#1043. To Bokeh or not to Bokeh

By pascaljappy | How-To

Sep 24

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 ๐Ÿ˜‰ 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 ๐Ÿ˜‰ ๐Ÿ˜‰ ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) 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 ๐Ÿ˜‰

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 ๐Ÿ˜‰ 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.

Subject Isolation

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 ๐Ÿ˜‰ 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” ! ๐Ÿ™‚ ) 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 ๐Ÿ˜‰ ๐Ÿ˜‰ ๐Ÿ˜‰


Balancing composition

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 ๐Ÿ˜‰

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 ๐Ÿ˜‰

// Unrelated fun fact : this green apple is the red apple found in the Pixii camera review ๐Ÿ™‚ //

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 ๐Ÿ˜‰


The beauty of the bokeh

Another very valid reason for indulging in overblown bokeh is obviously … when it looks good ๐Ÿ˜‰ (which is what bokeh actually means, the aesthetic qualities of the blurred areas) Noctilux users won’t deny it. They know they want some ๐Ÿ˜‰

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 ๐Ÿ˜‰ ๐Ÿ˜‰ ๐Ÿ˜‰

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 รผber-noble MTF curves probably crash below commoner level, as aberations come to dominate the frame. But who cares? Just look at the results ๐Ÿ™‚ 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.

See what I did, there?

Alternatives to creamy bokeh

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 ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) 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 ๐Ÿ™‚


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  • Informative post! The guitar image is especially appealing! Thanks.

  • Dallas says:

    Pascal, some wonderful images. I’m a bokeh slut like another contributor who shall remain nameless Philippe. But like all things bokeh does it is time and place.

  • Jean-Claude Louis says:

    Great images, Pascal, with a special mention to the few with full depth of field ๐Ÿ™‚

    Boke (or bokeh, with the h added by Mike Johnston of The Online Photographer fame) is derived as a noun form of the verb bokeru, which (as I learned from a Wikipedia entry) is written in several ways, with additional meanings and nuances: ๆšˆใ‘ใ‚‹ refers to being blurry, hazy or out-of-focus, whereas the ๆƒšใ‘ใ‚‹ and ๅ‘†ใ‘ใ‚‹ spellings refer to being mentally hazy, befuddled, childish, senile, or playing stupid. My kind of boke is definitely the latter kind ๆƒšใ‘ใ‚‹, being constantly challenged in my focusing attempts…

    Seriously, there are times when I use blur with intent, as an integral component of a series of images; blur (rather than just bokeh) then underlies the concept of a project. Otherwise, for my photography, I’ll take diffused light, or light and shadow play over selective focus with bokeh at any time.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Flash new camera you’ve got there, sport! LMAO

    There’s no “one answer” – but you already know that. Some DEMAND the dreamy look – Philippe’s flowers, for example – and I’m sure I could find you a landscape version, if I hadn’t just woken up.

    Landscapes do tend NOT to chase bokeh, to the same extent. And as you say, armed with a Hassy, aren’t you more like to end up with DOF blur? – not “bokeh”? I think you’d have a terrible time, trying to get bokeh – but you don’t care, because you get better detail in highlights and more, at least, in shadows.

    I’m afraid I couldn’t find “the statue photograph above” – or below – or anywhere else. No matter – I could follow what you were saying, even without the statue.

    Your couple on the board was interesting, for an altogether unrelated reason. Hurrah! – it’s not a 4×6!

    Moving on . . . Ah! – composition! Thank God we’ve also moved on from “rules” of composition! Having always been a wayward child, I’ve never particularly liked “rules”. I’ve always much preferred doing whatever I felt like doing. No wonder my poor mother spent the rest of her life wandering around the house muttering – “I don’t know what’s come over you, lately – you used to be such a nice little boy!” Rules and creativity are poor bedfellows. Composition should be about creativity. Images that wedge themselves into your brain, so that after you’ve seen them you can’t get them out of your mind. Not postcards or snapshots. Not “rule of thirds” – very nice on Instagram, but how many prizes do you think that’s going to win? Garfield has a better idea – “expect the unexpected!”

    Now HERE’S a place for playing with DOF. Look at your shot of the guy holding his blasted cellphone in the middle of the image, with the person swathed in emerald green on the left – here, you’ve not only balanced the contrasts in tonal range, you’ve also juggle the contrast in DOF, to create your image. Supercharging the image.

    Back to bokeh – “ร  chacun son goรปt” – TICK! “Therefore, it can only be one string of your photography.” – TICK – but that’s true of so many things we do, or can do – and also why I choose to take so many different types of photo.

    “lighting”? – “many many more options” – yes of course there are – that’s what photography is all about – capturing “the light” – SEEING “the light”, so we can work out what we want to capture. Mr Heinz captured the market for tinned foods with 57 varieties – God has given photographers an INFINITE number of varieties of “light”. And some amongst us want to add even more!

    The greatest issue in front of us now, of course, is the fact there are now several billion people out there, taking trillions of “photos”, and we are charged with creating “images” – images that are in some way unique – or if that’s no longer possible, at the very least “challenging” – “interesting” – “inspiring” – “memorable”.

    DOF, bokeh, long exposure, B&W (in the age of digi colour), w/angles, tele, super fast shutters, filters (becoming more popular lately), remotes. Look back through that list – much of is “technical” – “equipment” – yet knowing what it is, and what you can do with “equipment”, is also a part of “creativity” – not to be sneered at or shunned, just because it’s something ANYONE can buy – because this “ANYONE” character still has to prove to us, that he/she knows how to swing from the rafters, using it.

  • Mark Raugas says:

    Lovely photo of the two figures in shadow, by the shore. I think much that people attempt to accomplish with narrow depth of field can also be accomplished with light and shadow in a way that feels more natural.

    Of course, this brings to mind the famous HCB quote:

    โ€œHe had his little Leica,โ€ [fashion photographer Helmut] Newton remembers, โ€œand he simply would
    point and shoot.โ€ Since Cartier-Bressonโ€™s hand isnโ€™t as steady as it used to be, some of the pictures
    were a bit fuzzy. โ€œSharpness,โ€ he told Newton, โ€œis a bourgeois concept.โ€ Newton sits back and laughs:
    โ€œI thought that was just divine.โ€ โ€“ Dana Thomas, Newsweek, 6/1/03

    I wonder if bokeh is the new sharpness.

    If so, I still do not like swirly bourgeois or onion ring bourgeois. When I first had a Sony 55mm/1.8 lens I loved it, until I was “taught” to notice the onion ring bokeh. Immediately I sold it, and then later had the 40/1.2 CV and loved it, until I noticed again, the dreaded onion ring bokeh.

    Maybe focusing too much on bokeh (how does one focus on the out of focus areas in a photo — maybe we need a different word, shorthand for “place ones attention on”, like when people say contrast but mean acutance) is only a recipe for unhappiness.

    We don’t (or I don’t) seem to see with bokeh — our gaze is focused on what it is focused on, and when we shift our attention, our point of focus shifts as well. If we relax our gaze, we seem to get an experience of one area in our field of vision being in focus and the rest soft and hazy, but if we give in to temptation and focus on that area, it becomes harder to notice the rest of the field.

    So, bokeh, in still photography, is an excellent example of wabi-sabi (to draw more on Japanese aesthetic), in that it has an imperfect quality and draws attention to negative space in a composition, albeit artificially imposed through depth of field.

    Except when I find a photo I like, with smooth creamy blur isolating a still life.


    So much is in the eye of the beholder, but in all seriousness I have noticed I do appreciate portraits with my 90 Summicron-M (non-APO), where f2 seems to allow me to get the full figure in focus, instead of just an eye or nose or ear (if I make a mistake). But also, as a non-ASPH lens, less chance for cats’ eyes or onion rings or other malfeasance.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Remarquable article, superbement illustrรฉ, Pascal !
    Sujet casse-gu…, prรฉsentรฉ ici dans un contexte plus global qui รฉtend la rรฉflexion.
    Dรฉsolรฉ, pas d’autre commentaire ๐Ÿ™‚

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