Don’t Fall Into the Bokeh Trap

This photograph has zero value.

This photograph has zero value.

What you see here is exactly the kind of photograph I made when I first learned about bokeh and got a lens that could really make it sing. I was driven by how well an f1.7 lens could make the background look like a melting mosaic. Photographing in parks was a particular joy for me. Look at those greens! Of course, the photographs were absolute crap, a complete waste of pixels and space. Yet, I put them online, thinking they were good because they had such pretty backgrounds. It took a while before I realized I was completely misguided.

Bokeh has its uses. A better way to put that is, shallow depth of field has its uses. If you want to isolate a subject, open your aperture. The bokeh will happen. If it’s an interesting background, the bokeh may, by extension be interesting, but never shoot the bokeh.

Never ever shoot for the bokeh. Yes, that string of Christmas lights hanging by the whiskies in your favorite bar might look really nifty if you throw the lens out of focus, but do yourself a favor and don’t press the shutter. I understand that that cascade of leaves behind that signpost will look super swell blurred, and in about a half hour, the blues, pinks and purples cast by the setting sun will be very nice. Resist the urge.

Bokeh’s a bad gig to fall into because it can usually lead you too far afield. It isn’t always about f1.4, 1.2, .95. Nice glass is nice, but it doesn’t mean anything if you’re not making good photos. Focus on what you want to say, and make sure the entire frame says that. A nice blurred background doesn’t automatically make a photo better if the subject is dull.

Beware the blurred background. Don’t let it guide your lens.