2006-06-08 1927 Writing: A photographic approach to writing – Part One: Giving good Bokeh

A photographic approach to writing

Part One: Giving good Bokeh

In theory, photography and writing have a lot in common. They both present ways of describing a scene; all that differs is the media used; with writing, you’re painting with words, and with photography, painting with light. Considering that the end result – a completed scene – is the same, it’s surprising that so few terms have crossed over from the world of photography to literature. That’s a shame, as there’s a lot that a writer can learn from the world of the camera.

I’m going to look at a few photographic terms, and see how they can apply to writing over the next few days, starting with one of the most difficult to define – bokeh.

What is Bokeh?


Bokeh comes from the Japanese boke, meaning blur. It describes the out-of-focus effect on a scene’s background. Good bokeh is hard to pin down though – some photographs have it, and some don’t, and it’s more commonly applied to animal or portrait photography than any other genre. A pleasing bokeh can be the difference between a great picture of a bird, and having the shot spoiled by a pylon in the background. Bokeh is all about bringing the subject into sharp relief, making it clear what the topic of the photo is, and taking out all other distractions. That doesn’t necessarily mean blurring out the background completely though – good bokeh is a fine art, a balance between showing enough of a hint of background detail but blurring out anything that might be a distraction. The quality of the lens is important – generally speaking, a good prime lens gives better bokeh that a zoom (fewer glass elements), though it’s not a hard-and-fast rule.

There’s two ways to end up with poor bokeh; the first is to show too much detail in the background, putting too many distractions into the shot. The second is to crop and remove the background completely. This takes the subject out of it’s environment, and generally makes for a less fulfilling shot.

Bokeh your writing

When writing, a scene should use bokeh in the same way – show enough of the background to give a context, but not so much as your subject gets swamped in detail. Good bokeh in your writing can add interest to your tales, helping the reader to be drawn into the story while at the same time making it clear what the subject is.

Here’s a quick example of poor bokeh:

The door shut, a solid thump against the old wooden walls. The year was 1949, the war little forgotten by most people, but Sam drank to forget, and the Old Timber Inn was his choice of watering hole. The tavern had been in this town since the 1700s, and had seen many visitors, from peasant to soldier to nobleman and banker. Now it was one more source of anaesthetic in a city that so desperately needed it.

What’s the subject? The war? The Inn? Sam? The City? That one paragraph is too distracting, too full of information and directions. Yet so many stories are written in this way. The bokeh is completely wrong.

This is better:

Sam’s gnarled hands shook as he fingered his pint glass. When the door behind ricocheted against it’s frame in the wind, he heard gunfire, the rattle of a rifle. It felt so close to his ear that he almost ducked beneath the ancient tavern table, covering his ears against the expected mortar fire. He looked up guiltily, recalling his surroundings with a wry smile. The war was over, long gone.

Sam is clearly the subject, and the background is pure bokeh, nothing but a blurring that makes it clear he’s in an old inn.

The bottom line is this: never forget the surroundings for your story, but don’t dwell too long on them. Remember that good bokeh is a way of enhancing your tale without distracting the tale away from your subject.

Next time, I’ll take a look at the Rule of Thirds………

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