#596. Why am I such a bokeh slut?

#596. Why am I such a bokeh slut?

I love bokeh. I am a Bokeh Slut, with BS in capitals, as in … you know what…  Better photographers are critical of that. My friend Boris leans the other way (all sharp), and I didn’t start that way, so, why is that?

The first reason is: because I can. My 3 lenses are all f:1.4, so they let me do it. If you have it, flaunt it, I say! Not very nice attitude, is it? Yeah, I know…, shame on me… Conversely, if you don’t do it, why bother with fast glass? Fast lenses are larger, heavier, costlier, and often less well corrected. Un-fast lenses can be absolutely delightful in small formats, like the Leica Elmar 24 f:3.8, or the Zeiss Loxia 85 f:2.4, so don’t buy more speed if you don’t have use for it.

The second reason is parallel to that why I don’t shoot zooms. I find it hard enough already to get what I want out of a prime. A zoom introduces yet one more variable with focal length, so shooting a prime is, for me, simpler. Bokeh, on the other hand, limits the critical area in a picture pretty much to what is in focus. It is therefore easier for me to get that limited target absolutely right than to get everything in the picture perfect. Many of my shots have imperfect background that is blurred out of any nastiness.

The third reason is that the out-of focus part is what, to my eyes contributes maximum depth. Yes, with good lenses you can get a feeling of depth in an all-sharp picture, but in a bokeh shot, the change in character between what is sharp and what is not induces a greater sense of depth IMHO.

The fourth reason is that bokeh takes an active role in my storytelling. My feeling is that all-sharp presents the viewer with “the only way to see and understand a scene”, whereas a bokeh scene leaves it to the viewer to “fill in” the parts of the story that aren’t told, and this leaves more to one’s imagination.

Now there are limitations to that. Bokeh shots require “good bokeh”, and that is not a scientifically defined notion. Rather it is a matter of taste. Though bad bokeh is pretty much consensual. Onion rings, Nissen, bubbles, busy bokeh, are all things most people don’t like. But then some like their bokeh structure-and-shape-less, very creamy, while others like to retain structure and shape in it (that is my preference, and typical -what else is new?- of Zeiss lenses).

Furthermore, high-definition sensors require well-corrected lenses, and that leads lens designers to using aspherics, which more often than not are detrimental to good bokeh. There are exceptions, of course, like Sony’s GM lenses, but still…

Lastly, don’t think that bokeh is purely a function of aperture and focal length. A test made by DS between two of the finest 28mm lenses ever designed (Leica R Elmarit 28 v.II and Zeiss Otus 28), both shooting at f:5.6 showed that the amount of bokeh could vary significantly between these 2 lenses.

 That said, looking at the above pictures, you are going to think: Philippe is basically talking about flowers, right? Well, not really, because flowers usually fall under the “macro” photo category, and macro shots are by and large “all-sharp”. There is even a special method, called focus-stacking, whereby one adds up the in-focus parts of multiple shots to get a result that far exceeds the depth-of-field of any single frame. So I’ve added some pics where the use of bokeh in counter-intuitive. Why shoot the Eiffel Tower if you are going to leave it blurred?

Then you have people shots, of course, whether portrait or not. You want the attention focused on the person or people, or even just the face(s), or even just a single eye. How does one do that? Blur the rest!

Now I promised myself that I wouldn’t get into gear, but taking a dig at others is just too much bad-boy fun, and I can’t resist. Bokeh begins, so to speak, where depth-of-field ends. And depth-of-field decreases with sensor size. The larger the sensor, the shallower the depth-of-field. Hence the saying: “Real Men Have Larger….. Sensors!”

Second point (and dig). As you can see from the above, I shoot stationary targets only. Shooting a rapidly moving one wide open with manual focus exceeds my abilities, and that of many others. But even with stationary targets, proper focusing wide open requires good eyesight, or a mirrorless camera. Becaue with a DSLR, you get an optical viewfinder (nice!), but you need to separate the sharp from the blurred parts by eyesight alone (not easy at all, depending on the subject). That is where mirrorless strikes a home run, because you get in-viewfinder (or in-LCD) magnification. Focusing on the part of the target you want sharp when it is magnified 10x+ times is a breeze. Even shooting f:5.6, my keeper rate for sharpness didn’t exceed 40% with my Canon DSLR and Zeiss 50 f:1.4. Now with my Sony A7RII and Otus 55, it exceeds 90%. basically, every shoot, out of, say, 40 shots I get one shot where I’ve missed focus , and I kick myself. It used to be, if I missed 15 shots (!), I’d be beside myself with self-satisfaction. Mirrorless rules! Although, I have to say, a rangefinder can also help, and still retain the optical viewfinder advantage.

Finally, there are bokeh shots and bokeh shots. As you can see from the picture of the red “cafe-racer” bike, the bike is essentially sharp (it actually isn’t, but it looks that way), and the distant background is blurred but still looking very “natural”, so the picture feels easy and relaxed. But a true Bokeh Slut will use blur where it feels un-natural, like in the above Eiffel Tower shot, or this rowing boat:

So there you have it, all the reasons why I am a Bokeh Slut. All the reasons, except one. The one that actually counts. It is because it lets me write stupid posts for DearSusan. Nah… just kiddin’. The real reason is, because I like the looks. Put it down to poor taste… if you must…:-)

 


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18 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Steve May 20, 2017

    Philippe, Not so slutty, more courtesany. Some lovely images; I particularly love the trumpet and the saddles. And as an ex-rider, the wonderful Royal Oilfield too, so dubbed because you could never stop oil leaking from the crankcase.

    I won’t rise to the my sensor’s bigger….

    Steve

    • Avatar
      philberphoto May 20, 2017

      Steve, thanks for the kind words. But, being French, I know a few things about being a courtesan. Essentially it means being a slut who poses as a member of society. Difference is, I just don’t pose or pretend…:-)

      • Avatar
        jean pierre (pete) guaron May 20, 2017

        Enough already! For the french, making love is an art form. Sluts perform on the wham, bam, thankyou ma’am principle. An analogy is the distinction between a gourmet and a gourmand. Lord knows what any of this has to do with photography.

        With you all the way, Philippe. If nothing else, it’s a valiant act of defiance against cellphones. I use similar lenses, but can’t match your success rate because I am usually without a tripod & (therefore) liveview.

        Occasionally the subject would improve with greater DOF. Out in the field, there are limits as to how to deal with that – did it with one shot this afternoon, by swapping the 55 for the 28 w/angle, but that’s not always “a good thing” (to paraphrase Sellar & Yeatman”).

        Auto focus may be “the” way for sports ‘togs. Doesn’t do it for me – if I take a shot of my wife, or of a friend’s pet, I want the eye in focus – not the tip of the nose!

        As for bokeh, I use it in a large percentage of my shots, in a wide variety of circumstances.

        So I’ll stand beside you and share the backlash ☺

        • Avatar
          philberphoto May 21, 2017

          Your support and companionship are welcome, Pete! Smartphone is for the masses, but you and I have finer tastes. In all modesty, of course!

  2. Avatar
    Dallas Thomas May 20, 2017

    I really enjoyed the article made me smile..

    I remember being around when you captured some of the shots and totally agree if you have it use it, I’ll loved using your Otus 55 & 28 some much that on my return to Sydney next month a Milvus 50/1,4 will find its way into my bag.

    As for MF yes it is challenging using a DSLR, Nikon in my case to get it pin sharpe, but with practice I expect my keeper rate to improve. No doubt some rude words will be thought and most likely uttered in frustration as I continue along the Zeiss road.

    • Avatar
      philberphoto May 20, 2017

      Dallas, you sell yourself short. Your wonderful “handrail” shot is a definite bokeh classic, which I would have loved to post, except that it would have mde me my fellow slut…:-)

      • Avatar
        jean pierre (pete) guaron May 21, 2017

        Ýour insistence on using the word “slut” is misplaced, Philippe – your love of bokeh makes you a gourmet, not a gourmand.

          • Avatar
            jean pierre (pete) guaron May 21, 2017

            I can’t, of course, comment on your waistline, Philippe – I’ve not even seen so much as a pencil sketch of it. But your photos show a finesse and discernment that gluttons cannot manage at the dinner table, if I may continue to mix my metaphors. I did notice this afternoon that particularly when I photo my wife, I almost invariably bokeh the background, so that it doesn’t compete. That’s probably love, rather than photòģraphy??

  3. Avatar
    IamJF May 20, 2017

    Wow – Boris will save a LOT of money for equipment … 🙂

  4. Avatar
    PaulB May 20, 2017

    Philippe

    I must protest! You are adding fuel to my GAS fire. These images are a joy to view.

    Though, sometime in the future we may have to meet and discuss, over an adult beverage, the influence of sensor size vs. focal length on bokeh. 😉

    PaulB

  5. Avatar
    paulperton May 21, 2017

    Slutty? I think not.

    Some wonderful images, Philippe – that’s justification enough.

  6. Avatar
    John Wilson May 21, 2017

    AHA!!! Give him bokeh and he’ll be your’s forever …. maybe ….

  7. Avatar
    Adrian May 21, 2017

    Others have described me as a bokeh snob, because I have very specific ideas about what is “good”. Lots of people online tall aboit “good bokeh” when they really mean shallow depth of field. They do not understand,or cannot see, that hidden rings or double edges to put of focus details or wiry effects are distracting to the viewer when the attention should be on the subject, and therefore “bad”. Often this is countered with a “well, I like it” comment, which again neglects any view of what “good” is supposed to be (non distracting).

    As Jason Lanier recently said in a video, if you have fast lenses and aren’t using them because they are not sharp etc then you have been sold a dud. There’s no point in owning fast aperture lenses if you don’t use them that way, and this curious internet notion of the aperture that gives greatest sharpness curiously misses the point that aperture is supposed to control exposure and depth of field (I set an aperture to get what I want within thr acceptable zone of focus, not sharpness).

    Lots of modern lenses are so well corrected and so well optimised for sharpness that they often render out of focus quite badly. I am thinking of a few Zeiss and Sony Zeiss designs, where an almost excessive contrast seems to lead up very heavy handed and rather lumpen bokeh with very poor blending and smoothing. Once again it doesn’t stop the u washed un-snobby masses telling you how good it is because the depth of field is so thin!

    I actually prefer smooth bokeh to the structured look, as I find it less distracting with some types of background.

    Shallow depth of field is an excellent way to put the viewed attention exactly where you want it, and to create a mood or atmosphere that a fully in focus photograph may lack. As you say, it makes the viewer fill in the gaps.

    I actually dislike portraits with one eye sharp, and have decried many who claim a super fast lens is required for portraits. It really depends on angle of view, working distance etc as I know of few people who want a head and shoulders portrait with one eye out of focus – whereas a waist level shot in landscape orientation creates a zone of acceptable focus that is good enough for a subjects face whilst keeping any background suitably diffuse and softened.

    Of course, Minolta made a couple of “uber-lenses” for Bokeh Snobs – the 135mm f2.8 STF, and the 85mm f1.4 G Limited – and it was rumoured that their 28-70mm F2.8 G deliberately had quite high levels lf spherical aberration at 70mm and f2.8 (that cleaned up at f3.5) to give much more attractive portraits with a kind of slight diffuse “glow” that was very flattering to female subjects. Sony have continued the tradition with the 135mm and new 100mm STF models for A and E mount. I was actually rather fond of their 100mm f2.8 variable soft focus lens as a slight use of tje soft focus effect (which deliberately introduced spherical aberrations in a controlled way) led to a pleasant softening of out of focus areas behind the plane of focus.

    So many modern lenses are so sharp, over corrected and quite sterile that they often have rather poor bokeh.

    Snob, me?

    • Avatar
      philberphoto May 21, 2017

      Adrian, I agree. Fast lenses are not often the providers of the nicest bokeh. Unless you get into überlens territory, because, simply put, if bokeh isn’t good they aren’t awarded überlens status! Case in point, 3 recent un-fast lenses have really nice bokeh: the Zeiss Loxia 85 f:2.4, and Batis 135 f:2.8, the Sony 100 f:2.8 STF. But then, DOF is no longer wafer-thin, which may be preferred by some, so it is raelly a case of hourses for courses…

      • Avatar
        Adrian May 22, 2017

        Yes, I think modern lens designs for high resolution digital with fast aperture always prioritise designing out aberrations and maximising perceived “sharpness” that bokeh often suffers. I am thinking particularly of my Zeiss Batis 85mm f1.8 – almost laughable “over sharp” looking on some sensors, but with nissen rings everywhere at close focus, and a complete inability to blend due it’s contrast. The Sony Zeiss 135mm f1.8 for A mount had similar issues – just a very lumpen quality to it’s out of focus areas where backgrounds were contrasty. The 135mm f2.8 STF was so much nicer, with a much more delicate quality to the way it rendered but still good resolution without excessive “sharpness”. The new E mount 100mm STF piqued my interest momentarily until I saw it was T5.6 – much too slow for available light work. The Fuji X mount 56mm apodisation lens appears to have a very weak effect as the difference in light transmission, and the visible effect, are quite low, whilst Sony went the other way and made it stronger and therefore more visually pronounced.

        I haven’t tried the E mount GM 85mm f1.4 as for me its simply too big and heavy for travel, but some sample images look very nice.

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