Confessions of a Bokeh Junkie: I've Made a Terrible Mistake

Confessions of a Bokeh Junkie: I've Made a Terrible Mistake

Faster, higher, stronger is the code by which I have made most of my lens and camera decisions for nearly a decade. I've never been satisfied with f/2.8. I've waged war between the focal planes of the eye and the eyelash, and I have the scars and image casualties to prove it. As I grow older and my battle-weary eyes begin to look back at my quest, I have begun to see the emptiness in it all. Were even my perfect shots completely out of focus?

It all started with f/1.8.

On the urging of a hobbyist friend, the "nifty fifty" nursed me from my fledgling state and set the foundation for what would become my photographic passion. When I began, I had no other friends in the world of serious photography, aside from my coworker at the time. While really not long ago, the internet of 2007 was a vastly different landscape for beginners than it is today. It was harsh and unforgiving. It was a time Flickr reigned supreme, the iPhone with it's 2.0 megapixel camera didn't have an app store, and Facebook displayed images at a mammoth 604px on the long edge. Asking for advice was ego suicide as old-timers were hostile to those that didn't understand basic technical concepts. While I suppose not much as changed there, overall there weren't nearly as many great easy-to-consume beginner resources as there are today. This was the golden age of point-and-shoots. Digital SLRs were finally exiting puberty, but were priced far outside the scope of most hobbyists. With my drool-worthy 10 megapixel crop-sensor Nikon D80 and 50mm f/1.8, I was the talk of my friends. "Look at how blurry that background gets!" I remember them saying. A shallow depth of field had become the hallmark of a professional photographer because, in the digital age, only they could afford the cameras that could achieve such a surreal world.

I loved the look. I loved the attention. I ran with it.

As is my millennial nature, I could only be satisfied for so long until I could discover the next best thing. Fortunately the upgrade path was being carved out for me as Nikon released their D3 and D700 full-frame bodies the very next year. As a concert photographer from the very beginning of my journey, the low-light capability of large aperture "fast glass" had always appealed to me in addition to the background blending feature. My primary motivation for upgrading to a larger sensor was for the low light capability, but when I discovered that a larger capture medium equates to shallower depth of field, I was fueled once again in my bokeh quest.

And with that, I spiraled out of control.

A larger sensor was able to lasso in more bokeh, so what else can I do?

85mm @ f/1.4, single frame

Longer lenses! So then I picked up a 70-200mm, and to this day it's essentially been fused at its racked-out 200mm position, but the 85mm f/1.4 was also getting the job done for me.

What else can I do?

Hasselblad 500C/M with Zeiss 80mm @ f/2.8

I can shoot film! For the price of a moderately nice lens I can buy a medium format film camera that has a "sensor" almost six times larger than my full-frame D700!

What else can I do?

Bokeh panorama (Brenizer Method) comprised of 52 individual frames of 85mm @ f/1.4

I can stitch images together in a panorama that goes both left/right and up/down to technically enlarge my digital camera's sensor!

What else can I do?

Leica M3 with Zeiss C-Sonnar 50mm f/1.5, a lens known for its significant field curvature creating an exaggerated and and somewhat "swirly" out of focus region.

I can buy exotic lenses with abnormally large apertures or ones that have extreme field curvature that push the background even more out of focus!

What else can I do?

Three frame bokeh panorama (Brenizer Method) with the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4, a lens with significant field curvature designed specifically for its bokeh.

I can combine that panorama method together with those exotic lenses!

What else can I do?

Tilt-shift portrait using a Nikon AI-s Nikkor 50mm f/1.2.

I can take the fastest f/1.2 lens I own and tilt it away from the camera body to bend the plane of focus leaving almost nothing in the photo in focus!

What else can I do?

The ultimate bokeh machine: Graflex Speed Graphic 4x5 with Kodak Aero Ektar 175mm f/2.5. This produces large format negatives with a 35mm equivalent of about 48mm @ f/0.7.

I can buy an even bigger film camera with even bigger negatives!

And then it hit me. Why? I mean, I get it. After you scrape away all the obsessiveness and technicalities, it's still a neat look. After all, human beings don't see the world with such compressed two-dimensionalism, and photography has always been about telling the unseen story. In a sense, shallow depth of field is a mechanism for story telling in its own right. It forces the viewer to pay attention to exactly what you think they should be paying attention to. But the trope, like many other amazing tools, becomes worn out.

More importantly, the quest for bokeh has blinded me to what photography is truly about; it's about using the entire frame to tell a story. I have thirty-six megapixels in my hand right now. Why can't I use every last one towards a focused purpose? What really drove home the disconnect between "effect" and "affect" was this gallery of powerful photos from the past 150 years. It dawned on me that almost all of the greatest and most famous photos of all time had deep or moderately deep depth of field. Not only that, but the photos that had shallow depth of field were mostly out of necessity from either low light conditions or being taken on large format film. Blurry backgrounds do not make the photo. The stories do.

So I removed the Leica Noctliux 50mm f/0.95 from my shopping cart.

Chasing bokeh isn't just distracting, but it's expensive. Those exotic lenses are the definition of expensive, and sometimes you end up buying entire new camera systems just to achieve the next high. It's especially sobering when you realize people like my buddy Andrew Griswold are making their living shooting with their iPhone. Between the lenses you don't really need that aren't improving your photography, and the cameras that just sit on a shelf and collect dust, is a heap of money you could use to travel to any location on planet earth and take photos there. I'm talking to you, photographer that doesn't live in the Pacific Northwest or Iceland.

Shallow depth of field certainly has its place, especially in portraiture, so it's not like I'm going to start shooting everything at f/8, but the realization is that I need to be satisfied with where I am and what I've got. I really don't need to keep chasing the fix, and I can be happy with my work now. It's really time for me to get some help, and the first step is admitting I have a problem.

I'm Sean and I'm a bokeholic. It's been one day since my last Brenizer panorama.

For the purposes of this piece, the colloquial usage of "bokeh" was used at times in which it can be interchanged with "shallow depth of field." The strict definition of bokeh refers to the quality of the out-of-focus rendering and not the quantity.
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63 Comments

Jack Alexander's picture

I've been suffering the same identity crisis lately, feeling like I depend too much on the shallow DOF effect. Great topic Sean, and beautifully written.

Kornel Kabaja's picture

What I find with people struck with the bokehliciousness disease is that most of them drool over how much shallow DOF there is, instead of drooling about the quality of the bokeh itself. Take a Nikon 50/1.4, a Canon 50/1.4 and a Zeiss Planar 50/1.4, and they will be very different lenses. I'm into painterly potraits, so when my friends drool over the Nikon/Canon just because they can produce shallow DOF, I look for something that would pair up with the "painterly" aspect. So I chose a Zuiko 55/1.2, not because it has even less DOF, but because it's much more interesting for the type of work I do.

When shallow DOF is a purpose on it's own, it's probably going to lead to some crisis.

First, I'd love to see more articles here like this one. I get gear-obsessive just like everyone else, so I understand the compulsion to buy the latest whatever to make my something or other way more awesome, but it's a red herring. The best thing any of us can do to improve our work is to create more work, create it with intent, and critically evaluate the results. You can do that with a Holga or a Phase One.

Second, regarding "all of the greatest and most famous photos of all time had deep or moderately deep depth of field," there's a reason why Group f/64 called themselves Group f/64 ;-) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Group_f/64

Third, don't keep your Aero Ektar stored under the bed, since it's mildly radioactive! http://www.apug.org/forums/forum44/52650-kodak-ektar-aero-2-5-radioactiv...

Fourth, even us PNW-based photographers like to mix up locations from time to time, even when this is the view from our apartment: https://www.flickr.com/photos/aaronbrethorst/23963759742/in/dateposted-p... and this from our office: https://www.flickr.com/photos/aaronbrethorst/20272339915/in/dateposted-p...

;-)

Terry Henson's picture

Good points....even better views lol.

Great article, the most entertaining photography related post I've ever read. We're here with you through this rough time, stay strong.

Tom Lew's picture

This was such an amazing read. Content wise it was fantastic and made a great point.. but the way it was written and the ability to follow you through your photographic journey was astounding. Thank you for the read and please continue the great work.

Miles Trevelyan-Johnson's picture

If you get paid well to do portrait or fashion photography........swipe the card.......doubt you'd have any regrets

If not.....then hire it when you want it

Andrew Feller's picture

I needed to read this one today... I literally almost bought an 85 1.2 on impulse yesterday.

Maybe I too can remove that lens from my shopping cart one day. "This is the last lens I need" is the biggest lie we tell our selves. Stay strong brother!

I kind of learned this with Micro 4.3 when using Micro 4.3 for filmmaking. I don't like everything so be super blurry like it was filmed on a Canon 5D Mark 3 and a 50mm f1.2 and a 85mm f1.2. When I'm watching TV or a movie I want some idea of the location and want to know just a little but about the background and I just want a little blur.

Now as a photographer believe I'm a bokeholic but no one I've ever taking a portrait said my Olympus 75mm f1.8 did not look good. So sometimes you need to focus on working and taking great photos.

Only buy gear when you have the money and don't kill yourself if you don't have something. There is also a used camera market out their with cheaper lens and also old manual lens. Just something to keep in mind.

Max Leitner's picture

Can someone TL;DR this for me? Because, really, all I saw were a bunch of shallow DOF images, some better than others. And way too much text.

Shallow DOF and Bokeh are tools just like focal length and ISO. They all have a job and purpose. Too much of any and the oucome is gabage.

Anyhow, I think as photographers there are way too many people in the field limiting thmselves. It is knowledge of technique emplyed with Idea and utilization of equipment that makes or break an image…

Still looking for that TL;DR though.

Sean Molin's picture

Are you serious?

In the time it took you to write that response you could have read through a good chunk of it. I specifically address your points in the post.

Sean Molin's picture

You said: "Shallow DOF and Bokeh are tools just like focal length and ISO. They all have a job and purpose."

I said: "Shallow depth of field certainly has its place, especially in portraiture, so it's not like I'm going to start shooting everything at f/8"

***

You said: "Too much of any and the oucome is garbage."

I said: "In a sense, shallow depth of field is a mechanism for story telling in its own right. It forces the viewer to pay attention to exactly what you think they should be paying attention to. But the trope, like many other amazing tools, becomes worn out."

***

You said: "It is knowledge of technique emplyed with Idea and utilization of equipment that makes or break an image…"

I said: "People like my buddy Andrew Griswold are making their living shooting with their iPhone," and "photography has always been about telling the unseen story," and "Blurry backgrounds do not make the photo. The stories do."

Tom Lew's picture

wow lol. just ignore him, it's the internet being internetty

Anonymous's picture

There WERE a lot of words before you got to the point. :-/

Sean Gibson's picture

Ha, what a douche! If you don't want to read, go to flickr. You must get so mad driving down the street seeing all those metal things on the side of the road with letters all over them telling you what to do. I bet you hate that kid who rides around the neighborhood throwing words all over peoples porches too.

Drew Pluta's picture

Something that rarely gets mentioned is artistic maturity. I came to photography with a fully formed artistic identity from an unrelated discipline. When I started shooting, I knew why, and have rarely felt much of a pull toward clever distractions. I learn what I need to and acquire the gear I need to shoot my style. Everybody else can do what they want, that's cool. I had an 85mm 1.2 for a couple years and rarely shot at 1.2 because it was just not quite right for what I was doing. 1.8 is the sweet spot.

Always shoot in service to the ideas, not the gear.

Kornel Kabaja's picture

Except for situations in which only certain gear can get the ideas to work :) But that's a very niche thing most of the time.

Wonderful post - thankyou. As an ex large format landscape photographer and these days a medicare aged M4/3 "lightweight" guyI found your piece interesting, provocative and entertaining. Interesting how we unconsciously absorb fads and fashions...now I'm using ND filters because the M4.3 lenses are too darn fast :)

Mark James's picture

Even before I started doing photography I've never liked shallow DOF in general and felt it was a cop-out for people that were too lazy to compose an entire scene. Yes, sometimes it's cool and it can be helpful when it an area that isn't perfect, but most often I prefer a well composed scene that I am able to make out. This is one of the reasons I felt comfortable going with m4/3's. Size is perfect, IQ is good enough for almost everything and I get a deeper DOF. It's art and it's all good and everyone has different tastes, I'm just glad I have a system that works for my style. I still have gear lust and buy expensive glass though. ;)

Robert Raymer's picture

Im going to have to at least partially disagree here. Some people May use booked as a crutch because they can't compose an entire scene (just as some "natural light" photographers may use that label as a reason/excuse for not knowing or bothering to learn how to control artificial lighting), but for an experienced photographer it is just another tool used to tell a story. I shoot a lot of portraits. Often the subject is part of a larger story. This is especially true when doing environmental portraits, where the focus of the image is how the subject relates to their surroundings. In this case shallow DOF would ruin a shot and the ability to compose a coherent scene to tell a story is paramount. Yet at the same time, sometimes the subject, or even a part of the subject (a body part, an expression, a subjects eyes, etc) IS the story. When this is the case the ability to shoot at a shallow DOF and control where the eye is drawn to in the image is paramount, and to do so you need to know about more than just "shoot at the widest aperture possible". So while some may use it as a crutch to hide technical shortcomings, in the right hands it is just another tool to use or not use to achieve ones creative vision.

Bart Slaman's picture

I agree too.

If the eye is the subject, then it's fine to blow out the rest. But I think it's a nice challenge for bokeh addicted figures to make the eye a subject without blowing out everything.

I must agree that too much bokeh is not always good. even with portraits, yes you get the eyes sharp, but no, i really don't like it when the tip of the nose gets blurry already, I like details on the face as well. That the background is just blownout is fine for me.
And even with a blown out background you can get an idea of the surroundings.

Subtlety is key. use bokeh with a reason, and don't let the subject be the shallow depth of field al the time.

r-----s's picture

Great post and an absolute pleasure to read.

user-88324's picture

Sean, that's a very heartfelt post. I can really sense your frustration.

Tony Carter's picture

Many might consider FStoppers finally redeemable with this article...so SPOT ON!!

A friend of mine this past weekend told me that he wished that I had shot our friend's wedding because he actually liked that I would have the entire scene in focus (to some degree) in my shots, as opposed to their hired photog who is apparently known for shooting using the common bokeh'd bazaar.

Don't get me wrong, shallow DOF definitely has its place, sure it works for aesthetics, but let's not forget that a photog should finesse the use of his/her tool for practical reasons too. I've always believed in weighing lens choices as: focal length (or field-of--view) OVER aperture. Hardly anyone could care which aperture I use, unless it was another photog, and when used creatively, an f/6.3 aperture has fooled some of my other photog friends as being an f/2.8. But again, I've shot many weddings and events, and no client has yet to ask me what aperture I used. If that were to happen, then I would think that they've missed the entire purpose of the photograph.

I'll leave this final thought: when anyone looks at any of the classic paintings and portraits of old, if the first thought on their mind is, "Hmm, I wonder if they used Glidden or Sherwin-Williams for this..." (LOL), then maybe TOO much of the artist himself/herself is revealed in that piece. The best artwork is when the artist is nowhere in sight.

Tyler Newcomb's picture

Well written, comical, and has a good message. What the f**k more could I ask from an Fstoppers.com article? Seriously though, this was the best I've read and I hope to see similarly styled articles.

Ramon Acosta's picture

I've said it many times. Film has it's own hard copy. And as a storage medium it is known to last for hundreds of years. Flash media? Who knows? On a side note...Is anyone selling a Canon 50L? It is going to be last fast prime! I promise!

Filipe Nogueira's picture

And puf...all of a sudden no one likes or uses or thinsk or even consider shallow DOF.

Despite the quite on point ctitique of this article, i find quite amusing the sheep herding effect is tends to creat: "Listen, according to this genteman, no longer can we aim for this look". And of course it is not the writer's fault.

I'm sorry for those, i'll actually will continue to use 1.4 on my Samyangs for some work, and f8 for another. cF**ck me, right?
;)

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