What is Boke?
Boke is the Japanese term, pronounced BO-KEH in English, used to describe the out of focus quality of a lens. Noun derived from the active verb "bokasu" which means to befog, to gradate, to render opaque, to smudge or render out of focus. It is usually the out of focus portions of the picture which distinguish the "look and feel" or "signature" of different types of lenses. The ideal boke for portraiture is a soft edged rounded blur with the brighter part towards the center of the blur disk.
Boke has been taken into consideration ever since the first portrait lenses came about in Japan.
That meant 85mm, 105mm and 135mm lenses on 35mm film cameras, and 150mm to 250mm in 2 1/4 X 2 1/4 (6x6) medium format cameras which lead some pros to say that the best boke was only possible with the lenses that one could not afford.
The concept is mentioned in Japanese books of photography that came out in the early post WWII era.
Asian, European and Latin American photographers studied and used it.
My father and my uncles mentioned it often although I did not quite understand it until many years after.
The image above was made in Tokyo in 1988 with a Hasselblad 500 CM and 250mm f/5.6 Carl Zeiss Sonnar, wide open.
North America was almost 50 years late. It was not until the later 90s that articles about it were commissioned and published by a serious photography magazine; regardless of focal length, which I find inappropriate to some large extent, more so when comparing different focal length lenses.
I generally apply it to non-environmental portraits, those I choose for selective focus when the backgrounds promise to render a pleasing out of focus area, using the widest aperture possible to have the main subject in focus. The suggested rule is critical: Focus on the closest eye. Depth of field when up close is very thin.
This image was made at home just with natural window light, on a Nikon F6 film camera as soon as the 85mm f/1.4D AF arrived; lens wide open on 400 ISO negative film.
This is another 85mm f/1.4 image also made at f/1.4 with bounced light from an SB-800 speedlight.
As lenses get better and better, some of the most unexpected ones do render very pleasant background blurs, making them frequently appropriate for close-ups of objects like in the image below.
This close-up was shot with a 28-70mm f/2.8D AF Nikkor, wide open.
Close-ups of birds are equally suitable subjects for this kind of photography and we have great examples in the wildlife forum of shooting with the longest Nikkor lenses wide open.
Shot from the window of a restaurant with the 80-400. Again, wide open.
Photographer Tony Sweet uses this technique in his famous images of flowers. Other photographers are working with it now on landscapes. Something I did not even think about before.
Someone told me once that "Boke is an acquired taste, like caviar, lobster, 18 year old whiskey", etc.
I think he was right, to the extent that it is a very personal choice or preference.
But once you savor it you cannot live without it. Try it, you will love it.
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