The Conversation about Bokeh

An article by David Brooks on March 9, 2010


I’m not sure how to write this article without sounding like a jerk, but I think it’s a conversation we ought to have. Let’s stop calling the trend in design and photography where things are out of focus (usually with colored orbs) “bokeh,” because bokeh is a measurement of quality and not a technique.

What is Bokeh?

Bokeh – “A Japanese term for the subjective aesthetic quality of out-of-focus areas of a photographic image” —

Ken Rockwell covers the subject very well from a technical photography perspective. He explains that every lens has distortion, and that the better the lens, the more gradually a point of light should resolve.

Most of us know what a gaussian blur is from our time working with Photoshop, but that’s actually an example of “good bokeh”. It’s not about the fact that points of light are blurry, it’s how the shape of that light looks as a blurred object. In photography bokeh exists because of depth of field, light and lens distortion. Occasionally those orbs come out in the background of even the best photos, and it really distract from what’s going on. When that happens it can be classified as “bad bokeh”. In a great photo the out of focus areas should get out of the way, but it’s all about the lens you’re using.

Bad, good and ideal bokeh

Here are two examples of points of light being pushed out of focus, and both stand up pretty well to the test of “good bokeh.”

Christmas lights, out of focus

Photo by David Brooks.

Night Lights, by Adrian Rodriguez

Photo by Adrian Rodriguez (Photo Link)

An Example in the Wild

There are a lot of people using this technique in design, and it can look great. But I thought in light of this conversation it would be a good idea to show an example of someone who is using an ideal bokeh in design. I’m not sure that he intended for it to be filed alongside this category, but Chris Davis’ site is a great example.

The site of Chris J. Davis

So what should we call it? My suggestion would be “using depth of field in design”. It’s not as catchy, but it’s an accurate description of what’s going on. It also would make it easier to classify other potential design techniques as well.

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About David Brooks

David Brooks is the owner of the small creative studio, Northward Compass, based out of Orlando, Florida. He writes electronic and ambient music as Light The Deep, and fantasy stories about a place called Elerien.

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