#827. Monday Post (03 Mar 2019) – Is the photography world going (bokeh) slutty?

By philberphoto | Monday Post

Mar 04

There is no person more virtuous than a reformed sinner. Such is my case, a self-professed bokeh slut. Here is proof: Why am I such a bokeh slut?

As you know, in my Last Post for the year (2018), I proclaimed that the Lens Of The Year 2018 was “the super-fast lens.” Since then new announcements have come think and fast, as already mentioned last week (the Mitakon-Zongyi 50mm f:0,95). This week, the Sony 135mm f:1.8. The Voigtländer 24mm f1,4, and 50mm f:1.2. In the interim, Canon has gifted its EOS-R with a 50mm f:1.2. Etc…


My question is: why? Why such ridiculousness -or is it ridiculosity-? (to describe something ridiculous, one needs a ridiculous-sounding word, don’t you think? “Ridicule” alone doesn’t cut it, IMHO). Super-fast lenses offer the possibility to deliver shots in very dark lighting, and with half-an-eyelash deep DOF. How many such shots do we actually wish to take? How many of us live and shoot underground? Or are refugees in churches, a la Assange in the Ecuadoran embassy? Or live to shoot ill-lit stage shows? Or desperately want to out-shoot the late Stanley Kubrick, who had f:0,7 lenses made specially for him to shoot Barry Lyndon?


The answer is: not many. Not many at all. Fact is, in exchange for hyperspeed, lenses are (a) anywhere from not cheap (Mitakon et al from China) to hyper expensive (Noctilux from Leica), and (b) not well corrected, making them suitable primarily for wide-open-or close use only. No-one would seriously buy such a lens to shoot at f:5.6, right?


The answer to this question why? lies in a couple of directions IMHO. First, because, to the uninitiated, and/or to the having-more-money-than-sense-crowd, faster intuitively means better. A faster car is a better car, so a faster lens has got to be a better lens, right? Then because, just as “more megapixels” have been primarily a marketing tool to indicate “better camera body”, “faster lens” works great for marketing, so much more at ease with raw numbers than with anything as subtle and hard to pin down as image quality.


There are two fatal flaws to this faster-is-better theory, even beyond the under-corrected nature of such beasts. One is that minimal depth-of-field makes autofocus almost impossible. For example, the 58mm f:0,95 Z-mount Noct-Nikkor is actually manual focus only when it is wide open, ’cause the AF just can’t deal with the thin DOF. The other #FakeNews is that you need high speed for bokeh. Modern lens design allows high-quality lenses to offer great bokeh even at moderate speeds, like my lovely Zeiss Loxia 25mm f:2,4. But not everyone can design for bokeh the way Zeiss do…


So, tell me, people of DearSusan, who among you are willing to join my former cult of Bokeh Sluts, and who will let marketing “experts” who have never held a camera in awe, love or anger score a(nother) resounding fail?


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  • rudi ma says:

    bokeh slut…juvenile term. It doesn’t make the article edgy or hip but it does define the author.

    • pascaljappy says:

      And judging a person based on two words says what about the judge, exactly? I know this author personally and he ain’t hip, but he’s bursting with intelligence and humour. “Bokeh slut” is an accepted comical term in this community. Sorry you don’t like it.

    • philberphoto says:

      Dear Rudi, I am only an old fart maskerading as a juvenile. Thank you for pointing out how sucessful my impersonation was. You made my day. Yay!

  • pascaljappy says:

    Thank you Philippe. May I add that your stunning photographs prove that strong bokeh is definitely not a prerequisity for eye-poppers?

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    > “.. ridiculousness -or is it ridiculosity ..”

    ridiculousness + curiosity => ridiculosity (?)

    ( Thinking also of the Elephant-child with his ‘satiable curiosity and the ridicule his new long trunk first drew…)

  • brian says:

    I am sad. My most-used lens (a Loxia 25/2.4) provides the subtle sort of bokeh that I usually enjoy–like your close-up image of the broken branches with a forest background–and my little ZM 85/4 doesn’t really play in the bokeh arena much at all. I thought that I had recovered from the need to have only one eye in focus with the 85/1.4 that I used years ago, but, nonetheless, I still hope/plan to purchase a ZM 35/1.4 even though though it doesn’t really fit my landscape needs (and I blame DearSusan for that). I hope that that doesn’t make me a bokeh slut.

    • Michael Demeyer says:

      Actually the ZM 35 Distagon is an extraordinary landscape lens with astonishing detail and a very flat plane of focus. Use it at whatever aperture provides the desired depth of field.

      • brian says:

        Michael, I have a different impression based on how the lens performs on cameras like my A7R III, as shown here and elsewhere, which suggests field curvature and corner issues. Still, an interesting lens that must be wonderful on a Leica body–and I still want to try it on my Sony.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    that first photo might be given the caption: “A rare photo”,
    as was this one once called in The Times:

    ( Or is it just the crocodile at the banks of the great grey-green greasy Limpopo river?)
    – – –

    Btw., the Globe is my favourite – for its simplicity – but the Arch, the Broken branches and the last Bridge come just behind!

  • Dan says:

    “Bokeh slut” is used on the internet a fair bit, next to GAS or NAS – although I have not seen the latter a lot lately. I guess Nikon went out of favor withe the cool kids.

    The previous comment reminded me of a lady who took offense when I told her on a discussion board that she has GAS… 😀

    Regarding the bokeh, like with everything in life, it depends on what one wants. I can afford both: an 85mm GM as a cream machine mostly for portraits and the Zeis Loxia 50mm and 85mm for when I want a gritty bokeh which does not totally delete the background for environmental portraits and cityscapes.

    Both renderings are beautiful.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    I have occasionally not been able to blur a far background enough even with 50mm/1.4 (on APS-C), because the main subject was too large to get closer.

    But one has to draw the line somewhere.

    And a handier lens-camera combination gives more ease and joy – and so also more photos.

    ( Not to forget your notes, Philippe, on price and corrections.)
    – – –

    Consider expensive, *really* expensive, cars – like Koenigsegg or Lamborghini.
    How about engine size?
    More like the equivalent of f/0.8…
    ( RR is an exception – probably about f/2.3, but never specified.)

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Are super-expensive cars the automotive equivalent of GAS? I actually don’t want any of them – they’re all far too big to get through my gateway. And I take exception to the excessive consumption of fossil fuels (diesel or petrol) with large cars – I’ve been more worried about the environment than the owners of such beasts, for a very long time.
      It seems to me that most of those cars are purchase by one of three types of people:
      1 – narcissists – a whole page was devoted to them in a book on SUVs some time back – in fact it was the first page of the book – and it was describing the prototypical purchaser of them – nobody who’d ever read that page would ever dream of buying such a vehicle, ever again!
      2 – grossly rich people, or people pretending to be grossly rich – sorry but none of that has ever impressed me
      3 – show ponies – people who are grey haired, for example, and wanted a Lambo or a Ferrari when they were young enough to drive it properly, and now that they can’t, they get it anyway, because they can afford it – or men who imagine it works as a “chick magnet” and they can use it to trawl for younger women, which is about as pathetic as men ever get to be (a small puppy – something like a King Charles Cavalier – is INFINITELY more effective – certainly worked for me, before I was married and had to learn how to behave myself!) 🙂

      Kristian, wouldn’t your 50mm/1.f be equivalent to a 75mm on APS-C? – surely that should have given you a blurred background? Whether or not we end up with Bokeh is a more mysterious outcome – right now,I am working on a computer with a portrait of my second Dobermann, Chloe, which has the best Bokeh I’ve ever managed to produce, and I’m immensely proud of the photo! – much of the time, I just have to settle for “blur”.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Jean Pierre,
        on cars…
        Exactly! 🙂
        That’s why I compared those to *über*-fast lenses!
        And even long before we knew about the climate problem, I always wondered what kind of person would want one – except to show off or to rent the Nürburgring.
        And an über-fast lens can occasionally make sense.

        On lenses,
        yes, 75mm-eq, of course!
        But the possibility of enough blur in a far background also depends on how close you can get to the main subject, and if it’s large, well, then you can’t – unless you find a part of it that’s a good enough substitute.
        ( And occasionally “enough” blur means a lot, unless you can choose another background. It’s a pity a good fog is rare!)

        Anyway, I found my f/1.4 lenses (50mm Sigma non-Art & 30mm Art) a bit unwieldy to use and carry around. Now I take the old Canon 50mm/2.5 macro (or the latest “Nifty-50”) and the ef-m 28mm/3.5 macro – unless I know I want a 1.4 – plus a couple of zooms.

        On bokeh,
        You are certainly ahead of me there!
        Upto now I’ve been satisfied if I get enough but not too much blur.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I think this is a deeper problem – and one that perhaps might resonate with members of this group.

    The moment someone does something new or different, and people clap, then EVERYONE wants to be clapped, so they all start doing it, too. And then it’s neither new OR different. It becomes pastiche, instead. And pastiche is never “good”. So everyone has to try again.

    Actually it gets worse – because the less adventurous in the community rant and rail against change, so they criticise the adventurous few who step out of line and come up with something new or different. Probably because it undermines their authority, or because someone being “better” makes them feel insecure.

    So the pioneers get the whole pack biting them in the neck.

    To maintain the standards of DearSusan, we must be constantly vigilant. So we need an agreed solution to this problem.

    • Michael Demeyer says:

      The 1950 LTM Elmar 5cm F3.5 on the M10 at the moment, I suspect, disqualified me as a slut. My wife will be glad to know that… although she likes being photographed with the ZM C-Sonnar 50mm F1.5, usually stopped down to F2 to smooth out the bokeh. 😉

  • Cliff Whittaker says:

    I sometimes think I wouldn’t mind having a 1.4 lens when I’m doing street photography. Especially impromptu street portraits. Not for shooting in dim light, because I can let the ISO take care of that. But sometimes I would like to be able to drop out some of the background in street scenes. Or maybe create added interest with fuzzy people doing something in the background.

    I wonder if a fast lens would have the same effect of brightening the viewfinder that it did with 35mm film cameras? The viewfinder image was a lot brighter and more “inspiring” with a 1.4 lens that it was the the usual 1.8 kit lens. But the 1.4 lens was a LOT more expensive. And gave better image quality if you stopped it down a couple of stops. Kind of a moot point now, though, if everyone is going to start using EVF with mirrorless cameras.

    As far as image quality between an expensive 1.4 and a much cheaper 1.8, I don’t think most people could tell the difference back then. They just accepted whatever they got back from the drugstore. Same thing if you’re just going to post your images on social media now.

    Also, I can’t make up my mind what focal length lens I would want. Now that I’ve had cataract surgery I can see well enough to manual focus very well. But, It’s kind of difficult for me to think of giving up the convenience of a 2.8 zoom lens or even an f/4 zoom (cringe Pascal) for a fixed focal length lens just to get a shorter depth of field. I went through all that lens changing crap when I was starting back in the early ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, etc.

    Now that I seriously think about it, I don’t believe I really need a lens with a larger f/stop at all. I think I’ll just go take a nap.

  • brian says:

    Like many who purchased an 85mm f/1.4 lens years ago, I for a while achieved the only-one-eye-in-focus portrait standard–and, like most, I got over it. I now prefer the subtle sort of bokeh that I can enjoy with my 25mm f/2.4 walk-around lens and I don’t mind that my little ZM 85/4 doesn’t really play with bokeh much at all. Nonetheless, thanks to DearSusan, I still hope/plan to purchase the ZM 35/1.4 that lives and breathes on these pages. I hope that that doesn’t make me a bokeh slut–even if this is a duplicate comment. . . .

    • Adrian says:

      I have started to lose count of the forum debates in which f1.4 mid-teles are declared a must for portraits, or someone shows off their latest fast aperture portroat, which only works if you want one eye or a few eye lashes in focus and little else. Portraiture is a while other discussion, but I concur with you on this DOF issue wholeheartedly.

      As for bokeh and fast lensed, Philippe is correct – slow lenses are easier to make and need less complex designs with less corrextion. Conversely, very fast lenses are hard to make with very complex designs that often need lots of corrections. Yet the experts on the internet insist super fast lenses are better, apparently being sharper, high resolution etc which is often total nonsense

      Philippe is right that fast apertures are good for 2 things – gathering lots of light, and very shallow depth of field. Unfortunately, the 2 attributes are only available together – so I can take a photo of a street in very low light, but not much of it will be in sharp focus.

      As I’ve discussed with Pascal before, one of the apparent reasons for the recent super fast lens trend, particularly for smaller formats, is that on the small screens that most of the internet is now consumed on, the only way to get that shallow depth of field look for small size reproductions is really really fast lenses. Take a shot at f2.8 and stick it on a phone and any DOF effects are lost – you need an f1.2 at least to get the effect. Hence we now have this rush of specification bragging rights for aperture.

      I didn’t know Sony had announced a new 135mm f1.8 – if it’s anything like the Zeiss of the same specification for A mount, I will pass – very large, very heavy, very sharp, but with rather lumpen so-so drawing style with difficult bokeh – drawing apparently sacrificed on the altar of sharpness (much like the Batis 85mm from experience). The nicest lens for bokeh I’ve used was the Minolta 135mm STF, which had such nice subtle drawing style, but the focal length just doesn’t really suit me as it makes working distances to large for confined spaces.

      I have enjoy using DOF for creative purposes, and I enjoy using lenses that can render thosr beautifully smooth out of focus areas with good tonal blending. However, the internet is awash with people who don’t understand that bokeh isn’t just shallow DOF, and who apparently can’t see nissen rings or how the focus falls away. In that context, bokeh is “over-rated”, in the sense that it’s talked about by lots of people who often don’t understand it.

      Your photographs are lovely, but on my small screen they don’t appear to be about bokeh, and that’s fine.

  • immodoc says:

    Hi, nothing against a good bokeh, unless one does not have to make too many sacrifices.

    Anybody can make a big, fast lens, like Nikon, with a size matching the new, heavy-metal Z mirrorless cameras. I do not like this trend,
    Panasonic, Leica SL and Sigma being other examples.

    For me, small is beautiful. And you can get a good bookeh with a Leica M and a 35 Summicron, or a ZEISS Distagon ZM 1,4/35.

    But, maybe, this is a rather acquired taste after using Leica M for over 30 years … —

  • Johannes Hüttner says:

    My favorite lenses at the moment (and focal lengths for that matter) are the Loxia 35 & 85. None of those qualifies as superfast cream machine. And for portrait headshots the f2.4 of the 85 is more than enough to let everything blur out that is more than 1 Meter behind the subject.
    On the other hand I have to confess that the newly announced 135 gm (or even better a GFX 50R + 110/f2) has me drooling over it‘s bokeh.

    Anyway beautiful pictures Philippe and a great read as usual.

  • Dave Jenkins says:

    It’s amazing to contemplate what Elliott Erwitt and Henri Cartier-Bresson were able to accomplish before bokeh was even invented.

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