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I want to talk about bokeh. For those of you who have no idea what it is, bokeh is basically when you take a photo and one part of it is sharply in focus, while the rest, usually the background is blurry and out-of-focus, creating more emphasis on the subject. The word comes from the Japanese word boke, which means "blur" or “haze.”
A fairly harmless photo, but a clear example of bokeh. You can clearly see the background is pretty-much indecipherable, just a bunch of colors and weird shapes. Examples of “good bokeh" incorporates the weird shapes and colors out-of-focus bits with the sharply defined subject of the photo. This causes our gaze to move towards a particular subject in the photograph, in this case, i.e. the woman writing and her journal. In this instance, perhaps the yellow object is still a bit of distraction, but not as much as it could be if it were to be sharp and in focus.
The reason I’m talking about this is because this is going to be the kind of photos you’re going to see more often, and this will become a defining aesthetic in the future of photos, whether you like it or not*, and whether you use it or not. It’s not like it hasn’t been used many times before, but with advancements in camera technology, achieving this effect has become even easier and at least to me, more abudant.
If you’re a beginner to this subject, grab a whiskey, light up a cigarette and prepare for some saccharine with this tutorial on how to shoot bokeh photos. Don't worry, its not like algebra class.
Before I make my point, I want to talk about one new camera that has come out that everyone has been talking about. Or rather, one new camera that happens to be part of the phone that everyone is talking about: the iPhone 7.
I want to talk about it not as a phone, but as a camera, and how the iPhone 7, with all projected theories about its success and widespread appeal, will soon be making a major change to photo technology and maybe more so, photo aesthetics, mainly in the type of images you will be seeing more often in the future. I want to digress some more though, I want to talk about Instagram.
With its ability for you to find that unnecessary use of an old-time Kodak film filter while capturing your morning avocado toast, or its ability to let you use hashtags that have no bearing to anything at all, perhaps one of the biggest steps in terms of photography that Instagram has made is the use of square framing and aspect ratio. I know that Instagram has now opened itself up to portrait and landscape photos, but at one time, the only aspect ratio was 1:1, giving you a square image. Professionals and critics complained about this fixed feature and eventually Instagram relented and now allows for greater variety of aspect ratios, so you can now post that 20-person wide entourage photo from that crazy party you were at last night, #bffsforever #sodrunkpanorama.
Before Instagram, a square photo was basically forbidden in terms of print and even most online media. Look at the newspaper today. Try to find a square photo. Ever see a square tv screen? Square computer monitor? Square cell phone screen? No. Well, maybe you’ll see one here and there, but overall, the majority of the image compositions you’ll see are in rectangular form. This is mostly because this is what we’ve always been doing. No really, though some believe it may have something to do with the golden ratio. (here, however, is an article disputing its importance). If someone can provide further insight into this, that would help, but I’ve yet to find any concrete answers to this.
If art had evolved as such that screens, paintings and even pieces of paper were originally square, we’d may be taken aback perhaps a bit more with portrait aspect ratio photos today and use them less often. Instagram, knowingly or not, forced you to use the square aesthetic, even when the situation may not have called for it necessarily. This is why all of those great photos you took in a portrait landscape do not seem to look as good once forced into Instagram’s previous square-only format. But it worked anyway! They’re rich! You started thinking differently in terms of composition, determined to make the round-peg that was that selfie of you on vacation in Paris to include all of the Eiffel Tower, plus your ironic expression, fit into that square hole. Nailed it.
Like I said, this drove some people crazy. So Instagram relented and allowed for different aspect ratios. My point is that it forced you into a decision. Though you may have to at times, you should never feel forced when shooting a photo. Yes, sometimes limits can create opportunities, but ideally, I think a photographer would like to have all available options when shooting. Whether they choose to use all of these options is a different story. I love a good American-style buffet, but it doesn’t mean I eat everything at it.
The iPhone 7, or rather Apple’s iPhone Camera app is doing the same thing with bokeh. It calculates the best depth-of-field and can then focus and de-focus elements of the photo accordingly, i.e keep you sharply in focus, while making the background blurry. I really shouldn’t blame the iPhone for this, as Satan’s computer-photo algorithm has already existed in other forms, namely as that woman's face on the dial for the different types of shooting modes:
The strange thing is that every one of the other modes on your camera, save possibly for Automatic can achieve this same Portrait effect, but with far more control.
I can see how a Portrait mode, with Apple’s broad appeal, will now force the idea that portraiture has to have some element of bokeh to be aesthetically pleasing. This has never been the case, nor should it be. Ultimately, whether you like bokeh or not, when creating your photo, you should not be forced into the idea that bokeh = good portraits. There is no set mode, or lens, or camera, or setting to make a “good” picture, just what can be appropiate for the situation.
In the meantime, if you decide to use this new feature, great! But know that your camera is taking over the type of image you’re going to produce somewhat, so just know that going in and work with it. “Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them,” said Einstein, I think. Maybe “portrait mode” can work for other things besides photos of people? Try not to think of it as “portrait mode,” but rather “bokeh mode." Perhaps you can apply this to architectural or sports or other types of photography, and not just portraits.
Bokeh is not a special technique. It’s one of many. Learn more about it how it works and how to use it more here.
The collectively technology used to create this effect is pretty interesting and will probably become the new standard for cell phone camera technology. Apple iPhone 7 camera review here. But here is a different approach, though kind of ridiculous looking. Dive deeper and learn about folded optics here.
The hope is that in the future Apple decides to allow for more manual-based camera controls, so that users can create more unique photos. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about that, it is the M (actual Manual mode), the A (Aperture priority), S (Shutter priority), and P (Program mode) on your camera mode dial. For further information on all of these modes, watch this or this. From my experience, I find it is much easier to understand these modes and concepts by starting with Program mode. It’s the equivalent to learning to ride a bike with training wheels before going to free-wheeling Manual mode.
If you feel like you are understanding bokeh well, you are actually getting to know DEPTH OF FIELD, perhaps one of the things I am asked about when working with other photographers and to some, one of the most daunting things to understand. I’ll save that topic for another time.
*There are plenty of people in the photography community debating whether bokeh is a good or bad thing. If you care to hear more on this, google “debate + bokeh + podcast + drill a hole into your head.” It’s just an aesthetic choice, nothing more.
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