Photos Out of Focus: Embracing Bokeh and Blur

BlogHer Original Post

When I first started shooting photos I believed in the ultimate power of sharpness, of acuity, of an image unblurred. It's only over time that I learned to embrace what I now believe to be the beauty of softness, of what some might call imperfection in focus but I've reframed as just right for whatever image I happen to be making at the time. I almost excessively embrace the blur.

Some blur is indeed on purpose. What many in Flickr and photoblog land call "bokeh," from the Japanese noun meaning "blur" or "haze," is really another term for the effects of shallow depth of field, and usually light that hits just right. It means you're setting your aperture wide enough if you're working manually (and therefore letting enough light in) that the object in the foreground is sharp sharp sharp and that which lies beyond is beautifully, atmospherically blurry. If you're in auto mode and you're close enough, this involves pushing the lens to its limits, most likely, naturally blurring out the background and bringing the front into focus. (This is a little more iffy, though, and if you're like me and insist on making the lens do the work you'll end up with lots more cast-off images to wind through.)It took me forever to ask what the HBW tag stood for on Flickr, and what it does is Happy Bokeh Wednesday, a weekly celebration of blurry backgrounds that never fails to blow my mind. Want more examples? There's Extreme Bokeh, Bokeh: Smooth and Silky, Bokeh of the Day and Bokeh for the Common Folk (that's a lot of bokeh.)

One of my favorite bokeh-style images, here you go: Metabirthday cake

Beyond her way with words, Yvonne from Joy Unexpected is also a Happy Bokeh Wednesday regular and may I say, her images are awesome. (All rights reserved on Flickr, please click through!)

I'd like to see what MaineMomma/Kristin deletes because I don't think she's capable of a bad picture. Please see this one, where she makes a fence look good, in a recent HBW submission. She also created this ferris wheel shot that may be my favorite of the summer, but I'm thinking she added the texture after the fact.

Other blur happens, with or without planning and care. Focus is a science, really, a science I tend to explain poorly so I generally leave it to people way more technical than I am. Basically the amount of light hitting the sensor or film (determined by the size of the aperture, the opening that lets the light through,) and the amount of time the light has to hit, determined by the shutter speed, have to be in sync. To get sharp photos, especially in lower light or with objects in motion, the aperture has to be small enough to focus and the shutter open long enough that the image isn't completely black. (Confused yet?) If you want intentional blur, to give the impression of wings flapping or waves crashing or legs in motion, playing around with the aperture and shutter speed is your best option.

My favorite blur, however, is always accidental. Sure it can be frustrating if you're really going for a money shot, but if the stakes are low and your willingness to experiment is high, you can get some cool things. The best blur? Capture a friend in mid-sentence or something weird out of a car window because you didn't know it was coming and you just got to your camera in time. Feet walking by on the sidewalk while you're sitting on the pavement at their level. Wine pouring into a glass. We live in motion, most of the time. The best blur captures that concept, or just a moody feel when you feel like it.

My favorite

I was happy at BlogHer 09, apparently. Grace Davis caught it. I love it. (And I don't even generally like pictures of myself.) This one was better out of focus. I didn't have to worry about details so much as I did a memory of what an incredible time I was having. I favorited it because I don't want to forget it.

I'd encourage you to lose the focus obsession, just for a little while even. Embrace the blur. I've never looked back.

Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites. Many, many photos are on Flickr.

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