What is Bokeh?
In the 1937 film, Shall We Dance, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers duet on the famous Gershwin song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”. They’re comparing the different ways to pronounce “tomato” and “potato”. It’s a pivotal moment, will they, won’t they? It may seem a trivial point, but if it had escalated, who knows what could have happened? So, in the interests of peace and goodwill in the photographic community, I feel it is my civic duty to warn the uninitiated about the potential pitfalls of talking about “bokeh”.
Bokeh is derived from the Japanese word “boke”, meaning, (among other definitions) blurry or indistinct, and has been anglicised as “bokeh”. It refers to the blurred, out of focus areas in a photograph, and the quality of the transition from the in focus to out of focus parts of the image. Throw this word into conversation when discussing a photograph and your expert credentials may be assured, but there is one problem, no-one really knows how to say it.
Some say it should sound like “bouquet”, or pronounced with the “bo” as in bone and “keh” as in Kenneth, with equal stress on either syllable, or maybe spoken as “bok-ay”, as in the original Japanese, or maybe “boke-uh”. One thing’s for certain, get it wrong, and no-one will have a clue what you’re on about. A further complication is that the word could get confused with the English “boke”, which according to Chambers means to belch or vomit. This really adds a new dimension to the observation, “I think that photograph shows good bokeh”.
To be honest, I would just say “blurry bits”. I have no doubt that’s why the Gershwin’s stuck to vegetables.
D. Charles Mason