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Why I hate ‘capture’ and ‘bokeh’

Back in the days when I used to participate in forums on RedBubble (hint: don’t bother) there were two phrases that cropped up a lot and that I came to loathe – ‘nice capture’ and ‘great bokeh’.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the use of these phrases with no attempt to mitigate them through irony should be grounds for instant execution. That’s for other people to decide. And I might even concede that the term ‘bokeh’, referring to how out-of-focus elements of the image are rendered, has its uses.

But here’s why I still hate both terms.

Capturing the moment

Photography is a highly mechanical art, which is why, since its invention, so many people have been dismissive of it.

In fact, people focus far too much on the mechanics. Yes, you need those cameras and lenses and an understanding of how they work. But if you’re going to be anything more than a casual snapshooter then you need a lot more besides. For a start, a good eye for composition and having something creative to say don’t come amiss.

Perhaps ironically, the distinction between the casual snapshooter who just wants to record a special moment and a serious photographer with an idea to import has been blurred by technology. You no longer need experience and dedication to produce an image that is sharp and well-exposed. Today’s cameras are technical marvels that have rendered obsolete at least some of the arcane knowledge once possessed only by professional photographers. The technical component of producing a photograph has become trivial – at least at a basic level. There is still much to be learned and mastered (lighting, for instance), but the essential task of producing a good-looking image can be left to the machinery.

But even the best modern camera has no creativity. It has nothing to say. It can’t compose, make creative decisions about viewpoint, focal length, exposure, depth of field, framing and the moment of pressing the shutter release. The most important elements of a great photograph arise from the intuition and intellect of the photographer.

So when someone says ‘nice capture’, it emphasises the mechanical aspect. It turns photography into something robotic. It says to me that the comment has been made by someone incapable of grasping what is really going on in the image. What they’re praising, to my mind, is the camera, not me.

Out of focus

And so it is with bokeh.

The use of limited depth of field, or ‘differential focus’ if you prefer, is about more than a pleasing fuzziness in foreground or background. It’s about leading the eye; it’s about concentrating the attention of the viewer; it’s about isolating what is important in the image; and it’s about detaching the subject from its environment – a significant act.

Alternatively, deep focus, where everything in the image is sharp, is about creating relationships between elements of the image and saying, it’s all significant.

Depth of field is a creative choice – one of the most important you can make.

So, when the only comment some twerp is able to make about your image is that it has ‘great bokeh’ then you know that either your picture has failed (in which case it’s an insult) or said idiot has nothing really to say and has missed the whole point of the picture.

Not good either way, is it?

One thought on “Why I hate ‘capture’ and ‘bokeh’”

  1. I actually came on line to find out if anyone cringes when they hear “nice capture,” too. It’s meant well, I guess — and I *have* to guess, because it is a meaningless cliche by now. The comment itself seems barely one step up from “nice snapshot,” but not by much. It took no effort to say it, so I can’t tell at all if it was made by someone just being polite (yet condescending), or by someone who was struck by the result of something that maybe took a lot of skill or patience or genius — or a combination of those. As a writing instructor, I used to tell my students who think that something is “remarkable,” don’t say you found it was remark-able. Just go ahead and make a remark about it.

    There was a discussion of the Mona Lisa the other day I was listening to. It suddenly occurs to me right now, what would Leonardo think of someone who said “nice capture” with all that’s going on there, all the art, science and innovation behind every little brushstroke? They were talking about her mouth, how he knew *exactly* how to light her lips, her cheeks, how to shape them, what should be in focus or, more broadly, out of focus, how it should look. The result is not because the model was “caught” in good light, but because he’d actually dissected lips and faces of cadavers, for Pete’s sakes. He literally knew his subjects inside and out. But people might as well say, “Such great luck you had that day! You accidentally sat your model in really good light and didn’t mess up while painting her. You must have really nice paint. Great capture!”

    By small example of my own, I worked hard to get the image I posted to a site the other day. The idea in the first place, then the setup, the days of waiting for things to line up, the “scheme” as I had it planned out to get this. Even the lens I chose and the angle. And I posted the “story” of how I put it all together with the image.
    These were deliberately made decisions. Not happenstance. So many times telling myself, “Patience… patience… this will happen… just be patient. It’s going to work if you wait for it.”

    And then, first comment I see this morning below it: “Nice capture.”

    I grimmaced. Teeth ground a little. I responded “thank you.” Then made coffee and tried not to think of it (yet wound up online searching for commiseration). A work therapist I know warns his “employee patients” never spend more than 15 minutes of a day thinking about a person who likely spends so much less about you.

    15 minutes is up. Back to my day now. 🙂

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