#687. Bokeh is the new sharp. Of un-selfies and game reserves…

By philberphoto | Opinion

Jan 10


Bokeh is sharp? You readers must think I’ve over-indulged myself over the year-end celebrations. Not so…. alas!



Why is bokeh the new sharp? for a number of reasons. Let me rattle them off



  • Because we can. I already made that argument in my post “why am I such a bokeh slut?”, but in different context. Basically, digital photography started off as emerging technology, so we made do with what we had. That included lousy sensors, and little understanding of the requirements digital puts on glass. That phase is now over. We have superb electronics and very high performance glass to go with it. Early on, resolution and sharpness were the first goals we sought. And, as electronics improved, they began to require better glass in a way different from film had. Many much-loved lenses from earlier times were no longer as satisfactory as before, and became “character” lenses. Lovely bokeh lenses for film showed their dirty undies in the form of various aberrations, and they became less and less appealing as sensor resolution increased. But today we have glass on offer that has no such weaknesses. While it was understood earlier on that wide open performance was quite a bit weaker than stopped down, and should only be used when required by low light, or for effect, modern glass performs well indeed including wide open, which means more opportunities for bokeh.



  • Because we must. Why must we? Because everyone else is doing “everything sharp”. The ubiquitous smartphone, with its very small sensor, offers almost only all-sharp pictures. The huge number of such pictures means all-sharp is the new standard for non-differentiated, mass-produced pictures. It is thus difficult to stand out from the crowd just by saying that “my sharp is better than your sharp”. The same is true with landscape pictures, as the world’s best spots are now overrun with hordes of tourists, most of them with smartphones. So there we are, chased away from all-sharp shots by the thundering hordes of mindless sprayers-and-prayers. This makes bokeh the reserve for us, remnants of an endangered species.


Red light at night, bokeh’s delight – Pascal


  • Because we want to.  What is a selfie? A shot where you control almost nothing. Distance and composition are dictated by the length of your arm [shudder]. And the all-sharp picture guarantees that your friends can see the landmark in front of which you stand, and which is the true justification for this exercise (sorry, can’t call it a shot). So, what is a bokeh shot, in this context? It is an un-selfie! Not only does it include the out-of-focus component that the selfie doesn’t, but its use means there are more variables one needs to master to get a great shot than in a standard picture. Combining composition with what is in focus and what isn’t, making sure our choice of lighting dovetails with that, and with the important transition zone. A bokeh shot by a master is not just a blur-the-hell out of everything but the centre…



  • Because it makes some subjects look better, or because it gets you more than one micture out of a subject. Portraits with the whole picture sharp? I rather think not. Flower picturs that are all sharp? Definitely. Some even resort to focus stacking to achieve that. But it is not the only appealing face of flowers. Single, forlorn autumn leaves. A picture of a chain with all its links sharp? Why not? But why not with only one link sharp.


Flower power – Pascal


  • Because it matters to the story-telling. I’ve been over that already. Part of the story is in what is left blurred. Just like, in a movie, part of the story is in what is left unshown. I remember Eastwood’s movie “The bridges of Madison County”. What was left unsaid mattered in much the same way as what is left unsharp matters…


Soft seats – Pascal


I could go on like this, but I am sure you get the point. Just one question, before I leave you. Un-potscards, un-destinations, un-sharp, un-selfies. Am I coming un-glued? There is a sure way to tell. Not a single mention of a piece of gear: I am definitely un-something-or-other…


Brunia albiflora - Fuji X-Pro1 with Fuji 90mm f2

Brunia albiflora – Fuji X-Pro1 with Fuji 90mm f2  Paul


Brunia albiflora - Fuji X100T

Brunia albiflora – Fuji X100T  Paul



Email: subscribed: 4
  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Well said!
    And some nice photos!

    ( “Brooks”, also almost a remnant of an endangered species, but apparently still going strong – fortunately.)
    – – –

    What you nicely hint
    is seldom mentioned
    in other discussions of bokeh:
    That as soon as you start using a fast lens,
    also the subject starts loosing detail
    (which may be desirable e.g. in a portrait)
    unless the lens is rather expensive…
    – – –

    As old as the roll film light travel camera,
    or about a hundred years.
    Only they weren’t called “selfies” then.

    Consider the length of a then selfie stick
    necessary to un-blur the landmark behind
    (and so – appropriately – diminish the appearance of the self)
    – sorry, it was called tripod then,
    and it blurred also the foreground if it was too cheap.
    – – –

    UN- ?
    Maybe you need (like Ming Thein)
    an un-camera camera?
    ( I have one, and it can’t make calls, or very much bokeh either for that matter.)
    – – –

    I keep thinking of the Cheshire Cat.
    It didnt, of course, blur, but, at Alice’s request, fade,
    and let the smile linger…whisker-sharp.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Hi Kristian – very creative comments! I love your solution to selfies – give ’em an ultra cheap tripod, and watch as it self destructs. I can’t think of a purer form of “selfie-ism”. What they used (in some cases) a century or more back was a clamp, to hold the subject’s head perfectly still while they took a photo – nobody back then had ever heard of ISO, let alone speeds like 12500.

      Maybe that’s one of the reasons why there weren’t as many photos taken in those days? I’ve even come across “portraits” taken of dead people (because there weren’t any – or enough – of them alive). So before interring the dead departed, they’d prop it up in a chair, use the same sort of clamp to hold the head steady, take the shot, and then – shock horror, they invented Photoshopping way back then! – touch up the face to put a bit of life back into it. Close eyes suddenly became very vibrantly alive eyes, and in a few cases, kind of popped out of the picture! Must have been exciting afterwards, having grandma watching everything you did from her new perch on the parlour wall. 🙂

      I can’t match your un-camera. I only have an un-camera cell phone that can barely do anything more than make phone calls or SMS’s. Maybe I should call it a dumb phone?

    • Steve says:

      The background blur in those first photos made my eyes bleed! Some state-of-the-art zeiss (or perhaps zigma art) design, I guess? But bokeh is of course subjective. Very nice compositions all of them though.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I hope this doesn’t upset the other contributors to the selection of photos in this article, Philippe – my favourite is Pascal’s “soft seats” – it presses all the buttons, for me!

    I did post my comments when this first appeared, but somehow they have disappeared into cyber space.

    Bokeh is part of it – depth of field might appear to be related but of course it affects our photos in a different way – and AT LAST I have confirmation from someone brighter than me, that cellphones cannot compete, because by their very construction, their focal length leaves them behind at the starting gate. So they can pursue their relentless collection of self portraits with “destination” icons in the background, taken to prove they were on holiday (on tour elsewhere) and not just having a dirty weekend at a motel in the next town – while DS members continue to take “photographs” – and without having telegraph poles protruding out of bicycle seats, too!

    Knowledge is power – so we are winning! 🙂

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