If you can tolerate the use of the noun Bokeh as a verb, this title does hint at what’s at the back of my mind 😉 Throwing a part of a scene into delicious cappuccino blur can produce visually stunning results. It’s also brought in me about a certain intolerance to those results. As if an overdose of doing it can only be cured by abstaining altogether. Between those two extremes, though, what are the pros and cons of dreamy backgrounds? And how about alternatives?
It’s taking me quite a bit of effort do dig out some bokeh-rich photographs from my personal archive to illustrate my purpose. It’s been a while since my last indulgence.
You don’t win a fight over gluttony when facing a cake at home, but in the shop. What you do not buy, you cannot eat. That line of reasoning probably played a major role in my purchase of Hasselblad lenses. Most of them just don’t open wide enough to be considered “cream machines”. Most of my photographs with them now have large depth of field. And I like them much better for it. To me, the sense of being there is much stronger with a large DoF photograph. It has more impact on me. And, perhaps counter intuitively, it is also more readable, easier to make sense of.
None of this is surprising. Depth of field is a compositional tool and should only be treated as such. And composition is the main ingredient in visual storytelling.
My fascination for composition is such that bokeh induces more frustration than pleasure for me. If you need convincing, look at the very simple photograph above and observe where you eyes go to. Why do those tiny cranes play as large a role in the photograph as the huge house? Blur them out, even slightly, and the photograph becomes unpleasant. Make the same photograph in the fog (you can imagine all this in your mind’s eye), and the story becomes a different, but equally pleasant one. Weird, right?
In one, you have deprived your brain from information that would have helped it make sense of the image. In the second, the fog becomes the larger part of the story and your brain is quite happy to understand it that way (and that you have not edited out the cues that let it understand that the fog is a main subject).
If shallow depth of field is a compositional tool, its purpose is to isolate a subject from its background, naturally. In the image above, would there be any point in including every blade of grass? That could make the image too busy and clash with the pointy teeth, hurting readability of the photograph.
Granted. And this often goes hand in hand with symmetrical vignetting to focus the interest on the subject in a very centric composition. Simple, and effective.
But. Take a closer look at older photographs or those made by top very portrait photographers on the market, and you’ll notice there often is a lot more depth of field than in amateur images.
We accept the shallow depth of field in the statue photograph above because that’s what things look like when we look at them from a short distance. Look at your hand at a distance of 10 inches (if you still can 😉 😉 😉 ) and the rest of the scene is blurred.
But all of your hand is sharp. Just like most really good portraits keep a lot of the subject’s head (not just the face) sharp. In many cases, amateurs will use max aperture and have the depth of an eyelash to play with. Get focus wrong and the photograph is totally wasted. Get focus right and the photograph looks very unnatural. Over the top.
If you want to isolate a subject, well … isolate it. Have an empty background. As in the boat picture above. Unfortunately, you will often find that quite boring. It’s OK when your single subject is a celebrity or your newborn I guess, because of the particularly strong attraction of the subject itself. But, even in the case of a lovely boat, that can be quite dull to watch.
To me, it feels a lot more interesting to keep an image as simple as possible but not limit it to one subject (again, that subject has to be super important, if you go that way). In the image above, there is no clutter, but the couple on the board is set in a context of rocky beaches and sailboats. Blurring that photograph would only have made it less interesting, by removing context and story. Cropping above the head of the man produces an equally boring result.
The same f/1.5 lens was used below at full aperture in a very busy scene. Max aperture was selected to look for colour shifts and other unwanted side effects while testing the Pixii camera. The photo may follow modern fast lens canon but let’s be honest: it’s really bad. Would you put that on your wall for 10 years (THE litmus test for a good photograph)? I sure wouldn’t 😉
Below is a typical scene in which one might be tempted to blur the background. Particularly if the subject is a child or loved one.
In this particular image, it would be a shame. The ripples on the sea ensure continuity to the end of the photograph. It has depth and context. It’s no longer only about the lady but about a beach scene in which she is involved.
I’ve no idea who she is, and only chose her because of her position in a sandy “canal” that ensured a nice composition and because she is turning her back to me, a reassuring feature in this world of one-sided liberty 😉 The triangular composition (second person and wave as secondary apexes) keeps it more lively than a single figure in heavily blurred surroundings (although her confident posture would indeed work well in a solo picture).
Are there good uses for shallow depth of field? I think so.
This early morning worker, cleaning the beaches before the hordes arrive, is clearly separated from the vacation setting of sea and sailboats. I blurred him rather than the background to highlight his alien nature, as if I’d reluctantly allowed him in the frame, as if he was photobombing my selfie.
Of course he’s an essential part of everyone else’s enjoyment of the beach. And he was whistling away very happily, not feeling alien at all and probably enjoying the quiet every bit as much as me 😉 This choice of focus is purely artistic licence. A lie (for lack of a better word, and you can expect an article soon to chastise my use of the phrase “photography is a lie” ! 🙂 ) A deliberate choice, to orient your reading of the scene, at the very least.
Below is the more traditional use of subject isolation and I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. Today, I find that plain boring, even though it is a photo of my daughter.
I’d do things differently today and, hopefully, bring out more of her personality.
As here, for example 😉 😉 😉
This, to me, is the real kicker.
Composition unites shape, light and anything else that draws the viewer’s attention into a whole that generates interest.
A photo that does not give a thought to composition is rarely very compelling …
Our eyes are drawn to contrasty areas of a photograph, and to light ones.
Blurring a light zone of the photograph naturally reduces its attraction. So that it can compete with a sharp but dark one, as above.
This gives you complete control over your story. Do you want to completely isolate a subject and make the story equal to : “hey, here’s XXXXXXX” ? Do you want to give equal weight to two very different characters ? Do you want to provide context for a subject without drawing too much attention away from it ?
The amount of blur/lighting (and size) devoted to your various image elements at like a “storytelling slider” in your PP software 😉
Equal components or someone hiding in the shadows ?
Context or abstract ?
Compare the previous photographs to the one below. This says “hey, here’s a green apple”. “So what?” most will be tempted to answer. If you want to drown your subject in cream and isolate it form the rest of the scene, it had better be a whole lot more interesting than one green apple 😉
// Unrelated fun fact : this green apple is the red apple found in the Pixii camera review 🙂 //
That lighting/contrast slider is a precious tool and – in my view – should more often be set at the complete integration of subject extreme (see very first photograph) than at the other end. But that’s just me 😉
Another very valid reason for indulging in overblown bokeh is obviously … when it looks good 😉 (which is what bokeh actually means, the aesthetic qualities of the blurred areas) Noctilux users won’t deny it. They know they want some 😉
Here we enter the realm of subjective qualities. Swirly bokeh produces the same effect on me as salt on slugs. But others swear by it. My thing is a dreamy atmosphere and matching dollops of vignetting. Subtle, you know 😉 😉 😉
But the point is, taste is subjective. To each his/her own and that’s where the various flavours of bokeh come into play, to help everyone create a photograph that mirrors their personal aesthetic preferences.
The Zeiss Otus 85 is particularly wonderful when taken out of its comfort zone with a big extension ring. Here, its über-noble MTF curves probably crash below commoner level, as aberations come to dominate the frame. But who cares? Just look at the results 🙂 Isn’t that gorgeous? This is a style I’ve not been able to create with any other lens that’s crossed my path and it accounts for 99% of my current photographs with that lens.
So here, it’s all about atmosphere.
It can be beautiful, dreamy, wonderful. It’s also a single-trick pony that will soon get boring. There probably are many creative ways of exploiting that look but, at the end of the day, it is just that … a look.
Therefore, it can only be one string of your photography.
Are there alternatives to heaps of bokeh ?
Well, that depends on how you were using bokeh in the first place.
For subject isolation, fog comes to mind. But it adds more to the scene than that, obviously. Bokeh can never be the subject of the photograph (outside an advert for the lens, obviously 😉 ) whereas fog makes for a glorious subject.
But lighting is probably the greatest tool for storytelling, though. Whether it is in a studio or captured as is, lighting … highlights portions of an image and hides others.
And I imagine there are many many more options. My experience of them is too limited for me to attempt any kind of enumeration.
But that’s also precisely the point. We need to find them for ourselves. It’s not that bokeh should be shunned, but it should definitely be considered as one tool among many others rather than a crutch for lazy composition, which is what lens ads suggest.
So if you have found alternatives to blurring an portion of an image to make it interesting, please share them below. We can all learn from those 🙂
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