Bokeh Mania: Can It Be Stopped?

Discussion in 'Casual Photo Conversations' started by wogears, Jul 27, 2010.

  1. At first, it was just a harmless bit of silliness, like giclée. Now the Bokian Heresy threatens all of photography as we know it. Clearly, it is time to take a stand.
    What is 'bokeh' anyway? No one seems to be quite sure, but it refers to the quality of blurred areas in a photograph. Smooth blur is considered desirable, and is referred to as 'creamy bokeh' (new from Kellog's®). Jagged blur with angular shapes is undesirable to the Bokians, and is called 'bad bokeh' or 'nervous bokeh' or 'nissan bokeh'. No one had heard of 'bokeh' before the mid-90s, although I have seen unsubstantiated accounts of Japanese photographers using the term in the 60s. (Boké is a Japanese work meaning 'blur'.)
    What harm is there in this? Well, due to the awesome power of the Internet to instantaneously spread garble to every corner of the world, 'bokeh' is taking over. (2.5 megahits on Google.) It is discussed everywhere, including by me. I will tell you precisely why it is Evil after this.
    DISCLAIMER: I agree that there is such a thing as blur. I also agree that this blur can, in some cases, make a contribution to the overall quality of an image. It can help isolate a subject, create a particular mood, and please the viewer. It is even something to be consciously considered when making a photograph. I even agree that in some cases, the lens used will have a significant effect on the blur. In other cases, the same lens may produce undesirable results.
    So why do I hate the term and its adherents so?
    1) The term is confusing and imprecise, and smacks of the pseudo-artistic. Examples can be found here. Some of them exhibit lovely OOF blur, while others are blurred all over, and yet others have qualities considered harmful to 'bokeh'.
    2) It is most often used to describe the qualities of a lens, rather than those of an image. Lenses are called 'Plastic Fantastic' and 'Cream Machine'. In fact, the quality of blurred areas is dependent on many factors: the distance from subject-to-background and its ratio to lens-to-subject distance; the contrast of the background; the presence or absence of specular highlights; the color harmonies which may exist in the background, etc. Bokians frequently value 'bokeh' above many more important and measurable qualities of a lens. I read a comment recently that ran something like, "You've spent all that time talking about the lens, but you said nothing about the bokeh!"
    3) It has become an all-consuming passion, almost a true mania. We had this sort of thing long ago, but there was no Internet to provide the intense heterodyning effect. Now a single comment by a portfolio-less gearhead can spread in days until everyone 'agrees' that the Canikon 60mm f.75 has terrible 'bokeh'. On another site, a new wedding shooter posted a number of images, most of which were slightly out-of-focus. He defended himself by saying, "I shot at f1.2 [Canon 50mm] to get some great bokeh." I have never heard of a client refusing to pay because her wedding album had 'nervous bokeh'. And the lengths to which Bokians will go is incredibe. Take 'outlining' for example. This is when blur circles have a faint ring of color around them, cause by longitudinal chromatic aberration. I have probably looked at millions of images in my life, and never noticed this. Bokians obsess over it--"The blur circle on the lower left has outlining.'
    4) There is a strong mythical mystical element to the use of the term. Like 'Leica Glow', its true nature can only be appreciated by the initiated. New photographers latch onto this like limpets. They haven't learned how to make good images yet, but they can have 'creamy bokeh'! And they can see and appreciate this thing that ordinary viewers can't. They can also justify their gear purchases--it upgraded their 'bokeh'.
    Enough rant. Matt Laur, please do not post one of your wonderful dog portraits. The backgrounds are lovely because of their distance and the soft light on them.
  2. pge


    Interesting post Les. Somehow I feel you are beating up a kitten.
    The only issue I have with Bokeh is that every single still life of food uses bokeh to death. Look through a food magazine sometime, and by the end you will be craving a sharp image of anything.
  3. This post be betty betty bad karma!
    Thought for the day: One cannot fully appreciate the bokeh of a fine lens on anything but a giclee print, because of the gaussian spray pattern.
    Weird link for the day:
    On another note, I'm reminded of a local artist's work that's all bokeh. That's to say it's all WAAAY out of focus. I suspect he doesn't use a lens (seriously). I'm guessing he uses a body cap with a 3/8" hole drilled in it.
  4. The only issue I have with Bokeh is that every single still life of food uses bokeh to death. Look through a food magazine sometime, and by the end you will be craving a sharp image of anything.​
    This is my only issue with the term bokeh. It is when it is improperly used. With Phil's food examples, it is SHALLOW DEPTH OF FIELD that could be considered overused, not the qualities of the out of focus areas (Bokeh)
  5. The apparent vagueness of the word "bokeh" comes from it being used by people who don't really know what it means. As I understand it, the original usage referred specifically to the quality of out-of-focus specular highlights, not simply the general quality of out-of-focus areas.
  6. "bokeh" is a word used mostly by people who do not understand that Bokeh, Depth of Field and Background Blur are three entirely different things due to entirely different optical phenomema and are calculated by entirely different equations.
    So not only is it overused, it's incorrectly used. To see bokeh requires "golden eyes", similar to the "golden ears" possessed by audiophiles who can clearly hear the superiority of vinyl records over CDs.
  7. As I understand it, the original usage referred specifically to the quality of out-of-focus specular highlights, not simply the general quality of out-of-focus areas.​
    I have read exactly the opposite in various places. That's one of 'bokeh's' many problems.
  8. You illustrate my big beef with bokeh -- that the term is so often misused -- in this sentence:
    In fact, the quality of blurred areas is dependent on many factors: the distance from subject-to-background and its ratio to lens-to-subject distance; the contrast of the background; the presence or absence of specular highlights; the color harmonies which may exist in the background, etc.​
    Of your factors, only the presence or absence of specular highlights has any real bearing on bokeh. The others certainly affect the look of the out-of-focus areas of the image, but not the bokeh. The bokeh is a characteristic of the lens (at that particular aperture and focus distance (and focal length, for a zoom)) and is there regardless of image content, but it is most visible on small specular highlights.
    I have no problem with people obsessing about bokeh; people are free to obsess about whatever they choose. But those who obsess about something ought to know what it means!
  9. Gotta tell you....over 30 years ago now we,(working pro portraitists) were creating whatever Bokeh effects we wanted for any particular shoot situation, and lens choice as well......
    I tell you Les, nothing new is happening here at all.....even the "old" methods are largely forgotten...or perhaps just replaced by a desire for only partially understood terms and, naturally, the need to be photographically politically correct.
    Like other often misunderstood fads.....Z System, HDR, come easily to mind.....and will become as easily extinct as the drive for fashion continues.....
  10. In (some parts of) Scotland the word 'boak' means to upchuck, throw up....... and to feel a wee bit boaky is to ....well anticipate the act of the boak.
    SO when I hear the word bokeh, it brings to mind something else.
    And creamy bokeh....oh well lets not go there shall we.
    For you linguists out there, here's the cultural reference:
  11. SCL


    Good read, Les. Another obsession of mass delusion...reminds me of the tulipmania.
  12. Really, Les? You let loose a counter-bokeh insurgency, and I'm the evil villain you're using to rally the peasants with the pitchforks? I don't know whether to be flattered or what. Still, I just got in from walking my dogs in the hot July sun, and one of them even chased a large woodchuck to ground. She's hot and bothered, but that didn't stop me from sitting her in front of a fan in a quick attempt to throw an actual photograph into this conversation.

    I'm in this camp: we bring up the word "bokeh" as shorthand for "quality of the out of focus background." It's handy to have just two syllables for all that, isn't it? Yes, the background often just doesn't matter. And no, the bride's not going to refuse to purchase her portrait just because the tree branches behind her are doubled-up and jaggy-looking, or the glints off of the chandelier behind her are making hard rings bigger than her eyes. But just because she isn't going to (or be able to) articulate what it is about those features that are a bit distracting doesn't mean that shown a similar shot without them, she wouldn't recognize that one photo is more appealing than the other.
    Matt Laur, please do not post one of your wonderful dog portraits. The backgrounds are lovely because of their distance and the soft light on them.​
    Fine. How about a very non-lovely snapshot of a hot dog that just chased a woodchuck? How about a close-by background complete with shiny bits lit by the hideous direct output of a speedlight? I put a metal thermos and a collander on a dark chair, and took these two shots from the same position, under the same exact conditions, using two different prime lenses of the exact same focal length, opened up to the same aperture. Of course the over-lit specular junk in the background is distracting in both images. But you can't really say that it's pointless yammering to talk about the qualitative differences between the two, can you? It's not cultish, or fashion, or silly to examine whether or not you care about how a lens handles such stuff. In an actual photograph, taken of a real subject under more challenging circumstances (say, at a wedding reception) why not reach for the lens that does what you like, instead of what annoys?

    We talk about which lenses flare, which have worse CA, which distort more in which ways ... so why not also talk about which ones happen to make a busier hash of the OoF background? If it doesn't matter for a given person's photography, then it really doesn't matter. End of story. If you notice things that are more or less obvious depending on which tool you grab, why not be conscious of it? Personally, I'm not embarassed to use a short simple word when mentioning those artifacts (or the lack of them). Yes, I'm annoyed when people confuse the decision (or necessity) to use shallow DoF with "using bokeh." Drives me crazy. But I don't rant about it, I just use the word and address the underlying notion as appropriately as I can, hoping it will rub off a bit.

  13. If you want to try and be cool, you say "bokeh" for back ground blur. If you want to communicate in a modest and more realistic way you say "back ground blur".
  14. Thanks Matt for your post - I vastly prefer #2. People can call it whatever they want - the correct term to me is boekh and it is a property of the lens; specifically how the OOF disks are rendered (not only the highlights - though they are the most obvious ones that show the difference in bokeh). I consider bokeh reasonably well defined - the fact that people apply it incorrectly (for DOF) or inappropriately (any image with OOF highlights) isn't the fault of an imprecise definition but people not understanding what it means. BTW, it's nisen-bokeh not "Nissan bokeh".
  15. In the late 1970's I worked in the film laboratory industry in Hollywood (actually Burbank,CA). My boss, a retired cameraman, owned a set of lenses designed for Mitchell 35MM motion picture cameras. Super Baltars , I believe they were.
    When I asked about them one day, he told me these were from the 1950's and that they worth thousands of dollars. The reason: they were designed to have what he called "gentle" out of focus areas, at all apertures. Especially wide open.
    So what ever the out focus highlights smoothness or harshness is called, lens designers were considering it before most of us were born.
    PS: Matt, that's a damn handsome pooch!
  16. Sarah, I know that you're a genius, but your Bokeh filters are just brilliant!
    Just think if Capa had them, there would never have been a Zeiss vs. Leica discussion, the Sarah Von Zeiss Bokeh Filter would have turned the world upside down.
    Can I special order a Smiley Face Bokeh Filter?
    I am unworthy...
  17. Sarah, I read a photography book about 15 years ago that detailed a similar process, except it used different shapes than you've suggested, and was simply placed on the lens like a filter. I think they even recommended using black construction paper. For the mo2st dramatic effects, they recommended using a tinfoil background, shiny side toward the camera. The one shape that I specifically remember was of a candle taper with a flame. It was interesting, but I never tried it.
  18. Matt: Yes, the second image has slightly better blur. That's one syllable, or at least it is most places outside of Philadelphia, where we say 'buh-LUR'. (We also say 'NOR-thur-in' and 'SUTH-er-in'.) The difference is slight, but it's there--I was careful to say this in the OP. But image #1 seems to me to have slightly lower contrast on the dog, which is a plus in this situation.
    If you want exceptionally pleasing blur, of course, you need a Dallmeyer Petzval-formula lens from about 1895. It was designed to have a degree (often variable) of under-corrected spherical aberration. (I will kill the person who calls this UCSA.) Lovely images are possible with these.
  19. I neglected to add in my OP that I feel the Bokian Heresy is leading to the current horrid overuse of shallow DOF. I read quotes like, "You buy an 85mm f1.4 to use it wide-open most of the time."
  20. Dualing 50mm lenses. Non-imaginary differences.​
    Which one does the dog like?
    Great debate. The only time I become a Bokenian is when I achieve it.
    PS: Is a Dualing 50 the same as a stereoscopic set up? :)
  21. Depth of Field, F2.8. repeat until it sounds like Broke' record.
  22. mmm... lessee of what we're in denial... the fact that the statistically significant 95% sample of wallet-shaking camera owners who can't tell a good picture from their... kitchen knife have consistently pushed generations of good pension-anxious corporate engineers to build nothing but sharp sharp flat sharp flat flat sharp more sharp did i say sharp? (granted, include military-funded quest for reading the time off a cuban rocket expert's watch)

    anyway, henri answered this one à la sauvette back in 1952. no big war in the news. let's talk some bokeh please. shaken, pas stirred. eh, it's heavy on the syrah... wake up, mr. grenache. i know, i'm cheap tonite. what do you want? rhône season again
  23. All Bokeh is a newcomers buzzward for out of focus effects. Usage of the B word just means you are a newbie; a follower; a person who like preppie buzzwards for old stuff.
    In cine work; out of focus effects were noticed before any of us were born, As lenses became over-corrected say post WW2; many had a harsher out of focus effect; what detracts from a focus pull in a cine/movie scene.
    One can make up all sorts of goof words to look like a newbie.
    Go to where concrete is being floated; fine the oldest worker; make up new terms and tell him that he has never seen them before. It just makes you look like a greenhorn; cocky know it all.
    50 years ago in cine work it was well know that the some of the 1950's super fast lenses had a poorer out of focus look than others. The really nothing new at all. Folks did not need a BS term then. You might as well make up a new word for a hula hoop; or battery corrosion on a flashlight; or just notice that cars have alternators.
    Bokeh is like if somebody from Key West moves to Canada and discovers; snow. They can make up new names' and "discover" what folks noticed 10,000 + years ago. Usage of the B word just means folks are poor observers; or cater to new buzzwords for eons old stuff.
    Folks who have shot for 40 years and cannot tell poor versus great out of focus areas probably would not notice if their wife dyed her hair day glow orange; or if a image has clutter like cigar ashes; or if folks eyes are closed; it points to not being aware.
    The comical thing is that the folks who coined the B word are from the country that produced the worse lenses for out of focus looks. They sweated 2D lens test chart data; and ignored the old masters total concern; shooting actual images.
    It is like if they chased a spec to make a better violin; by ignored the subtle things that make a tool great.
    ****One is had pressed to find a pre WW2 lens with a poor out of focus look; the masters actually shot real images too; besides just tracing rays for 5 to 10 years.
    In movie work; I tested a bunch of lenses for 16mm for out of focus effects back in the 1960's; it was not anything new then.
    In a focus pull in a movie; the director wants the pull from actor A to actor B; with the least distraction of crappy out of focus stuff. A poor lenses means the crap competes with the actors; a total moron can seen this. This was understood eons ago; one reduced lighting to reduce the distractions.
    "distractions" are not as noticeable to still folks because they are less aware.
    It is probably safe to say that in movie work folks are more aware; the burn rate is MASSIVE in film and crew costs; many many thousands of bucks per hour.
    In much still image work; folks are less aware. Less folks notice "stuff"; ie clutter; the subtle things.
    Using a lens with a better out of focus look in movies often involves an older lens; not corrected overly; one that has a pleasing look with 3D images.

    ***ALOT*** of stuff from the Pre Ww2 era is like this; ie microphones; audio amps; speakers; muscial instruments.
    Many folks will never "get this"; the C student (microphone, lens, etc) is better than their beloved A student that is tested around narrow specs they worship.
    Folks have been taking images of 3D objects since the beginning of photography. It really has only been since post WW2 that this overcorrected lenses came out; that often have a poorer/harsher out of focus look.
    Since it took still chaps 40 to 50 years to "discover" out of focus looks; maybe still folks will "discover" lighting too? :) :)
    It was well known to use a poorer lens 40 to 50 years ago to create discord in the out of focus areas in a film. The bad guy lurking in the background was in the miss mash of crummy out of focus effects.
    This was taught the UCLA film stuff in the 1960's; but some still folks today cannot see it; nor the woman's day glow orange Afro with day glow pink hot pants.
    Each one of us has different talents. Some folks cannot tell a Nikon F from a F2; or a Zorki from a Leica.
  24. Help us, Obi-Mike Johnston; you're our only hope.
  25. The term "boke" has been used in print for almost 50 years.
    I find newbies have no problem asking about the concept and then learning from the answers given as to what the term means. They can then chose to apply the concept to their photography or not. But at least they have an understanding.
    The problem is with the "Elmers" who think they need to answer every question without understanding the basic concept.
    It is okay to not understand every photographic term. Just use this thread to learn once and for all what a specific term means. There is no need to disparage everyone else in the world who actually understand the concept.
  26. Be careful, Lex. If you render Mike Johnston out of focus, he will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.

    And, Nick: The dog likes the first one. Why? Because that one's from a screw-driven AF lens, and when I tell the camera to focus it, it makes more interesting noises. Dogs like interesting noises, but don't really care at all about quality-of-background-blur-eh.

    Speaking of blur-eh, Les: there's a reason I don't just use the word "blur" when the discussion is about the OoF qualities usually being rehashed. Blur overlaps too readily with subject and/or camera motion blur. To make the distinction, you have to add those extra syllables ("quality of the background blur"). The irony, of course, is that until you started this thread, it had been many weeks since I had any reason to use the B word. As usual, ranting to make people stop doing something just makes it worse!

    Kelly: Whew! I've been called a lot of things, but never a preppie. I mean, never that. Though I have met a polo horse, and do actually know someone named Muffy.
  27. Matt, I was trying to visualize a hot dog chasing a chipmunk, you really had me psyched. My fantasy was broked when you were talking about a dog that was hot.
  28. Except, MDiM, this was a woodchuck. Sort of like a chipmunk, but more like 35 pounds. With big teeth.

    Here's one of its spawn from this spring:

    Of course, I'm mostly posting this image so that we can talk about the OoF blur rendered by the 70-200/2.8 with a TC17EII. Pay no attention to that large tree-climbing rodent.
  29. How much bokeh could that tree rat chuck? I mean, if it could chuck nebulous concepts...
  30. Matt, I really wish you had P'shopped in a beer stein in his right paw and a cig in his mouth. It would have placed him in North Carolina?
    Here is POOFBA (an acronym for a bunch of words that have nothing to do with bokeh) photo that I like. Shot with the Elmarit M gog'd 135 at 2,8 at minimum distance of about 9 feet (K64). I like the focus transition. Even though the thread started as a semi maybe tongue in cheek rant, I learned a few things.
    OT, the modern term Analog for a film camera is the most idiotic renaming of an object of all time. That makes Bokeh sound intelligent, and the reason I will never join APUG (A Pug is a dog).
  31. You call that brokeh? I can almost recognize shapes. True brokeh lenses emit 100% unidentifiable substances and elicit gaseous emissions of hyperbole from brokehnauts.
    It's brokehlicious!
  32. I can accept old wine in new bottles, but do I really have to I think. I could be learning blue screen and green screen while studying creamy bokeh, and how to get up the bokeh mountain.. If the manufacturers want to put out more blades in their irises and they can do it, I say go for it. Advertise it to the suckers and charge more... I just don't think there is anything real behind the term "creamy bokeh." It is an illusion, more snake oil, so I agree with our friend, Les OP, and have said so a couple times. Like "organic" or "heart healthy" in the food pantry. ( And then, spinning off with free association on wunderwords re art stuff, there is the phrase "post modern" I see a lot lately. What the hell does that mean, modern is modern, what is post modern. Is there going to be a post post modern.. I guess I am the last man standing to not know or get that one, and what is shameful I suppose, I just don't give a damn..( I may not qualify to post again in the Pof P sorry about that.)

    Why do I need to care is my argument so I will do something else to pass the time. Meditate with Marcus Aurelius. Something else I am suppose to 'control' for I gather?.
    Yet, I have enough cats to juggle already and we all do. And there are a couple gerbils in the wings waiting their turn. to get a spin..
  33. The original post makes me think of this paragraph from one of Mike Johnston's (the person who coined the term, afaik) columns on the subject:
    One of the curious aspects of the phenomenon for me was that some people then, and some even now, respond to the idea scornfully or even angrily. Is this some sort of insistence on conformity, as if you are supposed to look at certain parts of pictures and not others?​
    Seems the OP is one of those people :)
    PS: I fully agree with Matt's post.
  34. Out of focus backgrounds are overused. Even if it's out of focus it still needs to work as part of a 2-dimensional composition (photography being a 2-dimensional medium). And sorry Matt, while that's a good looking dog, the background objects and shapes don't fit, out of focus or not.
  35. david_henderson


    If people don't like discussions on bokeh, let them photograph maps
  36. Ray: it's supposed to be a bad photograph! I'm just pointing out that the differences between lenses - with respect to how the background is rendered when it's out of focus - isn't merely in the fevered imagination of breathless, hypnotized newbies. I used a bad composition and ugly light just to defang Les's insistance, in his OP, that I don't wave my hands and distract with some better-looking, purposeful photograph which might seduce the weak-willed for the wrong reasons. At least I think that's what Les was getting at!
  37. I like the bokeh in this image.
  38. Matt, if this site featured reputation points, I'd give you a couple. Nice post (referring of course to the one with the two dog pics).
    What's in fashion and what's stylish are different things.
  39. And in this one too.
  40. This is all bokeh - find a suitable branch, find another suitable branch, align with a third and defocus..with 300 f2.8 - more bokeh than you can shake a blurry stick at.
  41. Can we have a BOW photo contest and the winner could have a rose colored glasses icon by their name?
  42. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I'll jump in.
    To me it seems a shame to divide the image (oops... picture - image might sound too pretentious :) into strictly subject and background, associating bokeh with just the background rendition. Sure, in the pictures of the dog, the lens effects are most noticable in the background highlights but they also have a significant inpact on the parts of the dog that are just out of focus. Look at the edge along the dog's back.
    In the picture of the girl above, the lens's bokeh characteristics affect the background and left arm quite noticably but also affect her left cheek and eyelashes more subtly. I won't cop to obsessing about it but I do notice it.
  43. It's a good point, Timothy. That sort of stuff really jumps out at you if the subject is a person wearing patterned clothing, or perhaps sitting against a wicker chair. When the stuff that's rendered "nervously" is right next to the subject's face or some other important element, a lens as fidgety as the one in the top example can make a mess of it. Others will say, "just stop down and don't let that stuff go out of focus" - but that's not always possible, or desireable.

    If one bothers to look past the brighter specular junk I deliberately put in those examples, you'll also see that the linear shapes of the very out of focus chair also have some oddly sharp lines produced by the lens. Yes, you might be able to do some surgical softening in post, but in a complex scene, that can be a serious time waster. Again, everyone already knows whether any of this matters one bit, if at all or ever, to them personally.

    I'm beginning to think that most of the bokeh-chatter these days is started by people who are complaining about people talking about it. People who don't know what the word means will use it out of context ... but they also do the same thing with "rule of thirds," "f-stop," "fast lens," "low key," "lens distortion" (when they're really referring to the results of a change in perspective), and so on. This particular word just really seems to get under some folk's skin when it's used incorrectly, but I think a lot of other photographic concepts are abused more frequently, and in worse ways. But those tend to get a helpful straightening out by forum members, instead of the nearly religious fit of pique this one topic seems to generate. Or maybe I'm a just a little fuzzy on the subject (but in a creamy sort of way).
  44. At my age, I can get plenty of bokeh in any photo simply by taking off my glasses.
  45. Take a look at the over-use of bokeh in this political TV commercial. [Candidate or party opinion unimportant here.] This has got to be the worst use of blurred backgrounds ever.
    The problem in this video is that the supporting character in the video, the candidate's wife, is "giving focus", directing some attention to the candidate by looking in his direction. Her eyes, beyond the focus plane, become distracting. It's obvious: a very shallow depth of field was being used for effect; in this case, it backfired badly.
    The wife's eyes become distracting, almost psychotic. The video is a good example of a great time to just keep everything in regular focus patterns and not always try the fancy effects.
  46. I don't know, John. I think that the real lesson there is to not try out your new contact lenses during the production of your spouse's campaign ads.
  47. Matt, how on earth did you get your dog to wait for you and hold the exact same pose while you changed lenses! Geesh, I shoot one frame of my cat, and she's "outta there!"
  48. Brokeh is like indie music. It was cool when only the cool kids knew about it. Then and Pitchfork came along and ruined everything. Now the only way to make hip photos is to deliberately use nisen-bokeh... ironically.
  49. Michael, see Jay's post below yours. That method will work too, although not as well (particularly in the margins). It works best with a small lens (i.e. with tight lens groupings). It's a fun thing to play around with.
    Matt, your sample dog images illustrate differences in bokeh very well. It's worth saying, though, that the so-called "bad" bokeh that produces hard edges on specular highlights is sometimes "good." Sometimes, especially in night photography, well defined discs of light, rather than indistinct blobs, can add context to the picture and otherwise accentuate it. You've illustrated the difference between harsh bokeh (which I admit is almost always bad) and creamy bokeh. Somewhere inbetween is what I would call a neutral bokeh, illustrated by this holiday portrait taken with my Canon EF 100mm f/2.0:
    I've often thought it would be interesting to fade the edges of a cheap filter with a misting of black spray paint to try to create an "ultra-creamy" bokeh for other shooting situations. I never got around to trying it.
  50. Sarah: Notice that I wasn't harping so much on "good vs. bad," but rather on the fact that the differences are real, observable, repeatable, predictable, and thus something that a serious photographer may want to keep in mind while choosing a lens for a particular task.

    I've mentioned your same observation in other threads on this general topic. The way a lens handles OoF areas can be a huge factor in helping to convey the texture of that background. That's a creative choice. A sparkly, or wet, or shiny surface well out of focus and creamy-bokehed-to-death may actually come across as flat and lifeless, or fail to put the subject into the right context/environment. A lot of what makes a party atmosphere, or a glam location look somehow right can just plain disappear if the lens smudges every bit of that texture into a uniform blur.

    It's not that one is better than the other, it's that if you've got more than one lens to choose from for a task, it's one more thing to put into your thought process. And if we say that talking about it is nothing but Newbie Lens Fetish Fantasy Forum Frippery, then we're dismissing a real optical consideration as unimportant. And it may be unimportant for many people - or it could be central to a composition's success.

    By the way: how did I get the dog to hold that pose between lens changes for the example shots (other than the fact that I'm pretty quick at changing lenses)? One word: cheese (Manchego, in this case). Well, that and she's a pointer. I say "whoa!" and she's a statue, since that's in her DNA. And, she really will work for cheese.
  51. I thought that bokeh was a town in Florida.
  52. I suggest "Udentified Foggy Objects".
  53. Matt: I wasn't saying *you* were calling either one good or bad, but rather that most people consider creamy=good and harsh=bad, when that's not necessarily the case. As you say, they're just different. In your last post you're essentially stating my point better than I did. On the same subject, I've actually seen the dreaded donut bokeh of a mirror telephoto used to good effect, although I can't remember where.
  54. I suspect the creamy=good, harsh=bad judgment is because in the simple case where you use selective focus to direct the viewer to the sharp part of the frame, harsh bokeh can become sharp, high contrast distractions. So most of the time when you want a blurry background, you want creamy bokeh too. And that becomes one of those generalizations that just won't go away...
  55. Sarah, please let us, or at least me, know if you do find the image where donuts were put to good use other than in my belly.
  56. Perhaps also relevent to this Bokeh Mania thread, bokeh patterns say some interesting things about lens optics, and vice versa. As I understand it, a "perfect" lens with no spherical or chromatic aberrations and with perfect sharpness from corner to corner would have a perfectly neutral bokeh, similar to my 100/2. Both creamy and harsh bokeh patterns tend to be associated with spherical aberrations that can result in softness especially in the corners. There are a lot of "creamy bokeh" lenses that are popular for portraiture but that do not make the very best general purpose lenses. In this application the spherical aberrations are not a serious issue because (1) it's usually not desireable in portraiture to show every tiny pore and wrinkle, and (2) corner sharpness usually isn't very important. Thus an imperfect lens is often the perfect lens for a given application.
    Geesh, when will all this bokeh-madness stop?! (Apologies to the OP.)
  57. Sarah: Please stop citing perfectly sensible, real-life situations. You've disturbed the thread's entire Rant Feng Shui. :)
  58. Bad threads have thin DOF and very creamy bokeh -- focus too narrow. Good threads lack any qualitative bokeh and have extreme Depths of Field.
    This thread has no discernable bokeh!
  59. Mark, I agree, that's USUALLY the case. But as Matt and I point out, a creamy bokeh can also kill the mood of a photo in which glitter from lights or reflections in the background isn't a distraction, but rather an important part of the picture that sets a mood (e.g. in my holiday portrait).
    parv, I seem to recall the donut bokeh used to create an interesting, textury background, somewhat like this, except better implemented:
    Interesting, yes?
  60. Sarah, I agree with you -- I'm just trying to explain where the generalization comes from.
  61. Here is another one I like.
  62. Quoted from a very true statement espoused by Rant Feng Shui:
    Seldom does an event take place which is such an outrage that the silent majority stands up and demands action. But the silent majority is currently demanding that something be done about bokeh. One of my objectives for this letter is to step back and consider the problem of bokeh's op-ed pieces in the larger picture of popular culture imagery. If you read between the lines of bokeh's modes of thought, you'll honestly find that if bokeh truly wanted to be helpful, it wouldn't engage in the trafficking of human beings. Contrary to popular belief, bokeh is squarely in favor of tuchungism and its propensity to dismantle the family unit. This is so typical of bokeh: it condemns bigotry and injustice except when it benefits it personally.
    Before bokeh initiated a vigilantism flap to help promote its biased, hidebound scare tactics, people everywhere were expected to substitute movement for stagnation, purposive behavior for drifting, and visions of a great future for collective pettiness and discouragement. Nowadays, it's the rare person indeed who realizes that there is a problem here. A large, wishy-washy, pestiferous problem. Before I move on, I just want to state once more that I hate it when people get their facts utterly wrong. For instance, whenever I hear some corporate fat cat make noises about how we should all bear the brunt of bokeh's actions, I can't help but think that if I am correctly informed, bokeh's intellectual dishonesty, mismanagement of facts, and outright lies make choleric hooligans seem ready for sainthood, in comparison. In any case, it claims that I'm too crude to exercise all of our basic rights to the maximum. That claim illustrates a serious reasoning fallacy, one that is pandemic in its complaints. Then again, I have a practical plan for improving the state of education in this country. I propose that we get knowledgeable and well-trained teachers, equip them with syllabi filled with challenging texts and materials, and have them teach students that bokeh coins polysyllabic neologisms to make its plaints sound like they're actually important. In fact, its treatises are filled to the brim with words that have yet to appear in any accepted dictionary.
    Once one begins thinking about free speech, about morbid disgraceful-types who use ostracism and public opinion to prevent the airing of views contrary to their own pathological beliefs, one realizes that bokeh says that everyone who scrambles aboard the bokeh bandwagon is guaranteed a smooth ride. Whenever I hear such statements from bokeh I reel in disbelief. Does it really believe such morally crippled things? On the surface, it would seem to have something to do with the way that the best gauge of the value of my attitudes, the sincerity of my convictions, and the force of my will is the hostility I receive from malodorous palookas. But upon further investigation one will find that it's a serial exaggerator. If I were to be less kind, I'd say bokeh is a liar. Either way, its reason is not true reason. It does not seek the truth but only avaricious answers, self-satisfied resolutions to conflicts. I'd like to finish with a quote from a private e-mail message sent to me by a close friend of mine: "Bokeh's jackals allege, after performing shoddy research and utilizing threadbare scholarship, that a number of bokeh's adversaries are planning to make my worst nightmares come true".​
    'nuff said?
  63. O' Sarah, that was interesting indeed. Thanks.
  64. Tears off and passes to Lex a suitable supply of toilet paper.....(Made in.....ah......Korea)
  65. Lex, you have restored the universal balance between the forces of blur and clarity, the bokehntropy and sharpitects, ying and the yang, the rant and the ranteh.
  66. It is all about names. The exotic versus the mundane. Bokeh is exotic, asian, mysterious, nay? Here is an exercise to stretch the ole mind, similar to what Lex has offered in sense. Next time you see or are tempted to use the word bokeh, substitute another silly word for bokeh.
    Example. Someone suggested, in the context of rabid Mel Gibson's movies, that one substitute "dick" for " heart." (Braveheart becomes bravedick see what I mean..).
    When you are tempted to reply to " bokeh" comment , go ahead, say " dick" or something equally silly. We will have a contest for the silliest substitute, with a subscription to Ken's site. Yes, you can have an equal amount of fun with other substitutes. Be creatvive. Be silly. Let loose your inner woodchuck. cheers.
  67. But Gerry: you could say the same thing about all sorts of other commonly used, if (when you think about it) really obscure terms used in the photography world. How many people know why a century stand (a "c-stand") is called what it is (no, you may not google for the answer). And how many newbies mis-use that term, just like they might initially misuse "gobo?"

    To someone who's never used that word, "gobo" sounds potentially hip and possibly exotic. Certainly is easier than saying "one of those things that goes between the light and the set" - and it's now a common utterance in the lighting world, even though it's outside of common English vocabulary.

    The Japanese (from whom we have imported the word in question) have likewise adopted completely new (to them) collections of syllables that more or less resemble the English words from which they sprung (see "konpyūta" - on some of which at least a few no doubt highly amused Japanese folks are reading this thread rigfht now). Is it silly for them to have adopted such a word, going the other direction? Nah.
  68. I understand the word, the meaning,the result. Why is everybody else out of step or is it focus or is it..
  69. That settles it! I'm going back to just saying 'blur'.
  70. You know, now that I think about it ... I don't know if I've ever actually spoken that word, out loud, to another human being. Ever. That's unsettling. I'm trying to think back on several conversations that might have included that word, but they're all a blur. That's right, I said it.
  71. We talk about which lenses flare, which have worse CA, which distort more in which ways ... so why not also talk about which ones happen to make a busier hash of the OoF background? If it doesn't matter for a given person's photography, then it really doesn't matter. End of story. If you notice things that are more or less obvious depending on which tool you grab, why not be conscious of it? Personally, I'm not embarassed to use a short simple word when mentioning those artifacts (or the lack of them). Yes, I'm annoyed when people confuse the decision (or necessity) to use shallow DoF with "using bokeh." Drives me crazy. But I don't rant about it, I just use the word and address the underlying notion as appropriately as I can, hoping it will rub off a bit.​
    Well put and agreed. Your two examples from two lenses really demonstrate the point. The difference is in the lens, but such comments are not found in most lens reviews. Without side by side comparison of shots from different lenses. other images in this thread are missing the point.
  72. I've been taking photographs for 45 years and until a couple of years ago I'd never heard of bokeh, and do you know something, in the previous forty-odd years of taking photographs my ignorance of bokeh did not affect a single shot I took.
  73. Chris: really? In 45 years you never noticed how your lenses handle out of focus elements of the photograph? Ever? Or are you, also, fixating (here) on the word, and not the optical issues involved?
  74. Sarah: That is why Nikon (and I think Minolta) make/made soft-focus lenses. Nikon calls them DC (defocus control). They are basically imitations of the 19th century Dallmeyer lenses; you turn a ring to vary the amount of undercorrected spherical aberration. This causes objects behind the plane of clinical focus to 'smear', and have very soft blur circles. Great for (some)portraits but crappy for (most) landscapes.
    Matt: It's the mystical Ooh-Ooh nature that is tied (in a great many minds) to the term 'bokeh' that I am ranting about. If you just call it 'background blur', the same optical and aesthetic conditions apply, but it becomes no more than one part of an image, instead of a mania.
  75. But Les: I hear exactly the same over-the-top worshipfullness about (in no particular order):

    1) Certain recipes of carbon content in tripod legs. You can't achieve that cosmically precise shot of Half Dome unless your tripod (which has to collapse to the size of a fountain pen) has the same specific gravity as a properly stored 1968 Latour Figeac.

    2) The year when certain Bavarian mines were used to source the 5% of molybdenum that went into the alloy used for the rewind crank handle on a religiously important German camera. Man that was a good alloy batch - the Leica Glow surely was better that year.

    3) Specific film stock. Do I even need to mention the Kodachrome Kult's loopy romanticism?

    4) To say nothing of the Ooh-Ooh factor of the film v. digital discussions, right? There are more 16-year old indie herd members proclaiming their rebel-without-a-CMOS purity, and the "soul" they find in photographs made with film than there ever are newbies confused about and passingly obsessed about bokehshness.

    Here's why this issue is so present in forum discussions: Unlike years past when every beginner got a 35mm SLR and a 50/1.8 lens, you've got legions of enthusiastic beginners finding themselves with kit lenses that, at pleasant portrait lengths, can't open up past f/5.6. They then surf around and see all sorts of eye-catching wedding and portrait shots that have the three-dimensionality purchased with more control over DoF. This brings up the issue of which fast lens to purchase, and the inquirer's express interest in a nicely blurred background inevitably - as it should - causes at least someone to mention that not every lens looks the same in that regard. Just like not every lens is as sharp in the corners, or as free of CA.

    So why not so much obsession with corner sharpness (outside of the landscape discussions, where it's a matter of heresy to imply it's not critical), but instead with the OoF behavior of the lens? Because so many people are asking how they can control the background better than they're able to with their slow kit lens. They're not asking how to get the corners sharp in a portrait.

    So we're back to whether the critics are grousing about the word, or about the fact that the topic (of the optical quality of a shallow DoF image) comes up at all, and why.
  76. Les, sorry to have had so much fun with your thread. I guess I fired the first shot. ;-) I'm with Matt on this one, though. Even though it's annoying to see the term misused, misapplied, and generally abused so frequently, it's still a legitimate term used to describe a very real and often important property of lenses. I admit I groan when I see someone marvel about the beautiful bokeh in an image with absolutely no blur in it, and I resist the urge to reply, "Where?" However, the solution to the terminology abuse problem isn't to tell people not to use the word, but rather to educate them as to what the term means and as to what the implications are of different characteristics of bokeh.
    BTW, thanks for explaining the soft focus lens. I never knew how it worked -- never really looked into it, admittedly. I had always assumed it was just a bad lens marketed as something exotic and special. ;-)
  77. There's a useful way to think about blur, but I need to enlist help from fellow photo.netters. I once came across a term used by cinemaphotographers that described the desirable lens quality of transitioning to out-of-focus in such a way that out-of-focus subject matter remained reasonably identifiable. Was it "identifiable blur"? Any cinemaphotographers out there who can enlighten me?
    I like this way of thinking about out-of-focus blur because lenses that have this quality are lenses that are typically described as having good bokeh. Cinemaphotographers frequently change focus, and for the purposes of story-telling (lot alone aesthetics) it's easy to see why they would want identifiable blur, or whatever it's called.
    Bokeh can be hard to pin down conceptually (hard, not impossible). Blur that smoothly transitions without unduly disrupting the ability to identify out-of-focus areas strikes me as a very desirable quality. I have lenses that do this reasonably well, and a number that do not.
  78. Waldo, I don't know the term you're searching for from the cinematography world, but you might be interested in reading Harold Merklinger's articles on the object field method of estimating depth of field. I think they were published in Shutterbug, but they're also available online. Merklinger discusses this very concept from an object field standpoint. I don't think it has much to do with a lens' bokeh properties, per se, so much as the relationship of object size with aperture, focal length, and focus. In any event, the object field method can be used to determine the "physical" size of a blur in the object field (e.g. the diameter of the blur on someone's face, as refereced to the physical size of the face). Put a more useful way, once you know the physical size of the blur you need to impose on some object (e.g. a person's face), to achieve a certain objective (e.g. to make that person recognizeable as a human being, but to conceal the person's identity), you can estimate what aperture will give you that blur, so long as you know the distance of focus, distance of the object, and focal length of the lens. It's a bit hard to wrap your head around it at first, but once you know how it works, it's quite quick and easy to apply, with no computations necessary.
  79. Okay. You guys pushed me too far. Put THIS in your circle of confusion! You'll be seeing 'bokeh' everywhere after you read it, because your EYES will be totally GLAZED OVER! (Fascinating article, actually, in which the author promises to avoid formulae, and then introduces about a dozen of them.)
  80. I'll chime in, briefly. Matt, thank you for sensical commentary. I don't know whether I'm a newbie or not- I'm only 32 but I began shooting an old FE almost 20 years ago- I find the interest in bokeh one interesting way of discussing an image. I never quite got what riles folks up about it. New terms or passe terms aren't good or bad, nor are they necessarily a redundant term for something cavemen already discussed rendering it stupid. People play with language all the time, play with image concept- both in production and discussion- all the time, often coming right back around to things discussed in previous generations and occasionally branching into something new. It's part of human living, let's enjoy it a little!
  81. P.S. I also don't mean to imply that I don't think this conversation is interesting- thanks for putting thought in to it, Les. Let's just not freak out (in a nervous, disgustingly sharp and contrasty bokeh kind of way) over new trends or not new trends. It's our quircky human way of discovering new ways of doing things. Although I agree that food magazines are poison to the sharpness of my mind. Like f64 sharp.
  82. FYI: The good stuff in that Zeiss paper is on pages 35-44, if you don't want to plow through the whole thing.
  83. And while we're at it, how about you check out the 'bokeh' on this one! Sure a lot of 'bokeh' there, huh? <makes rude sexist noises>
  84. Don't do it! If you skip right to page 35, you'll miss all of the character development, the entire bank robbery plot twist, and the whole bit with the leprechaun, the unicorn, and the Certified Public Accountant.

    Actually it IS an interesting document to glance over, and even actually read. What's most important is that you've got a genuinely nerdy German optical engineering guy happily acknowledging that different lens configurations and designs produce readily different-looking bokeh (a word he's quite content to use). He talks about the trade-offs between that pleasing OoF background and the other artifacts that result (less appealing foreground elements out of focus, and other bits of bad karma that come with wanting that creamy background). What you really take away from it is that lens design is a balancing act, and that there's a good reason you choose different optical recipes for different jobs.

    And of course, if you can't articulate your thoughts about those differences, you'll have a harder time talking about what tools are right for what look/task. Which brings us back to people talking about bokeh. Perhaps too much, but there it is. It's a feature of the lens, and thus a feature in the results you get with that lens. Like everything else about the behavior of a given lens, it's only important to people that give a damn - which may or may not include the image's actual audience.

    And Les: I can't believe you'd resort to a gratuitous shot of a young woman's very nice earring just to make a point.
  85. A thread like this makes it easier to understand why the U.N. is the way it is....:)
  86. Looks like a great article, Les! Thanks! (Now I have to work up the courage to dive into it!)
  87. To someone who's never used that word, "gobo" sounds potentially hip and possibly exotic. Certainly is easier than saying "one of those things that goes between the light and the set" - and it's now a common utterance in the lighting world, even though it's outside of common English vocabulary.​
    So, you got me there, Matt. You make a good case, still, I think we got a better idea, Matt. My focus group came up with a more apt noun. ( And yes, I scoff no more. I give.) But yet, argue for a more 'westernized' word.Not kanji based transliteration.
    Call this visual effect a "magoo." Hey. It's cute. It fits. It's definitely OOF! Why not.
  88. Yes Les' shot has the most exquisite bokeh :)
  89. There is just no way to stop the bokeh mania. It's out of control..
  90. Oh no it took over my PC where is all this bokeh coming from...
  91. Bokeh please leave me alone take over someone elses photographs.....
  92. Oh no! It's attacking helpless Blondes!
    (Taken with the evil 50 f1.4 AF Nikkor--non G!)
  93. I think the line is getting blurred!
    Just not sure anymore...need to re-establish a sharp cleavage between each side.
    All I can say is, don't judge a bokeh by its cover.
  94. Mark, I agree, that's USUALLY the case. But as Matt and I point out, a creamy bokeh can also kill the mood of a photo in which glitter from lights or reflections in the background isn't a distraction, but rather an important part of the picture that sets a mood (e.g. in my holiday portrait).
    parv, I seem to recall the donut bokeh used to create an interesting, textury background, somewhat like this, except better implemented:
    Interesting, yes?​
    -> Sarah, you seem to have missed the point of the picture!
    The idea was to highlight the donut bokeh and I guess the picture did exactly that.
    Now, coming back to some nice bokeh, check this one out - taken by the same guy but with a different lens:
  95. Now here is a lovely image. Does it have bokeh or just plain blur?
  96. Les, I'm not sure if your question is serious, but I'm going to answer anyway...
    It has bokeh, but you can't see it. All photos have bokeh, just like all lenses have a focal length. It's not something you can have a lot of or a little of. It's just there.
  97. Les, that's like asking about the ride in a car that's going over a bumpy road. Talking about the felt quality of the ride (by virtue of the suspension) is like talking about the bokeh. Physical properties of the car (or the lens) manifest themselves in a particular, qualitative experience that may or may not really matter. If you're on the way to the hospital to give birth, a slightly tighter or sloppier suspension may not really matter to you. If you're comparing two cars, and trying to decide which one you want to take on a long trip, or use off road, you might stop to weigh even the small differences in the suspensions.

    You can say, "was the ride bumpy, smooth, boaty, or jittery?" ... but it doesn't make much sense to ask "did riding in the car have a feel to it?" Of course it did. Whether or not some people care, or have the words to express the nuances of it are a separate matter. So of course there's "bokeh" in that (fantastic!) photo. But because of the focal length, distances, background, and quality of light ... the qualitative nature of that lens's behavior in that regard is a vanishing issue because the logistics of the shot produce so much blur.
  98. "It has bokeh..."​
    My brain hurts from the quantification of a quality.
  99. Fair enough, Lex. That was poor writing on my part... It was also incorrect of me to say "all photos have bokeh". Bokeh is a property of the lens, not of the photo.
  100. It's okay, Mark, my brain was already boked today.
  101. Based on this post in another sites forum I would say the battle has been lost:
    "Hi Canon experts!
    I'd like to get a wide angle with really nice bokeh but dont have a lot of extra cash to spend. So for under 400 what would be good choices? I have a T1i with the kit lens. Mostly interested in taking landscape pictures if that helps.
  102. wide angle...
    really nice bokeh...
    for landscapes...
    It's a perfect conflation of bokeh and boke. Maximum density achieved. The internet is over.
  103. And THAT, my friends, is what I was ranting about. "Ooh! Bokeh! Must have it!"
  104. When I see a post/question like that, Les, I simply try to straighten them out. Just like I'd try to help someone who hears that they need a lens that goes to f/32 for extra sharpness on landscapes with their smaller-format camera, or who's under the impression they need to buy "digital filters" in order to achieve truly good looking portraits. It's not surprising that such ignorance or misunderstanding gives you a rash ... but I wonder if all of the other stuff that's just as bad or worse does the same?

    I see far more ill-informed (bordering on crazy-sounding) musing about shooting high school sports or piano recitals than I do about the B word. You want flagrantly mis-used words coupled with a huge disconnect from what really matters and why? Read the threads about copyright issues and model releases - the ones with crazy don't-get-it phrasology ("Will I need a copyright release to photograph a chef's special dessert served as part of a wine tasting event at a county fair? I don't think he was born in this country...").

    Rant away, but ... it seems a curiously low profile offense at which to raise your hackles, when there are so many more (and larger, and more real-life meaningful) to choose from. How often do you help out in the beginners forum? Check it out, for some perspective on just how minor the whole bokeh thing really is.
  105. But, Matt, the internets are fueled by rant. An interweb without rant is like Monstropolis without scream.
  106. sorry, my comp rebooted and re-posted the same text as above :/ since i cant delete the post, im hanging this text in here

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