More Bokeh Talk

This is my ED-IF 200mm f/2.0 Nikkor of 1985 vintage. It is the closest to perfect lens for bokeh that I own.
This is my ED-IF 200mm f/2.0 Nikkor of 1985 vintage. It is the closest to perfect lens for bokeh that I own.

Trends in photography, like all trends in society, come and go. One trend in recent years that I am glad is finally, at least from my observations, waning is obsession with bokeh. I have talked about it a time or two, but I became interested in exploring it some more late last week when a fellow photographer was in town and at my suggestion he borrowed my 200mm f/2.0 ED-IF Nikkor, a lens with notable ability to render good bokeh.

Anyone who reads the photography press or photography forums on the internet knows that “bokeh” is a variously-pronounced Japanese term that means “blur” or “haze.” It is used to describe the character of the out-of-focus region of images. Also as the press and forums point out, bokeh is not how much the out-of-focus areas are blurred, but how the out-of-focus area looks. We talk about lenses having “good” or “beautiful” bokeh, or “bad”, “cluttered”, or “ratty” bokeh.

It’s a fairly subtle concept. About a year ago, one of my students found some images on the internet of Christmas lights that had been shot at a wide-open aperture and deeply out of focus. The image was part of a blogger’s “365 Bokeh” project, in which he challenged himself to shoot an image illustrating bokeh every day for a year. My student liked this image a lot, and wanted to create similar pieces in her own photography.

This image was made tonight outside our house with a Nikkor 18-55mm "kit" lens at 55mm wide open at f/5.6. This is about as good as it gets in terms of bokeh with a kit lens.
This image was made tonight outside our house with a Nikkor 18-55mm “kit” lens at 55mm wide open at f/5.6. This is about as good as it gets in terms of bokeh with a kit lens.

I explained the basics to her: to include flattering or beautiful bokeh in your image, pick a subject that will benefit from a clean background, pick a lens that exhibits good bokeh, and shoot at a relatively large aperture. She took a picture or two, showed it to me on the back of the camera, then asked, “Okay, now how do I get bokeh.”

Ugh. Bokeh isn’t on or off. It’s a word that describes a quality. Every image with an out-of-focus area has bokeh. Thinking back on that question, I should have said, “Practice.”

Bokeh isn’t a goal. It’s a tool in the toolbox, one that allows an image to take advantage of a clean, smooth, velvety background, one that enhances the subject and the image. You don’t make pictures of bokeh itself, at least not if you are searching for meaningful imaging.

Many of the forum participants who talk about bokeh are either asking what lens to buy that will give them great bokeh, or talking about what great bokeh they get from a lens they bought. Not many of them are talking about the concepts and emotions they shared with said bokeh. That’s the rub, really, with a photographic tool like a lens that will produce beautiful bokeh. Do we use it to create images that enhance the human experience, or do we use it to show off that we get really great bokeh?

I made this image of salt and pepper shakers today to illustrate the lovely, though slightly flawed, bokeh that my 200mm f/2.0 can produce. But this image is only an illustration. It isn't the ultimate goal of being able to make beautiful bokeh.
I made this image of salt and pepper shakers today to illustrate the lovely, though slightly flawed, bokeh that my 200mm f/2.0 can produce. But this image is only an illustration. It isn’t the ultimate goal of being able to make beautiful bokeh.
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1 Comment

  1. I think many people say ‘bokeh’ when they mean ‘narrow depth of field’. (I know I used to confuse the definitions early on.)

    “Practice” is definitely the way to achieve better bokeh.

    For narrow depth-of-field, several factors come into play:

    1. Focal length: longer is better
    2. Camera-to-subject distance: shorter is better
    3. Subject-to-background distance: longer is better
    4. Aperture: larger (lower f-number) is better

    Often, just accomplishing two or three of those will give the shooter what they want, and then sometimes ‘bokeh’ is a happy accident afterward. 🙂

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