The Great Bokeh Controversy of 2019

Bokeh is the Japanese word for “blur” and it’s the word photographers around the world use to describe out-of-focus fields and elements within photos. As I’ve written about in past years, I enjoy combining street photography, abstract photography, and bokeh photography to create impressionistic photos like this:

U Street (med).jpg

I took this the other night and shared it on 500px, Instagram, and the other usual places. When I added it on Flickr, I included it in a number of groups including Bokeh Photography, which is Flickr’s largest bokeh group in terms of membership (EDIT: This was wrong, both “bokeh” and “Bokeh: Smooth and Silky” are larger). I had been a member of that group for many years, often adding similar photos. Unbeknownst to me, the group founder had quit Flickr, and the group has fallen into new management. When I submitted the photo above, it was rejected and the group’s acting admin commented on it, “That is not bokeh, it's merely a defocused lens.”

Certainly one of the weirder comments I’ve ever had on a photo. I replied explaining to him what bokeh is (I didn’t realize he was with the bokeh group), and that while bokeh photos with focused subjects are nice, a photo that is entirely bokeh is still, well, bokeh. This led to a rather absurd debate and if you have a high tolerance for long-winded blowhards, you can read the whole thing in the comments of the photo on Flickr.

But the tl;dr version: This fellow only considers it bokeh if it’s a standard portrait-style photo where a flower or bird or model is in focus with creamy bokeh elsewhere in the frame. He doesn’t recognize bokeh light points as being bokeh. I enjoy those well enough, and as I pointed out, of course I know how to take photos in such a standard style:


I don’t take photos like that much these days unless it’s for a job, because I don’t find them particularly challenging or satisfying. This fellow seemed offended by this, and was determined to convince me that my abstract street photos were in fact easier to take. If there’s anyone out there who agrees with that, then I’ll say to you what i said to him: Go out and try it. If you think it’s easy to create a compelling photo out of a completely unfocused frame, then I encourage you to take a few minutes to prove it. I look forward to seeing your results in Flickr’s other bokeh groups.