There is life beyond the bokeh

Couple portraits London

Bokeh is one trend that has had the purists worried for a while now. And for good reason. It’s a habit that most photographers find difficult to kick, and it’s a style that has outlived its charm.

Photographic lenses today are so good at rendering out-of-focus areas that you can’t really blame photographers for overdoing it at times — it’s one of the easiest ways to make aesthetically beautiful images. But then, would these images win awards? Unless it’s a wildlife or macro image, mostly no! What bokeh does to your image is pretty obvious: in most cases, it strips the story down to its simplest, barebones form.

Photography is visual storytelling. A good story has many elements; some are more important than the others, but strengthen the story all the same. As a general rule, a story should have a theme, a setting, style and tone, a plot, and of course the characters. In a good photograph, most of these elements work in harmony and deliver the core message. Using bokeh in its standard form—foreground in focus and background out of focus—you’re leaving no room for the setting and the theme, and almost no breathing space for the style and tone to manifest.

As a story, a bokehlicious picture doesn’t tell you much. The audience cannot absorb nuances of the setting or the style, and the focus is solely on the characters.

Let’s take the image below as an example. No doubt, it’s a beautiful photograph. Besides, it tells you a lot about the equation the couple share. Yet, the picture is an incomplete story. Does it tell you anything about the location and the setting? Is there a theme or a plot that is immediately obvious?

Couple portraits

In stark contrast, the images below have a much bigger canvas, which can accommodate the setting, style and theme, and the plot — these are storytelling photographs. The “blur” doesn’t obscure the details, and they show you exactly how a nokeh (no-bokeh) image tells a far bigger story than an image that has bokeh filling up most of the frame.

Couple shoot London Couple portraits London

How we use the tools at our disposal is one of the most critical decisions we’re required to make as storytelling photographers. We live in an era where technology can make an average photographer look good, and the perceived benchmarks for good photography are far lower than it used to be during the age of film. So, it’s a choice that we must make to break free from the pack. We, as ambitious photographers, must have a grander vision and use canvases far bigger than what technology can provide. For starters, we can rein in the urge to isolate characters from the setting.

Let us not give in to the temptation of bokeh.

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