Yes, It’s Bokeh

I made this image of necklaces for sale at the Pontotoc County Free Fair a couple of years ago with my AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 at f/2.8. I consider this image to exhibit "good" bokeh.
I made this image of necklaces for sale at the Pontotoc County Free Fair a couple of years ago with my AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 at f/2.8. I consider this image to exhibit “good” bokeh.

It’s not every day that I get to experience really terrible bokeh in the viewfinder.

Bokeh, as I have discussed before, and with which the internet is obsessed, is originally a Japanese word meaning “blur” or “haze,” is used to describe the quality (not the amount) of the out-of-focus portions of an image. About a grazillion factors influence bokeh, but the most significant is optical design of a lens.

I shot this image of a Bradford pear tree in bloom with my 1993-era AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. As you can see, the bokeh is a bit disappointing.
I shot this image of a Bradford pear tree in bloom with my 1993-era AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. As you can see, the bokeh is a bit disappointing.
I made this image in Santa Fe, New Mexico in October 2014, with my iPhone 5. Many photographers are under the misapprehension that cameras in cell phones don't produce images with bokeh, but in fact all images that have out-of-focus elements have bokeh, just not necessarily appealing.
I made this image in Santa Fe, New Mexico in October 2014, with my iPhone 5. Many photographers are under the misapprehension that cameras in cell phones don’t produce images with bokeh, but in fact all images that have out-of-focus elements have bokeh, just not necessarily appealing.

Bokeh, like anything that falls into the hands of the soulless nitpickers and techno-fanboys of the internet, can become a pointless goal unto itself. The rest of us, who have a reason for taking pictures other than showing off our knowledge of specifications and resolution charts, keep bokeh in the toolbox of photography, and bring it out when we need it to help us express ourselves.

But back to the topic at hand: seeing bad bokeh right there in the viewfinder. I was shooting the final home game of the year for the softball team at the college last month with my broken Tamron 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3. I carry this lens as a lightweight second to my AF Nikkor 300mm f/4, with which I shoot the bulk of my action photos. At one point, I anticipated a play at first base, which was quite close to me, so I switched to the camera with the Tamron on it and focused on the first baseman…

This is what I saw: a bluntly obvious example of terrible, crosseyed bokeh. Don't believe me? Look at the word "soft" in the next image...
This is what I saw: a bluntly obvious example of terrible, crosseyed bokeh. Don’t believe me? Look at the word “soft” in the next image…
As you can see, this is the real appearance of the word "softball" at the college field; when it's out of focus, it is a bokeh nightmare.
As you can see, this is the real appearance of the word “softball” at the college field; when it’s out of focus, it is a bokeh nightmare.
I broke this 18-200mm Tamron lens while shooting my grandson's Christening in Baltimore in 2011. Abby and I both use newer lenses in this class for travel and event photography, so this one got relegated to a bang-around lens for me at work.
I broke this 18-200mm Tamron lens while shooting my grandson’s Christening in Baltimore in 2011. Abby and I both use newer lenses in this class for travel and event photography, so this one got relegated to a bang-around lens for me at work.

The reason lenses like this tend to have the photography world’s worst bokeh is that they are designed to do it all: be light, small, easy to use, wide-angle , telephoto, and finally, and maybe most importantly, cheap. Lenses with better bokeh tend to be best at just that. Lenses like my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, is not light or small or a versatile zoom or cheap, but lays down beautiful bokeh when used at close range with large apertures.

I have a buddy at work who sometimes uses the word “bokeh-y” to talk about some of my work. The term isn’t exactly correct; what he’s seeing is the use of selective focus with large-aperture lenses.

He’s toying with the idea of buying a AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, which wouldn’t be my first choice, but is cheap, and can deliver nice bokeh when using selective focus.

This is the setup for the image below.
This is the setup for the image below.

I have a another buddy, Scott Andersen, who just bought an AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, and he seems to love it, though I am seeing a slightly ratty bokeh in some of the images he posts. I would love to take a close look at his files one of these days and divine if I am seeing it correctly.

The downside to the 50mm f/1.8 (at least the two examples I use) is that it’s not very sharp at f/1.8, which is why I think the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 is a better choice.

I made this image this morning to show the powerful selective focus capability and the pleasing bokeh exhibited by the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8. To make the in-focus details of this image look sharp, though, required quite a bit of unsharp mask.
I made this image this morning to show the powerful selective focus capability and the pleasing bokeh exhibited by the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8. To make the in-focus details of this image look sharp, though, required quite a bit of unsharp mask.
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2 Comments

  1. I use both a 50mm f/1.8 and a 35mm f/1.8 for work and personal photography, and while I’m glad to have the fast 50 the 35 is without doubt the go-to lens. I probably use it more than anything else and have always been pleased with its out-of-focus areas. I also like the 18-55mm kit lens that came with my camera, quite versatile, sharp and has a nice wide-angle-ish look. It isn’t as fast but it still gets the job done. Bokeh is fun to consider but has never been the sole purpose of any of my photography.

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