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Mental Haze: How to Use Bokeh to Create Visual Tension and Emotional Impact


When most people think about bokeh, they think of two things: a technical property of lenses and visual property of composition. These two ideas are so strong Wikipedia describes bokeh (or boke) as "the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by a lens." On a technical level, that’s exactly what it is; but it’s also so much more.

The Japanese definition of bokeh includes another, deeper, meaning: ‘mental haze.’ This is a beautifully accurate definition when you consider how integral bokeh can be when telling the story of a photograph. Sometimes, it is the story.

Bokeh as a Story Telling Device

I’ve seen bokeh used to great effect in aiding the concept of a photograph. We’ve all seen the picture of the cup where bokeh is used to represent steam rising from the cup:

cup bokeh
Bokeh rising from a cup as if steam is a popular use [Image: Pixabay: CC0 Public Domain]

In this way, bokeh can really add to a photo by giving it a different slant. This can be achieved in-camera, or by adding a texture like above in post production. Natural light works really well for this so outside shots are great but if you’d like to try it indoors, a string of fairy lights is a great, cheap option – I’d recommend the battery kind.

Bokeh as a Recognisable Abstract

I love this technique; you can tell what something is, like this bridge, but it’s a completely different take on the subject:

bridge bokeh
Bokeh can be used in such a way that the subject is still recognisable [Image: Pixabay: CC0 Public Domain]

This shot has probably been taken thousands of times but this one really stands out. The lens you use will affect the kind of bokeh you get, as will your focus and aperture. So really play around with those settings to see the great results you can get.

Cities are great for bokeh due to all the lights! [Image: Pixabay: CC0 Public Domain]

High spots make great vantage points and cities are a wealth of bokeh goodness because of all the lights!

Bokeh as a Mental Haze

Back to the phrase I mentioned at the start. What does a mental haze mean? Well, for me it’s a picture using bokeh in such a way that the bokeh makes the picture. It doesn’t even have to be recognisable but it should give you a particular feeling when you see it:

car rain bokeh
Certain uses of bokeh can evoke a particular feeling [[mage: PicJumbo: CC0 Public Domain]

Although recognisable, I wouldn’t say this image fits into our previous categories. Would it have worked if outside was in focus, without the bokeh? I personally don’t think so, but using the rain and outside lights in this way has encapsulated such a tone to it. For me it’s a kind of warmth, being in the car when it’s raining and travelling somewhere, even if it’s going home, makes you feel a particular way; that’s what this evokes for me. It's a visceral memory. It doesn’t always have to be so ostentatious either, if that’s not your thing:

spider bokeh
A recognisable subject with effective back-lighting and bokeh [Image: Pixabay: CC0 Public Domain]

This shot has a clearly recognisable subject and good composition, but it’s the lighting and bokeh that really make it. The contrast between the dark, alien form of the spider with the softly lit background and delicate webbing makes for a wonderfully pleasing contrast.

Wonderful, Wonderful, Unresolved Tension

What all of these photos have in common, what makes them work, is that they all have an element that cannot be completely resolved. The bokeh in them seems to conceal something just beyond our reach, while all the while giving us little visual clues.

The bokeh in these examples helps move your eye through the picture, but it doesn't give you anything truly concrete to settle on. This feeling of travelling, of an unresolved energy, creates visual tension in a pleasing way. That's the photographic flow: a harmonious imbalance of visual elements, and it can be powerfully expressive.

Best of all, bokeh helps create a feeling of engagement with the moment. It taps the same feeling of detached concentration you use to see pictures with your mind's eye while you photograph. Strong stuff!

However you see bokeh or choose to use it, there is no right or wrong. When you go a little ‘arty’ and think outside of the traditional photo ‘box’ though, I think you can get some really stunning results. We love to see your bokeh pictures here so feel free to post some!

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