The Word “Bokeh” Has Been Completely Usurped

As much as I love making beautiful images, and as much as I love using selective focus, I don't say that this image has "lots of bokeh," because it doesn't.
As much as I love making beautiful images, and as much as I love using selective focus, I don’t say that this image has “lots of bokeh,” because it doesn’t.

As someone who appreciates language and its correct, accurate use, I am aggravated to conclude that the photography community has completely usurped and perverted the word “bokeh.”

Old lenses like this 1960s-era Minolta 28mm have very different looks than today's computer-designed lenses.
Old lenses like this 1960s-era Minolta 28mm have very different looks than today’s computer-designed lenses.

Originally, this term, sometimes loosely translated from Japanese as “blur” or “haze,” referred to the quality of out-of-focus portions of a photograph. Thus, it didn’t describe how far out of focus something was, nor did it describe how much of a photo was out of focus.

It’s been vernacularized. Since we live in a society of abbreviators, it has become a catch-all abbreviation for any occasion we use or see selective focus or shallow depth of field.

“Wow. Look at all that bokeh!”

“You need a 50mm f/1.2 to get more bokeh!”

“I’m a bokeh slut.”

“This lens is a bokeh beast.”

“This tree’s leaves look like bokeh.”

Selective focus is an excellent tool in the photographic toolbox, but it should never be a goal into itself.
Selective focus is an excellent tool in the photographic toolbox, but it should never be a goal into itself.

We’re all using this term incorrectly, which continues to erode the beauty and precision of language. A good analog for it might be “LOL,” which once stood for “Laughing Out Loud,” but which today is a word unto itself. LOL.

I used the "portrait" mode on my iPhone 7 Plus. It creates a false selective focus with a false bokeh, which I guess we could call fokeh.
I used the “portrait” mode on my iPhone 7 Plus. It creates a false selective focus with a false bokeh, which I guess we could call fokeh.

Another enduring myth of photography is the sensor size myth. We see it every day: photographers buy large sensors because they have “better bokeh.” In fact, sensors have  no effect on bokeh at all, and their effect on selective focus is thoroughly misunderstood. Depth of field is the result of aperture, focal length and magnification. The reason it is so prevalently associated with sensor size is that with a larger sensor, you have to move closer to the subject to fill the frame with the same lens. Moving closer makes the depth of field shallower, but the sensor size does not.

Maybe what fools most of the people most of the time is that photographers don’t move closer and end up with more of the image out of focus, as in the following examples…

This is an image made with my d700 - a so-called "full-frame" camera (a 36x24mm sensor) - with my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 at f/2. Compare it to...
This is an image made with my d700 – a so-called “full-frame” camera (a 36x24mm sensor) – with my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 at f/2. Compare it to…
... this image made with the same lens, same aperture, same distance, same ISO, same lighting. The only difference is the size of the sensor - the Nikon D80 has a so-called "cropped" sensor (24mm x 15mm). Look at the out-of-focus area. See any difference?
… this image made with the same lens, same aperture, same distance, same ISO, same lighting. The only difference is the size of the sensor – the Nikon D80 has a so-called “cropped” sensor (24mm x 15mm). Look at the out-of-focus area. See any difference?

Sorry full-framiacs.

This is all part of a sour evolution of photography from mastery to money. Not only do the camera and lens manufacturers want you to believe their myths, they encourage consumers to espouse these myths, and they do. Not only do we hear a lot of “should I buy XYZ?” but also a frightening amount of “you should but XYZ.” It’s an unambiguous victory for commerce, but a crippling obstacle for artistry.

These are plums I grew this spring. I photographed them with my AF-S 35mm f/1.8 at f/2.0.
These are plums I grew this spring. I photographed them with my AF-S 35mm f/1.8 at f/2.0.

Imaging Today and in the Film Era

This 2001 Ilford FP-4 Plus film image of a mesa in northwestern New Mexico is an excellent example of the kind of tonal quality film can produce.
This 2001 Ilford FP-4 Plus film image of a mesa in northwestern New Mexico is an excellent example of the kind of tonal quality film can produce.

Sometimes when I remember events in my life from when I was younger, I wonder why I didn’t take as many photos as I imagine I should have. I am, after all, a professional photographer, and I should have been the one to document that ski trip in 1990, that nighttime glow-in-the-dark Frisbee game, that beautiful 105mm lens I sold.

So why didn’t I take all those pictures back in the film era?

  • It wasn’t like that back then. Digital photography, particularly smartphone photograph, has created the misperception that we all need a thousand photos of our lives every day, and if you aren’t photographing every meal and every sunset, you are a flip-phone neo-Luddite.
  • Shooting lots of frames equalled expensive processing, or in my case, laborious darkroom work. It’s easy to forget that one of digital photography’s most revolutionary aspects is its affordability. You can shoot 10 or 100 or a 1000 images, with very little added cost. Have you priced a roll of film and the price to get it developed lately? It was expensive in 1990, too.
  • I actually was taking a lot of pictures. If I shot 20 frames at a friend’s birthday party, his wife might have shot three frames with her point-and-shoot.

I often feel this way about the slim number of electives I took in high school. I see kids today active in sports, farm and ranch, yearbook, web development, cheer, and more, and wonder why I wasn’t. But, it wasn’t like that back then. My school allowed one non-academic elective, and for me, it was yearbook.

Before there was Lightroom, there was the light table, which allowed us to look at our film and edit it.
Before there was Lightroom, there was the light table, which allowed us to look at our film and edit it.

I want to marry these thoughts with a trend I have been observing recently…

This is a film scan from December 1999. At that time in our newspaper's history, we were able to use color photos a couple of times a week, and they required a little bit of planning, so I at a basketball game I might shoot one roll of color film alongside eight rolls of black-and-white.
This is a film scan from December 1999. At that time in our newspaper’s history, we were able to use color photos a couple of times a week, and they required a little bit of planning, so I at a basketball game I might shoot one roll of color film alongside eight rolls of black-and-white.

There is a huge hipster/millenial move right now toward shooting film. I certainly find any efforts to amp our creativity to new levels very laudable. I don’t, however, think shooting film is the way I want to go, and here’s why…

  • If you are scanning your film to create a digital product, you are shooting digitally. The only way to shoot completely analog is to develop your film and print your film using an enlarger. Doing otherwise creates an unnecessary and wasteful step in creating a digital image.
  • Photographers are feeling out-competed by a crowded market, and want to step aside and be thought of as geniuses or magicians again. I feel this, too. Rank amateurs are learning to photograph the Milky Way by watching YouTube tutorials, taking that away from professionals.
  • When digital arrived on the scene in the late 1990s, it was the solution to all the problems we faced with film. With film, grain was obvious at even modest ISO settings, film stuck us with one ISO setting for each roll or film, film faced the possibility of accidental exposure ruining film or paper, film required a time-consuming process that created pollutants, film only allowed a limited ability to review images in the field (Polaroids) and and film had a higher-than-digital cost per frame.
  • Some photographers claim they like the “look” of film. But photographers almost always make some kind of “look” edit in software to their scanned film files, usually in a way they could do better with an original digital file.
I made this black-and-white film image at Palo Duro Canyon in May 2002. It was one of the last times I shot film on a hiking trip.
I made this black-and-white film image at Palo Duro Canyon in May 2002. It was one of the last times I shot film on a hiking trip.

It’s absolutely true that I made many great images on photographic film during the first half of my career, but it is equally true that I heard many great songs on AM radio when I was growing up, but I haven’t tuned to an AM radio station to listen to music in 20 years.

I feel convinced that this hipster movement is just a fad. I’m certainly glad that someone out there is having fun with film, I am aware that there are reasons to keep film alive, and I am in possession of a number of great film cameras in good working order. But there are very few new film cameras being made, film is getting harder to obtain and more expensive, and when was the last time you used an enlarger to make prints in a real darkroom?

If you feel like you are struggling creatively, maybe you don’t need either film or a new digital camera. Maybe you need to find a narrative. You need to take your imaging from technical recording to storytelling. You need to push the limits of fundamentals like light and composition. Nothing between your hands will inspire you as much as anything in your heart.

I bought a cheap knockoff of a "Lensball" last year, hoping it would bring something new to my imaging options. At $17, there's really no down side to it.
I bought a cheap knockoff of a “Lensball” last year, hoping it would bring something new to my imaging options. At $17, there’s really no down side to it.

Note: I wrote this here first, but used it as my June 1, 2019 column.

A Nod to My Old School

I spotted our friend, aspiring journalist Ashlynd, at the scrimmage and made this image. Kodak digital cameras had a unique, and appealing, color pallet.
I spotted our friend, aspiring journalist Ashlynd, at the scrimmage and made this image. Kodak digital cameras had a unique, and appealing, color pallet.

Sometimes I like to get out old gear and shoot with it, with the goal of making certain I don’t rely too heavily on technology to get my job done well. Yesterday I was inspired to dig my Kodak DCS 720x out of its box at the bottom of the gear cabinet to shoot a football scrimmage at the local college, and although that technology is from 2001, I made some great images with it. Look for them in my newspaper next week!

I read recently that Kodak only made about 1600 720x cameras. I’m not surprised, as the company was already deep into its inexorable slide toward bankruptcy.

The Kodak DCS 720x sits next to one of my Nikon D2Hs, making it look tiny by comparison. Despite its age, the Kodak can still make great images in the right hands.
The Kodak DCS 720x sits next to one of my Nikon D2Hs, making it look tiny by comparison. Despite its age, the Kodak can still make great images in the right hands.

The Lens That Never Fails

My AF-S 85mm F/1.8 Nikkor sits in my studio. It's a nice image of a great lens, but it feels weird not having a filter and a hood on it.
My AF-S 85mm F/1.8 Nikkor sits in my studio. It’s a nice image of a great lens, but it feels weird not having a filter and a hood on it.

It’s no secret that I am a lens guy. Old and new, cheap and expensive, I think photographic lenses are fascinating. I have quite a few lenses, from the tiny, dusty, fixed-focus, brassed-up lenses on my Kodak Retina, to the heavy, complex f/2.8 sports and news zooms I use every day. But if you ask me to name an all-time favorite… wow. All those lenses. But, my all-time favorite lens has to be the 85mm.

Abby and I pose for a portrait in beautiful autumn sunshine recently. I handed our photographer friend Robert my Nikon D7100 with the AF-S 85mm f/1.8 on it, knowing that his expertise and that lens would give us a great result.
Abby and I pose for a portrait in beautiful autumn sunshine recently. I handed our photographer friend Robert my Nikon D7100 with the AF-S 85mm f/1.8 on it, knowing that his expertise and that lens would give us a great result.

I have owned three, the AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 of 1990s vintage, the Nikkor 85mm f/2.0 of early-80s heritage, and my current 85mm, the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G.

Over the years I read that the oldest of the three, the f/2.0, wasn’t great, but my experience differed. It was an amazing lens. The least of the three was the AF from the 90s, optically similar to the others, but built with a lot of plastic, including a plastic bushing in the focus chain that wore out and made the lens stiff. Eventually Nikon stopped supporting it so I could no longer get it repaired, and I stopped using it. I eventually gave it away.

My current 85mm is a real gem. I wrote about it a couple of times right after I got it, but I thought it would be helpful to mention that after three years with this lens in my bag, I use it as often as I can, from weddings to portraits to commercial work, with lots of occasions when I grab it to photograph my wife Abby or our dogs.

Our photographer friend Robert used it to photograph Abby and me in November, and those images are among my favorite all-time images of us.

In class in October, I handed this 85mm to a photography student, Daniel O’Danielle, who used it for about 30 minutes. The next week, she had a new one on her camera. I also recently talked about this lens with another photographer who has one, Dan Marsh, who also sang praises about it.

I thought of all this last night at sunset. I grabbed the 85mm once again and walked out to photograph the peach blossoms in my orchard. It didn’t disappoint me.

My peach blossoms take on a subtle beauty as the sun sets last night. This image took the AF-S 85mm f/1.8 to its limits: shot at f/2, this image was made right at the len's closest focus point. It is sharp, the colors are dazzling, and the background moves away as gracefully as Audrey Hepburn.
My peach blossoms take on a subtle beauty as the sun sets last night. This image took the AF-S 85mm f/1.8 to its limits: shot at f/2, this image was made right at the len’s closest focus point. It is sharp, the colors are dazzling, and the background moves away as gracefully as Audrey Hepburn.

Monochrome in Mid March

I continue with the “monochrome challenge” with these images, all made while walking my Irish Wolfhound Hawken.

Peach blossoms reach for the setting sun.
Peach blossoms reach for the setting sun.

After what seemed like an interminable, cold winter, we have experienced some very nice springs days.

The oil lease road on the north end of The Patch curves away from me.
The oil lease road on the north end of The Patch curves away from me.
I don't know if this is art or is pretending to be art. I feel like I'm spinning my wheels when I photograph it.
I don’t know if this is art or is pretending to be art. I feel like I’m spinning my wheels when I photograph it.
The moon rises above tree branches as buds just appear on their tips.
The moon rises above tree branches as buds just appear on their tips.
This is an early weed called purple dead nettle.
This is an early weed called purple dead nettle.

The Sweet Morning Fog

I shot this on my way to work this morning, fortuitous that my first assignment required a different route to work than I usually take. I jumped out of my car and half-ran across a mostly-empty four-lane highway to get into position.

Steam billows over a farm pond between Byng and Ada, Oklahoma Saturday morning, March 16; shot with the Nikon D300S and the AF-S Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8.
Steam billows over a farm pond between Byng and Ada, Oklahoma Saturday morning, March 16; shot with the Nikon D300S and the AF-S Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8.

A Look Back: the FujiFilm FinePix S4500

The Fujifilm FinePix S4500 Digital Camera
The Fujifilm FinePix S4500 Digital Camera
Our son-in-law Tom Reeves uses his FinePix S4500 to photograph the World War II National Memorial in Washington DC in 2013.
Our son-in-law Tom Reeves uses his FinePix S4500 to photograph the World War II National Memorial in Washington DC in 2013.

My wife Abby and I gave this camera, the Fujifilm FinePix S4500, to Abby’s daughter Chele and her husband Tom in 2013. Tom used it extensively on a trip we made to visit him that year in Baltimore, to photograph a D.C. walking tour.

Abby and I have several FinePix cameras (like the HS30EXR,) which have become our favorites when we place having fun at the top of the list, like when we are hiking, on the road, or at an event like family reunions. Smaller cameras like the these, in a class referred to as bridge, walkaround or crossover, allow the handling of a DSLR while offering the convenience of a point-and-shoot or even a smartphone.

I made this wide angle view of an exterior while working in December using the S4500. As you can see, it is sharp, and color is good.
I made this wide angle view of an exterior while working in December using the S4500. As you can see, it is sharp, and color is good.
Later that evening made this image of the House on Goose Hill at the telephoto end of the S4500's zoom. I is not as sharp as the wide angle end, but usable.
Later that evening made this image of the House on Goose Hill at the telephoto end of the S4500’s zoom. I is not as sharp as the wide angle end, but usable.
  • The S4500 features a versatile wide-to-telephoto zoom lens, but doesn’t not have a zoom ring or a manual focus ring, relying instead on a W and T rocker switch around the shutter release for zooming. There is no option for manual focusing, though I seldom use manual focus on my other bridge cameras.
  • In hand, this camera handles like a camera, not like a toy or a computer, which is why Abby and I were attracted to it.
A big plus to cameras in this class is the huge zoom range they offer, making it a one-camera solution for all kinds of photography.
A big plus to cameras in this class is the huge zoom range they offer, making it a one-camera solution for all kinds of photography.
  • The sensor in this camera is quite small at 6.17mm x 4.55 mm, both to keep the camera compact, and to make it cheaper to manufacture.

    14 Megapixels is enough, particularly when each pixel is so small crammed into a sensor the size of a raisin.
    14 Megapixels is enough, particularly when each pixel is so small crammed into a sensor the size of a raisin.
  • There is an electronic viewfinder and a display on the back of the camera. For my work, an electronic or optical viewfinder is a must, though I know most people get along fine with the arm’s-length view that smartphones provide.
  • Color is good; this is a Fuji strength for me, though not everyone agrees.
  • High ISO noise makes the camera unusable in low light. I tried to make a feature photo of the score table at a basketball tournament, and it was a mess.
  • The S4500 has a real PASM exposure dial, a must for me. Of course, it can fall back on green box (red in Fuji’s case) mode and scene modes, which I never use.
  • Like a lot of lenses on this class of cameras, this 24-500mm “equivalent” zoom is a jack of all trades but master of none. It is an especially mediocre telephoto.
The FinePix S4500 has a pretty standard control setup. Zooming is via a ring around the shutter release.
The FinePix S4500 has a pretty standard control setup. Zooming is via a ring around the shutter release.
  • Other controls are where I like them, though over the years I’ve worked with so many cameras (due to teaching photography), I almost always have to search for where electronics engineers put them. Making the same functions a little different in every camera generation and every brand doesn’t really serve photography, but is all about marketing and creating entertainment in camera sales.
Tom, Robert and I make pictures in a mirrored display near the Capitol in Washington D.C.
Tom, Robert and I make pictures in a mirrored display near the Capitol in Washington D.C.

Like all tools in our photographic tool box, the FinePix S4500 has a place. It is fun and easy to use, lightweight and quiet, and does a lot more than a smartphone. I am very glad we got this one for Tom and Chele.

Tom and Chele share a moment as they make pictures with their FinePix S4500.
Tom and Chele share a moment as they make pictures with their FinePix S4500.

A Look Back: the Nikon D700

My well-used Nikon D700 sits in my studio recently. I have no problem buying used cameras with a lot of cosmetic wear, since I'm going to start using them, not admiring them, immediately, and in the process will create lots of of cosmetic wear of my own.
My well-used Nikon D700 sits in my studio recently. I have no problem buying used cameras with a lot of cosmetic wear, since I’m going to start using them, not admiring them, immediately, and in the process will create lots of of cosmetic wear of my own.

In the 2000s, camera makers like Nikon and Canon introduced digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) equipped with so-called full-frame sensors, imaging sensing devices that were the same size as an antiquated piece of 35mm film.

My Nikon D700 poses in my studio recently.
My Nikon D700 poses in my studio recently.

I have one such digital SLR, the Nikon D700. It is a professional machine on every level, from build quality to image quality. It is big, heavy, and built like a tank. It is so heavy, in fact, that I am a little glad I don’t use it every day at work. My D300Ss are heavy enough, but don’t begin to challenge the D700.

Much of the weight of cameras like this is one reason mirrorless cameras are overtaking DSLR sales. Combined with better electronics systems that can be made lighter and faster-operating, mirrorless does away with all the mechanics of the mirrors and pentaprisms.

One of the best ways to tell if a photographer works hard and shoots a lot is to look at his or her gear: working photographers wear out their equipment.
One of the best ways to tell if a photographer works hard and shoots a lot is to look at his or her gear: working photographers wear out their equipment.
I saw this D700 in use on The Plaza in Santa Fe when Abby and I were there recently.
I saw this D700 in use on The Plaza in Santa Fe when Abby and I were there recently.

A deceptive concept about formats is that larger formats exhibit “better” selective focus in the form of shallower depth of field. But the truth of this is buried in marketing and the internet. Depth of field isn’t controlled by format size, but by aperture and magnification. Larger-format afficianatoes don’t seem to understand that when shooting with a camera like the D700 with the same lens they might have on a smaller-format camera, they have to move closer to fill the frame with the same subject. That’s what makes depth of field shallower, not the size of the sensor.

I shot this walnut leaf with the Nikon D700 and my 50mm f/1.4 at f/1.6. Compare it to...
I shot this walnut leaf with the Nikon D700 and my 50mm f/1.4 at f/1.6. Compare it to…
...this image of an oak leaf made with my Nikon D7100 and the 35mm f/1.8 at f/2.0.
…this image of an oak leaf made with my Nikon D7100 and the 35mm f/1.8 at f/2.0.

I had this discussion not long after I bought my D700. You can read it here (link).

The D700 was one of Nikon’s earliest moves into the 36x24mm sensor market, and despite having been replaced by numerous newer models, the D700’s build and reputation create a higher than average cost on the used market.

The Nikon D700 is able to take advantage of wide angle lenses designed for 35mm film photography, like this, the excellent AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8.
The Nikon D700 is able to take advantage of wide angle lenses designed for 35mm film photography, like this, the excellent AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8.

Taking the idea of “full-frame” another step, we ask, “Is full-frame digital better than a full frame of 35mm film.” The answer overwhelmingly yes. Properly implemented, digital photography in general is far better than film photography: less noise, less risk, less waste, less time, more sharpness, better color, and on and on. (Coming soon: why the resurgence of film is folly.)

When I grab my D700, which usually has a larger lens on it, I feel it immediately. All that brass and glass tugs at my elbow and shoulder and reminds me why I try to lighten my load when I am able.

While I was writing this, I handed the D700 with the 28-70mm f/2.8 on it to my wife Abby, and she exclaimed, “Oh, my gosh, it must weigh 50 pounds!”

One thing that is true among the information and misinformation on the web about "full-frame" is that sensors of the 36mm x 24mm will restore your 35mm film lenses to their former glory, as in this image made last fall with the 15-30mm Sigma lens at 15mm.
One thing that is true among the information and misinformation on the web about “full-frame” is that sensors of the 36mm x 24mm will restore your 35mm film lenses to their former glory, as in this image made last fall with the 15-30mm Sigma lens at 15mm.

Files from the D700 are smooth, sharp and low-noise, and even with RAW file compression turned on, have a remarkable amount of color data. Despite the size and weight, the D700 has never let me down, and I hope to continue to make great images with it for the foreseeable future.

The hefty Nikon D700 wears the even heftier AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8. The combination creates dazzling images, and is a great choice for events like weddings.
The hefty Nikon D700 wears the even heftier AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8. The combination creates dazzling images, and is a great choice for events like weddings.