Philosophy & Reflections Photos & Projects

Bokeh as the Subject (in Photos and Writing)

February 22, 2021

One of the things I most enjoy about writing for this website is how much creativity it allows me. I started writing this post before, but ended up getting distracted and writing a much longer article about my relationship with bokeh. Honestly, what sort of a person has a relationship with bokeh anyway?!

The answer to that is someone like me. Someone who spends far too much time thinking (and writing) about photography rather than just doing. Of course, the doing does still happen. And ultimately, it’s going out taking photos that usually inspires me to put my thoughts on paper, so to speak.

It was going out taking photos that inspired me to start writing this article the last time I tried. What’s interesting about the particular outing with a camera, is that – like the article I started writing – I set out with one goal in mind and got distracted by something arguably more creative… and something that focused even more on bokeh.

It was towards the end of the process of writing my 100mm Trioplan review. I’d got to the point in my writing that I was finalising my thoughts about the bokeh and realised that I was yet to take the lens out for a nighttime shoot to see how it dealt with highlights of light in otherwise darkness.

I didn’t want to go far, or be out for very long as it was cold. As such, I just wandered down to the end of my road. I had some sort of shot in mind where I’d have something in focus in the foreground, and then use headlights of the cars in the background. I only needed a couple of shots to illustrate my words.

The first shot I tried was through some leaves of the petrol station. I couldn’t see the leaves it was too dark, but I was initially so motivated to capture something in the foreground that I moved on without even taking a picture.

By the time I got to the end of the road, it began to sink in that there wasn’t going to be much subject matter to focus on. It was dark, and there just isn’t much of interest at the end of my road that is at the right level to take a photo of and get out of focus cars in the background. I ended up taking a photo of a pedestrian crossing which fit the brief, but instantly overwhelmed me with a sense that I was taking pointless photos.

Then an ambulance came whizzing down the hill and turned up my road. There wasn’t anything to capture in the foreground, to I just thought sod it, I’ll take an out of focus photo of it. I quite liked it too. As a shot of an ambulance, it’s pretty poor, but as a series of shapes and colours, I felt it had some aesthetic merit.

I then went back and tried to take another couple of photos with something in the foreground, but realised in doing so that I was focusing on the wrong thing. I was trying to take photos of out of focus highlights and how the lens rendered them, but to do so, I was trying to find foreground subject matter that was interesting. I couldn’t, because I was shooting at night, in the dark, at the end of my road. Which isn’t a very interesting place at the beat of times.

What I needed to do was stop thinking about the foreground as my subject, and embrace bokeh as my subject. I needed to find subject matter that would look interesting when it was out of focus.

As I thought about this, I noticed the lights from the petrol station flickering between the slats of the fence that surround it. I set the lens to it’s closest focus distance and shot. The gaps in the fence created vertical columns of specular highlights that worked really well with the Trioplan’s propensity to create bubbles of bokeh.

I wasn’t creating life-changing works of art, but compared to a few minutes before where I felt like I’d been taking pointless photos of nothing just to show off the character of the lens, instead I felt like I was being creative. I was looking at the shapes of out of focus lights to create a composition that to me felt aesthetically pleasing. Of course, in reality, I somehow managed to combine two photography tropes: ‘petrol station at night’, and ‘bokeh shot of nothing’. But, I was creatively satisfied in the process, and that felt more important than anything else.

I then set off home thinking about the photos I’d taken, and remembered one that I hadn’t taken. I stopped where I had started trying to take a photo of the leaves in the foreground and noticed the potential in the shapes of the lights of the petrol station as an out of focus subject. Forgetting the foreground leaves, I concentrated on framing the out of focus petrol station and took the shot at the top of this post. It turned out to be the most aesthetically pleasing shot I had taken. Ironic, I thought, considering I had initially passed it by.

I’ll be the first to admit, these images aren’t the most inspiring. Even by the standards of bokeh photos, they aren’t really up there… But I’m not sure it matters. As a creative experience, it was the final thing that made all that stuff that I wrote about in that last article click. Bokeh as the subject of an entire article probably isn’t the most interesting thing you’ll read this year. Nor are these photos the most interesting you’ll see. But both have given me creative satisfaction, and that’s surely what’s important here… especially during a bloody covid lockdown!

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10 Comments

  • Reply
    Ralph Turner
    February 22, 2021 at 5:56 pm

    Something about that ambulance shot … a rather human-looking form interacting with a….? Sometimes it’s the unexpected that really grabs your imagination. For all the pre-planned efforts, these moments of apparent randomness can bring the most joy 🙂

    • Reply
      Hamish
      February 23, 2021 at 9:47 am

      Agreed, and cheers 🙂

  • Reply
    David Hume
    February 22, 2021 at 10:16 pm

    Who bodysnatched Hamish Gill? This author reveals themself as a sensitive artistic soul! I don’t know if it was cunning planning or serendipity that put this piece next to Sroyon’s but they go hand in glove I think. I reckon your piece is not really about bokeh though; if it were bokeh it would just be “yeah – onion ring”. It’s more about the process of making photos. You are using the camera to render something that starts in nature and ends up a pleasing aesthetic object. You start with an idea – experiment, assess, refine, learn, make more images. They are not wholly abstract, they have their seed in the natural world, but neither are they representational. All photos trick us to a degree, just some more than others. To me this essay sings out “Saul Leiter” in that there are areas that may be recognised, but there are also elements of pure colour and form that are major aesthetic elements of the pieces. Anyway, it’s cool. 🙂

    • Reply
      Hamish
      February 23, 2021 at 9:46 am

      Hi David, there is indeed some planning that goes into the scheduling of articles, yes 😂. And cheers, I’m pleased you appreciate my more artistic side! More philosophical waffle forthcoming…

  • Reply
    ANDREW BENNETT
    February 22, 2021 at 11:34 pm

    HELLO HAMISH, JUST GOT TO ASK, I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHICH CAMERA YOU HAD THE LENS ON. I HAVE THE SAME 100MM ON AN EXAKTA MOUNT,GOT IT YEARS AGO FOR NEXT TO NOTHING. THAT WAS IN THE DAYS OF FILM ONLY. STILL THINKING ABOUT BUYING A DIGITAL SLR BUT NOT TAKEN THE PLUNGE YET. KIND REGARDS , ANDY BENNETT.

    • Reply
      Hamish
      February 23, 2021 at 9:43 am

      Hi Andy,
      My Leica M10-P – I use it as a mirrorless camera as much as I do a rangefinder, but if you want something to just mouny some old lenses, I would probably recommend a Sony. The A7III is the one I have, if that helps?

  • Reply
    Michael J
    February 22, 2021 at 11:39 pm

    Between this and Sroyon’s brilliant 2-minute experiment, 35mmc is having a very good day, albeit one that might send me back to the shrink.
    I’ve been massively short-sighted from a really young age- I was the first child in my class with glasses by some years and went past minus-10 by the age of 13 or so- and I have a disclocated (or possibly repeated) memory of car travel at night without my specs on and the different coloured lights reading as endless patterns of shining coins. This bokeh experiment has taken me right back to this memory, which is unnerving but very interesting nonetheless…

    • Reply
      Hamish Editor
      February 23, 2021 at 9:41 am

      Cheers, Michael – it sounds quite relaxing. Inconvenient in most ways of course…

  • Reply
    David Hill
    February 24, 2021 at 8:31 pm

    Good lord, the milieu of ‘petrol station at night’ photography will never be the same. I think of all the times I’ve shot petrol stations, and on top of those the instances at night ,and on top of that, those shots deliberately and expressively out of focus, artistic expressions or happenstance or mere mistakes, and I come up with, well, its uncountable. That is Zero. Nil. Nada. I mean, I never thought. Hamish, you are breaking new ground in photography, stomping a different path to the insistent beat of an indifferent drum. I find myself quivering in awe, my brow feverish, my vision blurring into bokesque blobs of light. Its becoming difficult to see my screen, so I’ll have to leave off now.. Before I say something dumb, you know…

    Nevertheless, a neat experiment, really quite cool.

    • Reply
      Hamish
      March 8, 2021 at 11:30 am

      HA!

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