One of my photography students told me recently that he wanted to start exploring the potential of 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.
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.
With those criteria established, I can appreciate a photographer wanting to explore it. That can be tough when starting out, since photography can be a fairly pricey mistress, and since most cameras bought by most photographers come with a so-called “kits lens” or two, lenses that are not noted for large apertures or dreamy bokeh.
I’ve got a few lenses that can be coaxed into giving me beautiful bokeh, so I thought it would be fun to get some of them out and do a couple of comparison shots. The players in tonight’s shootout are the current AF 70-200mm f/2.8 Tamron, the AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 of the mid-1990s era, and the Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 of 1985 vintage. I went into this assignment knowing all three lenses fairly well, and knowing that at one time or another I’ve made images with all three that exhibited the kind of bokeh that worked for what I was shooting.
The examples below were made by focusing on an old camera, with some Christmas lights about 8 feet behind it. Each lens was at its maximum aperture, which is the sweet spot where we can find the real bokeh potential in each lens.
As always, comparisons like this beg the question, “which is best,” but any answer would be a vast oversimplification. It is better to ask, “which look do I like?” or “does this bokeh express what I want to communicate?” In fact, as long as you ask someone else which look or feel or style is best, your art isn’t ready for a new lens, and can best be improved not by buying something, but by learning something and doing something.
To paraphrase an instructor in another field: what can I do to my camera to help me shoot better? Wear it out.