), I thought I'd take a moment to offer a definition. It's a Japanese term, written with two characters in Kanji, previously romanized as "bo-ke" or boke. In written English it should be italicized as a foreign word. In 1997 I commissioned three articles about it for Photo Techniques, one by John Kennerdell about its aesthetic implications, one by Oren Grad about its terminology, and one by Harold Merklinger about its technical underpinnings. The latter is available on the web as a downloadable .PDF.

As the issue with the three articles was about to go to press, more or less on a whim I changed the spelling of the romanized word to "bokeh." It's properly pronounced in two syllables, equally stressed, with "bo" as in bone and "ke" as in Kenneth—quite similiar to "bouquet," actually, except that the last sound is more of a an eh and not so much an ay. I'd been troubled by the widespread punning on the CompuServe Photography Forum, where posters kept assuming that it rhymed with "toke" or "bloke." I figured the H at the end would help our readers pronounce it more accurately.

This had a fascinating and (by me, anyway) unforeseen effect: the H acted as a sort of "tag" on the word, like a naturalist's band on the leg of a bird. Early on, a web search for "bokeh" resulted in 35 hits; by the end of the shelf-life of our May/June 1997 issue, the hits were up to well over 1,200. Along the way, I was able to quietly monitor peoples' reactions and comments to our articles, all over the internet. A quick check on Google just now yielded 173,000 results, including a number of articles by some of the usual web gurus explaining the term, the best one of which is probably the probitous and well-illustrated one by Paul van Walree, here. The term, with its tag, has by now been included in camera brochures and advertisements and even books.

As with so many aspects of photographic technique, I went through a period of obsession with it. I'm over that now—just as I'm over my obsessions with sharpness, resolution, shadow detail, developer formulations, format, etc., etc. ad infinitum....

The Japanese word means, roughly, "blur," and, actually, I often say "blur" now instead of bokeh. The Japanese word is a general one, and has many different but related applications, one of which is "fuzzy in the head," as might be said of forgetful elderly people. As a photographic term it simply refers to the blur of objects out of the depth of field. I've been told that photographic blur would most likely be referred to as "bokeh-aji," which literally means "taste of blur."

As with any photographic effect, there are all sorts of slight differences in the way lenses render out-of-d.o.f. blur. What type one prefers is naturally a matter of taste, but if you're interested, I've rated more than 50 different lenses for bokeh "quality" in a .PDF handout you can download for free at my bookstore. (Click the "My bookstore" button in the left column.)

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

6 Comments:

Blogger Richard Sintchak said...

I go nuts over the word, and for a long time thought it was pronounced "BO-kuh". I now mostly just say "the character of the OOF elements" when I want to dicuss the bokeh. (OOF meaning "out of focus")

12:39 PM  
Blogger Robert Meier said...

Mike--
Are either of the other two original aticles available online?
Bob

6:43 PM  
Blogger chas3stix said...

Mike,
Thanks for the explaination....bokeh happens all too frequently to the wrong part of the photo much to my chagrin......

7:21 PM  
Blogger eolake said...

I would also love to see the other two articles. Try asking the writers, if you are still in contact with them, eh Mike?
Eolake
eolake.blogspot.com

5:07 PM  
Blogger Dan Zen said...

What luck to find the origin of the h on Bokeh!

I too fell in love with the out of focus parts of a picture so much so that I started taking completely out of focus pictures on purpose. This led me to a concept of Focus Out and renamed to "Focuso". So Focuso is the art of taking things out of focus. Maybe in 10 years the same will happen with this word ;-)

http://focuso.org if you are interested.

12:57 AM  
Blogger thechrisproject said...

Reading over the TOP archives here...

Interestingly, there are now almost a million google hits for "bokeh", compared to the 173,000 a year and a half ago.

1:19 PM  

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