Beautiful Bokeh

I learnt this term a few months ago, shortly after I purchased my new camera.

Bokeh is the Japanese word for ‘blur’.  It describes the blurry, blobby, smeary or smudgy background you get against the foreground image which is in focus.

I like the way that the smudgy bokeh radiates outwards from the ink-splash shape of Centaurea ‘Jordy’.

Centaurea ‘Jordy’

I have nice blobby bokeh here, like a finger-painting.  This makes a nice contrast with the fountain of Hemerocallis fulva ‘Flore Plena’.

Hemerocallis fulva ‘Flore Plena’

Bokeh is how the world looks to me if I don’t have my glasses on or contact lenses in.  I have brilliant near vision.  This is handy for a bookish person, and someone who likes peering closely at flowers.  It is not so handy for recognising a loved one across a crowded room.

In the photo below, it is Rosa ‘Benjamin Britten’ behind Buddleja davidii ‘Royal Red’.

Buddleja davidii ‘Royal Red’

If I feel my way around Benjamin (ouch.  He can be a bit prickly), and bring his blobs into focus, then you see the swooshes of the buddleia behind.

Rosa ‘Benjamin Britten’

Here you can see the sharply focused Salvia ‘Amistad’ in the foreground.  The stems and buds are hard and metallic, whilst the petals are silky.  The pink blobs are Phlox paniculata Starfire.  

Salvia ‘Amistad’ with Geranium ‘Rozanne’ and Phlox paniculata ‘Starfire’ looking beautifully blobby behind.

I like the hill-like shapes here: it is like a landscape.  I love the contrast of the arching crocosmia in the foreground with the soft blobs and pillows of geranium and phlox in the background.

Crocosmia ‘Emberglow’ with Geranium ‘Anne Thomson’ and Phlox paniculata ‘Starfire’ in the background.

I love the layers of colours in the next photo. Though the crocosmia is in the foreground and the leaves are in focus, the flowers are all at different depths, so are mostly in very soft focus.  I am pleased with the balance of colours: this is exactly what I want in the bright border: highlights of hot, flaming colours, and backdrops of cooler, darker blues, purples and greens.


My daughter had a gorgeous sundress when she was younger.  The fabric had a buff background and bright pink cherry blossom print.  I loved it.  This photo with the parched lawn as the buff background reminds me of that dress.  Phlox is photobombing again.  In the foreground Buddleja davidii ‘Royal Red’ is picking up the phlox’s bright orange-magenta, in the throat of each flowerlet.

Buddleja davidii ‘Royal Red’ with Phlox paniculata ‘Starfire’ behind.

The reverse arrangement shows the phlox in focus and the buddleia spilling over its head like a fountain.  The bokeh smudges the background flowers and foliage outwards, away from the central subject, as if they are standing back to admire the phlox.

Phlox panuculata ‘Starfire’ with Buddleja davidii ‘Royal Red’ I the background.

Let’s have a light-and-dark contrast.  Here is Hemerocallis ‘Bonanza’ with its banana-and-burnt-caramel deliciousness, with a darkest green smudgy background.  With a few masterful little smears of bright green.  The lines of the smudges are echoes of the curves of the petals.

Hemerocallis ‘Bonanza’

With the Euphorbia below, the plant structure is such that there are very close tiers of leaves.  They get increasingly out of focus, the further away they are.  Euphorbia is a really useful plant in the bright border both for its bright greens, and also for its sculptural presence.

Euphorbia schlingii

The excitement in the bright border this week has been the gladioli suddenly popping up.  The buds seem to appear overnight.  They too are wonderfully sculptural, arranged in a plaited sword.  I love the grey-lilac tinge with just a hint of apple green.  They suggest the cool, glint of steel.

Gladioli flower bud

The flowers at the base open first.  It is like a sudden flash of silk through a suit of armour.

I love the action bokeh below.  Like a sword-fight.

Gladiolus ‘Black Star’

The texture of gladioli flowers is incredible.  They are the most sumptuous, opulent, resplendent of all.  They have exquisite tailoring.  Look at the curves and folds of the petals!  I love the contrast of the darker unopened flowers at the base of the sword.

Gladiolus ‘Black Star’.

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My aim in this blog is to share the little pops of wonder I get from gardening and from nature.  You don’t have to be into gardening to appreciate these.  The world is an amazing place and there are so many sensory pleasures that go unnoticed.    

29 Comments Add yours

  1. Susan Thomas says:

    Dear Ali,

    I seem totally unable to leave a message via WordPress but I wonder whether it is because I am not a blogger. I am, however, a passionate gardener and enjoy photography.

    I wake each morning and wonder which plant or group of plants has caught your eye the previous day. I am loving your recent writing on colour and use of the colour wheel and today’s blog has opened my eyes up as to using contrasting colour in the background on pictures. Your hot border has inspired me to cut a new bed from my ever decreasing lawn, to create my Zing Boarder. I am simply loving those hot colours which now I feel I have been missing out on.

    I think I simply wanted to say thank you and to let you know how much I appreciate your undoubtedly hard work.

    With warmest regards,

    Susan Thomas

    1. Ali says:

      Dear Susan, thank you so much for your lovely email and comment. You made it through – it’s just that I have to ‘approve’ a new person to comment. You’re in the club now!

      It is for readers like you that I blog. I love sharing what I love with others who might also love it. Thank you so much for your support. I am delighted to hear you are planning a ‘Zing Border’! There are so many zingy plants to fill it!

  2. photosociology says:

    You’ve made some wonderful photos here Ali, I’m glad it’s going well with your new camera and lens.

    I love the softness of the gladiolus bud. It’s beautiful.

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you – it is all because of you!!

  3. More exquisitely beautiful prose and photography

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you, Derrick. Your comments are always lovely!

  4. susurrus says:

    Beautiful! I love to see soft backgrounds like this – it’s something I really struggle with, using an iPhone.

    1. Ali says:

      That was the one thing that made me use an SLR. Though I understand the iPhone X now has the option of soft backgrounds (if you want to spend that much money on an iPhone!)

  5. fredgardener says:

    Very nice pictures Ali! I discovered the bokeh word a few months ago and your photos describe it perfectly!

  6. Heyjude says:

    You have so many delicious plants Ali. A quick question – how close together do you plant perennials? I have a 1m x 2m bed to plant up and wondering just how many I can squeeze in without overcrowding them. On Claire Austin’s site she suggests (24 plants) requires a space of around 90cm wide x 240cm long. So I am thinking of 18 plants, but is that too many?

    1. Ali says:

      I go with the very rough estimate that I read in Claire Austin’s book: 3 plants per square metre. I do this in a very estimatey way, i.e. by eye! I tend to plant in clusters of 3, and then infill with one more if I have a gap. So if my maths is not failing me, for a bed of 90cm x 240cm I would be guesstimating 8 or 9 plants. But sometimes you might be planting for succession, so if I was planting oriental poppies with knautia, and I know I am going to cut back the poppies after flowering so that the knautia can take over, then I would plant them a little closer. I think my tendency is to plant too close; I split most of my perennials every three years or so, so this is always correctable!

      1. Heyjude says:

        Thanks Ali, this is great information. I will check on the flowering times of the plants I have chosen and see how that works. Also some will be edging plants and low growing and others in the middle tall thin ones, so that might make a difference. As you say, I can always thin them out in the future. Thank you for your help. Maybe I should buy the CA book!

      2. Ali says:

        Oh yes. Brilliant bedtime reading.

      3. Heyjude says:

        I have also gone through my list and removed any that the slugs like!

  7. bcparkison says:

    Wonderful photos. Bokeh is also a term we use in card making. Makes really nice backgrounds .

    1. Ali says:

      Oh, that’s interesting. When I have dabbled in card-making I found I was choosing too busy backgrounds and had to rein it in, otherwise you don’t appreciate the subject.

  8. Robyn Haynes says:

    Superb photos for the watercolour artist. Bokeh is exactly what I try to achieve.

    1. Ali says:

      That’s interesting Robyn. I do find myself thinking of either pastels or paint when I look at these backgrounds. I don’t have the skill to draw or paint, so am very happy a camera can please me in this way!

  9. What a lovely set of images, Ali! I was intrigued by your connection of near-sightedness (I have that too) and the bokeh effect, what a great insight.

    You can control the bokeh in your garden photos by the aperture settings. The smaller the number (like 2.4 or 2.8), the more bokeh you will get on everything that is not in the main focus. Bokeh decreases as you go up to the larger aperture numbers (like f8, f11, etc.). I personally prefer f5.6 and lower in my shots to set the flowers off of the background, which is what your photos show so beautifully! Have fun with your new camera – you have such a great eye for the beautiful 🙂

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you. I really need to read that manual!! Maybe some holiday reading?

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