Bokeh and Portraits: Why I Just Don't Care

Bokeh and Portraits: Why I Just Don't Care

Pull up almost any lens review these days and one of the primary attributes people are judging is the oh-so-important bokeh. Purchases are made and lenses are brought back all because of the how a lens does or doesn't measure up in the bokeh department. Well I’m here to tell you, at least for portraiture, it’s just plain overrated.

What Is Bokeh?

For the uninitiated, bokeh is the character of the out of focus area in an image. Usually aficionados of bokeh desire smooth transitions from light to dark without jagged areas. Why? Because jagged areas in the out of focus areas are distracting and take away from the overall image. OK, really?

The Nikkor 50mm 1.4D and Sigma 50mm 1.4 Art lenses

Bokeh is, in this photographer’s opinion, one more thing to scrutinize by gearheads (I should know, I am one). It’s a talking point. It’s a gimmick. It’s something that lens manufacturers can point to and say, “Look how smooth my light balls are! Buy my lens!” Yeah, I said it. The bokeh of an image, unless just obscenely ugly, doesn't matter as much as we'd like to believe.

To illustrate my point, I put together a fabulous photoshoot complete with stylists, exotic locations, and the most expensive gear. When that fell through, I did a quick setup in my living room of the cheapest model I could find: me. 

The Experiment

I wanted to show both a close portrait/headshot along with a wider portrait to show how little difference there was in the bokeh of two common, but vastly different, lenses. The first lens is a trusty Nikkor 50mm 1.4D. It's a lens a lot of beginners might select as their first 50mm prime. The next lens is the amazing Sigma 50mm 1.4 ART. This is one of the sharpest consumer lenses out there and has been praised for its bokeh-producing capabilities along with its stupid level of sharpness. Let's see what sort of bokeh these lenses produced wide open.

I threw my camera on a tripod, kicked the dog out of the way, and started triggering away with a CamRanger. I brought the images into Capture One, did some levels editing and that's about it. I didn't even bother to Photoshop the bags out from under my eyes. Hey, I have a 3 month old. Cut me some slack! The results are below.

Wide shot of yours truly with the Nikkor 50mm 1.4D

Wide shot of yours truly with the Sigma 50mm 1.4 ART

What about a closer shot where the bokeh differences will be more pronounced? Glad you asked!

Close shot of yours truly (yikes) with Nikkor 50mm 1.4D

Close shot of yours truly (double yikes) with Sigma 50mm 1.4 ART

Conclusions

The Sigma is worlds sharper. We knew that. But that's not what this experiment is about. The bokeh on these two lenses is, of course, different. But lets be honest here; If you were to see both of these images on a wall you'd be hard-pressed to pick between them based on the bokeh. You'd be paying attention to (for better or worse) the subject. The bokeh just isn't enough of a factor in the images to be important.

As photographers we always want the latest and greatest. That’s natural. But I think we’ve become a bit zealous about things that just don’t have the weight we attribute to them. I’m not saying bokeh is a unicorn that doesn’t exist. It totally does! There is a marked difference between the out of focus area of different lenses. But why should we care so much? The difference between a bokeh crazy lens and a normal run-of-the-mill lens is so slight at normal viewing distances as to be laughable.

But, “Hans,” you say, “My new 50mm has luscious, creamy bokeh and it cost me $1,500! I want to be able to throw everything out of focus and that out of focus area needs to be puuuuurty!” Well great. Why do you want to throw everything out of focus? Is there an actual reason or do you just think it would look cool? How does the background relate to the subject? Hey, I get it, sometimes when you’re on the go and can’t find a suitable environment you need to throw the background completely out of focus to hide the closet you were forced to shoot in. But does that tiny bit of difference in the character of the out of focus area really make a difference? I’m talking about to the end viewer, not other pixel peepers. It doesn’t; and if it does, then chances are you really need to focus more on the content of the portrait. What does it say about the subject if the out of focus area is actually able to distract from it?

Don’t believe me? Take a look at some of the master portrait photographers of our time: Annie Leibovitz, Mark Seliger, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Joe McNally, Mary Ellen Mark... The list goes on and on. Do a quick Google search on any of them and tell me if you give a rats patoot about the bokeh or lack thereof in their images. It’s all about the subject.

How about some crops?

Crop of bokeh produced in wide shot with Nikkor 50mm 1.4D

Crop of bokeh produced in wide shot with Sigma 50mm 1.4 ART

And the close shots...

A crop of the bokeh produced by a Nikkor 50mm 1.4D

A crop of the bokeh produced by a Sigma 50mm 1.4 ART

Are You an Artist or a Technician?

Of course, the answer to that question should be "both." I have made tons of crappy portraits in my time. Not one of them was because of bokeh. It's because I failed as a photographer to leave an impression, even on myself. Put the focus where you want it and then worry about the feeling of the portrait. Worry about the relationship between you and subject. Worry about exposure, weather, the environment, narrative, and all the other things that truly make or break a portrait. Stop using your lenses as a crutch and realize that as long as they are putting the focus where you want it, they are doing their job.

It’s easy to get up close to a person (or far away with a tele), open up that lens, snap a few and call it art, then wonder why the image is forgettable. It’s because we’re worried so much about the characteristics of the lens (or camera body, lights, modifiers, etc.) and not about truly creating that special something.

Bokeh is nice. If you can afford the great lenses that happen to have nice bokeh and are razor sharp, go for it. But if you don’t cultivate all those other things that make a good image, you’re just putting lipstick on a pig anyway. 

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56 Comments
Alan Klughammer's picture

I think it was Freeman Patterson who said there were no bad lenses, just poor use of a lens...
In other words, use what you have in a way that "works"

Jason Bryant's picture

he obviously never used sigmas 17-35 2.8.

Michael Kormos's picture

Hans, try this with bokeh lights and you'll see MUCH more difference, especially with creamy lens like the Nikkor 58/1.4G and 135/2 DC. I shoot a lot of backlit outdoor portraits, and I can tell you I'm happy I've parted with the 50/1.4. When the sun as a backlight is filtered through trees, it creates a lot of high-contrast bokeh lights, and the way they render is quite important to the overall aesthetic of an image. Your examples use a mellow, low-contrast background, so the difference is subtle.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I have no doubt that the bokeh lights render in a more pleasing way with certain lenses as opposed to others. I guess my platform is that if the way those balls are rendered can distract from the subject of the portrait, then the way the subject is portrayed (lighting, angle, relation, etc) the subject isn't strong enough. I haven't had the pleasure of using the 58 or 135, but I did have the 135L back when I used Canon and I thought it was overrated, too. Sharpness, on the other hand, I'm a fiend about.

That being said, tonight I'll do a self portrait with some bokeh lights. I like to keep an open mind!

Thanks for commenting!

Anders Madsen's picture

"...subject isn't strong enough." - well, sometimes the subjects strongest feature is that of a paying customer, and the best to be said about the surroundings is that they are the workplace of the subject... ;)

I understand your point but like Michael says, sometimes you can't avoid those pesky highlights and your best option is to make them go all soft and blurry.

- and I started out with the Canon EF 50 mm f/1.8 so I know exactly what awful bokeh means. Anyone who ever shot a portrait against some foilage with that lens knows. ;)

Caleb Kerr's picture

Okay, but nobody walks into a photo gallery and says "wow, these photos are os great, they're so sharp!"

Sharpness doesn't tell the story, the same way that bokeh doesn't. It's all part of the communication, and to say one "method" is worthless is a worthless overstatement.

Hans Rosemond's picture

No, people don't walk into a gallery and say "that's so sharp!" What they DO say is "That looks kinda blurry." They may not say "sharpness" but it's what they're referring to. Apples and oranges. So I'd argue that a lack of sharpness will take you out of the photograph a heck of a lot quicker than the quality of the bokeh. Or not, really. Some photographs are so powerful that they could be blurry as all hell and it wouldn't matter, but I'm not there yet. :)

Michael Kormos's picture

No sweat, didn't mean to break your b*lls. BTW, love the treasure-chest coffee table. And what's the dog's name?

Eric Pare's picture

lol you sound a bit bokeh-angry :) Nice post Hans :::)))

Hans Rosemond's picture

HANS SMASH BOKEH! hehe

Ryan Cooper's picture

I think more than anything it is a subconscious impact. The viewer isn't necessarily aware of the smoother bokeh but when looking at the nicer bokeh the image is subtly more pleasing to view.

Also I haven't really heard too many people raving about the Sigma having great Bokeh? Most reviews I've read complain about Bokeh as being mediocre at best. I'd guess if you added Nikon 58mm F1.4 into this comparison as a third player that you would start to see more of difference. My main complaint about the Nikon 50mm has always been terrible flare control and brutal CA, its Bokeh is really not that bad.

Also one other thing that I think is often forgotten is that Bokeh quality isn't just about the smoothness of spherical aberration deep in the out of focus area. For me, one of the more important aspects is how smoothly the image transitions from in focus to out of focus detail giving the image a sense of dimension. There are a few lenses out there that do it so well such as the aforementioned Nikon 58mm or Canon's glorious 135mm F2. I can't believe how many times I've been browsing 500px and been like: "Man that photo seems to have beautiful dimension to it" and I scroll down to the specs and it was shot with one of those 2 lenses. (or a Zeiss)

Hans Rosemond's picture

Like all lens reviews, I've heard anything from great to mediocre about the bokeh of the Sigma. Perhaps bokeh is something that can be visually quantified comparatively but harder when it's just one photo? I used to own the 135L and the 50 1.8 and it still was a non-issue for me. I can understand someone wanting a particular type of bokeh for their style, such as that produced by a Petzval. Or if all you do is shoot headshots with a completely thrown out backdrop, then okay sure. Perhaps that's because of how I tend to shoot. Maybe if bokeh was more of a fixture in my style I would care more.
Maybe someone out there with a 58 1.4 or a similar bokeh-worthy machine can show me what I'm missing! Anyone?

Ryan Cooper's picture

I think you will find that it is really hard to define in terms of an objective definition. I'm sure, to a degree, confirmation bias plays a role but it is similar to how a Gibson guitar has a certain magic to it that a cheap one doesn't.

For me the biggest thing with bokeh is if it gives me the sense that I am looking into a three dimensional image that has depth. Photos never truly look 3D since they are not but some lenses do a much better job at creating that sense of "depth" (framing, composition, editing, etc also plays into this though, its not just the bokeh". Best I can figure it, the largest factor in this case is that transition from razor sharp in focus to the soft out of focus a lot more than the soft out of focus itself. (at least in terms of optics)

Medium format is notoriously good at this as well.

For me, here are a couple photos I quickly found that have that "depth" I spoke of, though, unfortunately, none list what lenses they were shot with:
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/281826889157023770/
https://500px.com/photo/96378573/-by-rodion-rubin?from=user_favorites&us...
https://500px.com/photo/60569616/-by-dmitry-trishin?from=user_favorites&...
https://500px.com/photo/31372721/stairs-to-by-roxy-less

(Note: It is not impossible for cheap lenses to create this "feel", however, I find time and time again the ones that I am most impressed with often end up being created with a few specific lenses)

Stefan Marinov's picture

The last picture - stairs is created with Helios 44, Russian copy of Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar 58mm f2 lens. Optical schema gives very distinctive swirly bokeh. It's quite evident in the picture and if you list author's (Roxy Less) about page you'll find only two lenses. One is Helios 44-2. Swirly bokeh works very well when background is composed of flowers or green foliage. Here is another good example:

http://www.juzaphoto.com/galleria.php?l=en&t=826949

Helios lenses are very cheap and affordable and great fun if you like this type of bokeh.

Ryan Cooper's picture

you might be right, I remain unsure though, I own a Helios 44 and a Helios 40-2. And I feel like the Bokeh in this shot doesn't really match what they create. Personally I feel this looks more like what comes out of the Nikkor 58mm f/1.4 but Roxy shoots Canon. It also reminds me a bit of the Canon 135mm but not quite since it doesn't look as compressed as a 135 would.

Helios had inconsistent quality though so it is possible that Roxy just has an extremely good version that has excellent sharpness wide open and isn't as jittery with the bokeh. (compared to say the example you posted which is more consistent with what Helios usually makes)

I like to think of Helios Bokeh as if it looks liked dabbed paint in a swirly pattern. The shot by Roxy is more creamy with a slight swirl to it. It is possible that she added additional Blur in post and that it was shot with the 50 1.8.

Chris Ingram's picture

Total agree about the subconscious impact!

I do value the way bokeh looks in my images. I do shoot a lot of natural light, shallow DOF portrait work, and I do find that some backgrounds that wouldn't work at smaller apertures can look quite interesting and complement an image when shot at very wide apertures. Do I get massively hung up on bokeh? No. BUT I will say that the way the Sigma ART lenses render bokeh is generally not pleasing to me. The particular examples that you posted are not challenging as the background is relatively 'neutral', but I feel like the Art lens is already showing more 'nervous' bokeh than the nifty fifty. There are definitely times where I look at work online and think to myself, "that bokeh looks really jittery and nervous", only to then read that the image was made with a Sigma Art lens.

Are there more important things to worry about? You betcha! But all other things being equal, I'd prefer an image with buttery bokeh over one that has jittery bokeh...and I think most 'average' viewers would! This is another one of those things that a viewer picks up on a subconscious level, but can't put their finger on. One image will be more pleasing to the eye than the other. Nervous bokeh distracts the viewer and leaves their eyes unable to lock onto the subject.

Hans Rosemond's picture

You had me until the last sentence! I really don't think that a subject of any power will have its focus taken by jittery bokeh. I just don't buy it. I think if you hold up 2 images in an experiment and say, which "bokeh do you prefer" a viewer will absolutely have a favorite and it will probably be the one taken with the awesome bokeh lens. But when in the real world does that happen? An image stands on its own and either its successful to the viewer or not. As a photographer we are all entitled to our preferences, of course! I don't think the viewer cares what those preferences are, though.

Mark B's picture

This looks more like a comparison of background blur than what most people consider bokeh. There are no round, oval, or other shaped highlights in your portrait samples. While I agree that an image won't be made or broken on bokeh alone, it certainly can make a difference (even if an unconscious one) in the overall pleasantness of an image.

Also, differences will naturally be minimized when comparing two high quality lenses instead of two of differing quality. Try the same headshot with a background full of lights, one with a 70-200 and the other with an 18-200. Differences in bokeh will become obvious.

This is an excellent comparison of the real world differences that $500 gets you when deciding between these two 50mm lenses.

Hans Rosemond's picture

A common misconception is that bokeh refers to the balls produced by lights in the out of focus area of a photograph. I think that's because it's what people commonly use to illustrate the concept since it's easier to grasp. But bokeh is the overall quality, not specifically referring to round areas or highlights. I really need to get my hands on a crappy lens to test more! haha.

Hans Rosemond's picture

As a side note, I think I've typed "balls" more for this article and comments than I ever would have imagined possible.

John Varatos's picture

I disagree. Bokeh is one of my primary concerns when choosing a lens for portraiture. There ARE different types of bokeh and knowing which to use is as important as knowing what kind of DOF to use. Of course there are times where bokeh is insignificant, but when I think of portraiture, I think of shallow DOF. Usually backgrounds play a strong role in framing and setting the mood for the subject, and bokeh is a primary factor in creating the feeling. While none of us have an infinite lens arsenal to choose from, knowing what bokeh you achieve with each glass you own is important. I think most of us prefer the "creamy" bokeh for portraiture, which is more accurately described as a Gaussian distributed bokeh. I've noticed more of the modern, mid-level lenses achieve an evenly distributed bokeh which can create more harsh edges in the background out-of-focus areas, but is universally accepted for the most part. Some of the cheaper consumer level lenses, and a large majority of zoom lenses under 50mm create the reverse of Gaussian distributed bokeh, in which everything looks like doughnuts. Personally, I find this highly distracting and I avoid this kind of bokeh. I find a large majority of lenses that are sharp and have low spherical aberration tend to produce evenly distributed bokeh. There are exceptions, and the one I tend to use the most frequently is the Canon 85mm 1.2. Its bokeh is about halfway between even-distribution and true-Gaussian while remaining sharp and delivering mild SA wide open. The two lenses above are obviously different in design, but have similar bokeh performance (the Sigma being slightly more Gaussian). I'm sure the bokeh of the trusty 50mm was a design goal for Sigma when creating their lens (it looks like they achieved this and then some, but sacrificed in the size department). Either way, the side by side comparison of these two lenses looks about the same, but my point is there are some that would not look the same.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I disagree with your disagreement! jk. Thanks for chiming in with such a well thought out reply. However, I never said there weren't different types of bokeh or that some lenses didn't perform "better" in that department. My contention is that to me it just doesn't matter. At least not to the amount that people make it. "Bokeh" wasn't even a term used in photography circles until 1996. Before then what were people concerned about? Sharpness and reliability. I do agree that the lenses I picked might be too similar to make an obvious comparison. I'm working on getting a cheapo lens from a friend of mine. I knew I shouldn't have sold my kit lenses!
I'm probably in the minority, but I would take "crappy" bokeh in a shot that says something over "creamy" bokeh that just looks pretty any day of the week. I understand that, for you, portraiture = shallow DOF, but historically that's kind of a fad. Take a look at most of the portraiture done in the 20th century and besides closeup headshots, extremely shallow DOF just didn't appear much.

Mbutu Namubu's picture

"Bokeh wasn't even a term used in photography circles until 1996."

Somehow, I managed to make it all of the way through about 15-16 years in photography before ever coming across the term "bokeh." The first time I saw it was in an online forum in 2008 so I've always associated it as a term used by amateurs. The internet hobbyists have now popularized the term, so I'm sure it's going to be part of the lexicon from now on

Prior to that day, at school and at work I had only ever heard people refer to out-of-focus areas. If it was a comment about aesthetics then usually it was a reference to the size of the image circle of a lens. For example, a 4x5 was usually considered to have more pleasing OOF areas than a medium format and a medium format was usually considered to have more pleasing OOF areas than a 35mm. I still think that lens circle (and by consequence format) still matters more than pixel peeping differences between lenses of the same format and similar image circle. Most photographers, especially hobbyists, haven't been fortunate enough to really work with several different formats. So, they probably can't really understand on a personal level of experience how much differences in image circle really matter.

In the end, I totally agree with you that the emphasis on bokeh is way overrated.

John Varatos's picture

You're exactly right. Format sizes make a huge difference. Coming from the motion-picture universe, compare 16mm film to super35. It's almost like apples and oranges... It definitely makes a bigger difference than same format lenses.

Chris Knight's picture

I just logged in to agree with this.

Hans Rosemond's picture

absolutely. I'm a big fan of shooting medium format for that "feel" a larger format gives you. I love looking at large format prints but regretfully I have yet to learn to shoot it. One day!

John Varatos's picture

Hans,

Very true about sharpness, and I will point out: sharper lenses produce sharper edges in bokeh (OOF areas) too (along with higher resolution sensors). Keep in mind the light coming through the lens is being distorted all the same for in-focus areas and out-of-focus areas alike (so sharper lenses will be sharper in OOF areas too). It's only the sensors relative position that provides the focus. My vintage Canon 50mm from the early 70s is not exactly sharp, but I've never explicitly noticed "bad" bokeh from it (even though it's not Gaussian). Could it be that the older lenses were not sharp enough to provide "bad" bokeh? Everything was smooth (including the in-focus areas!). We've tripled lens resolution since then and at least doubled sensor/film resolution, so it's natural to expect new lingo to describe things that were before unrecognized. I personally prefer the term OOF Areas to Bokeh because it's more scientific. Either way, just because it's new doesn't mean it's bad.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Oh don't get me wrong, I love the old stuff. I cut my teeth on 35mm and 120 film. The RZ67 to this day is my favorite camera. You know what would be a good test? For someone with a mirrorless camera and adapter to do some side by side tests between some current bokeh champs and some vintage lenses. That would be pretty interesting.

John Varatos's picture

Agreed. I feel like the current bokeh-champ lenses are using more sophisticated optics to achieve sharpness while providing the bokeh feel of yesterday's classics (versus just increasing sharpness). I know I'm paying for more than an extra stop of light when I purchase the Canon 85mm 1.2 vs. the Canon 85mm 1.8. On sharpness and contrast graphs, they're side by side, so I'm getting something besides increased sharpness.

John Varatos's picture

And just for clarification, I would take a sharp lens with bad bokeh over a soft one with good bokeh any day (well, unless I could have both, there are those weird times when I'd want that...).

Jay Allan's picture

Great post! Nice to see a real world comparison of these two lenses in particular. I have the Nikkor and was thinking about the Sigma Art. I am now happy with mine. The real unanswered question is... Where did you get that awesome SW shirt? :)

Hans Rosemond's picture

lol. Target. haha. I wish there was a cooler answer, but I'm boring. The Sigma is much sharper and has much better control of CA, but the 50 1.4D is a classic and it will do its job admirably. Once you stop down past 2.8 I think the lens works just fine

Nour El Refai's picture

I am really glad someone said that here.
Thank you.

Philipp Schmid's picture

Now compare the two with the Minolta/Sony 135mm f/2.8 [t/4.5] STF.

http://www.systemkamera-forum.de/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/stf_a4-...

John Varatos's picture

Perfect example. The OOF areas in the background of 882 are a perfect example of Gaussian bokeh, while the OOF areas in the foreground are a perfect example of the exact opposite (sometimes called doughnut bokeh). For the zoom lens on 898 all OOF areas are bad, but it seems to handle foreground a little better than the background (and that's exactly the opposite of what you'd want for a lens).

Michael Kormos's picture

Oh god, my eyes, my eyes!!! The goggles do nothing!

Anthony Tripoli's picture

Bokeh is something only photographers blow loads over. Put both those photos side by side and ask your average person (or client) to spot the differences and they won't. I also never shoot below f4 for commercial work anyway. I rarely get below 2.8 unless I am walking around shooting snapshots...

Hans Rosemond's picture

Yeah, I almost never shoot below 2.8 with my 1.4. Sacrilege, I know, but for clients, I want to nail focus every time.

Michael Kormos's picture

Pffff, amateurs. I never shoot below f/64 on my manual focus large format field camera.

Chris Ingram's picture

.

Justin Sharp's picture

Great article. In my opinion, great photos have little to do with bokeh or any other technicalish pixel peeper sharpness ooooh lets zoom into 100% foolishness. Its all about light on a good subject that captures a moment with a creative vision. It starts and ends with that, period. Once you have that recipe for a great photo, the other technical fru fru may be added for a bit of magic.

Martin Van Londen's picture

I get some pretty good Bokeh on my Tamron 80-300 that I paid $200 for.

Charlie Magrin's picture

You guys are defining bokeh as the blur of an out of focus area in an image. I've been taught that bokeh was the transition between the in and the out of focus area of an image, not the blur of the background. So i searched the web for answers and i find this article (http://users.rider.edu/~suler/photopsy/bokeh.htm) which makes the distinction between several types of bokeh: the transition bokeh, the background / foreground bokeh and the glint bokeh. To me the most important ones are the transition and the glint ones, but in the end, like Hans, i do not think a non photographer would make any difference with types of bokeh between a fast and a cheap lense...

Mbutu Namubu's picture

Thanks for bringing up the transition between in-focus and out-of-focus areas. I've heard people refer to that as "depth-of-focus" before. But that's not a technical phrase or anything and it's often confused with depth-of-field so I try not to use it very often.

The linked site that describes different kinds of bokeh is exactly the kind of amateur stuff I was talking about in my previous post in this thread. Sometimes, I wonder if bokeh descriptions like that are real or just parodies. In any case, I bet you're correct that transitions between IF and OOF areas are probably what most people that compare lenses in similar format are really talking about when they're describing the quality of background blur. Obviously, a 50mm Noctilux lens shot at .95 is going to have a harsher transition than a basic 50mm Canon lens shot at 1.8. Also, a lower contrast lens will appear to have a smoother transition than a higher contrast lens which might explain why a lot of people prefer the background blur from older lenses in comparison with newer ones with better optical correctness.

Brad Nichol's picture

Hans, thanks for the article, I think the success of any article is whether it makes people think and question their approaches, beliefs etc. It seems this one has.

Having read the comments and thought much about this in the past I would like to offer a few comments on my take, and I apologise ahead of time if I cause any offence to any other posters.

First I think much of the hype regarding Bokeh is rooted in a modern and generally lazy approach to photographic composition, and before you all start shouting please hear me out.

Over the years fashions in image creation come and go, for a good part of photographic history Bokeh was a none issue, photographers more often sought to render most of the image sharp, and in fact it was often a battle to do so but the trend over the past few years has been to more shallow DOF. Portraits (of course) product shots, landscapes, abstracts....nothing seems to escape with shallow DOF pursuit.

Now much of this I feel is driven by the fact that many images, indeed the great majority are not printed and certainly not printed to wall display size but rather are displayed on the Web at something like 1200 by 800 pixels or less. In such a format, shallow DOF does provide a greater degree of apparent separation (as does simple pared down compositional structure) so the deficits of shallow DOF are never seen as much of an issue. We all know the problems though, lack of critical focus, insufficient detail where it should be, optical aberrations etc.

But here is the thing, at 1200 by 800 pixels the differences in Bokeh rendition are going to be so slight (unless the image is radically cropped) as to all but irrelevant, except perhaps for the most extreme pixel peeper.

Prints are different, especially those of wall size, we might see the bokeh differences, but honestly the differences in Bokeh are pretty slight compared to say the differences in the way the OOF areas render if you actually went to a much larger format, say 4 by 5 film. I am not saying they are not important to some photographers, clearly they are, even occasionally to myself, but it is rarely a deal breaker.

Often this Bokeh thing and shallow DOF preoccupation is used to cover up the fact that the photographer has compositional difficulty in dealing with backgrounds and other non subject elements so the expedient of killing the background via a bokeh fest is appealing. Only problem folks is almost everyone does it, all you need is a fast lens and wide aperture.

But there is a trade off, a great majority of those shallow DOF bokeh fest images simply don't stand up when enlarged to wall print size, they lack adequate clarity where it is really needed, hence the idea of shooting wide open (where bokeh differences show most) is for most commercial purposes counter productive. Clearly this is why a great many long time shooters stick to reliable apertures, like f4.

Images look 3D in print (at least to my eyes) when they have careful composition that uses lines, perspective, suitable lighting and importantly high micro contrast where it is meant to be. Bokeh I feel has very little to do with getting a 3D look, shallow DOF and Bokeh effects are a fudge to get some impact when there is a deficit of all the other factors in play.

Ultimately I have settled on the approach, shoot for detail where you need it and use an aperture wide enough to give some reasonable separation, then use the myriad of tools in photoshop to adjust the look of he OOF areas to taste and artistic intent. Fact is you can take sharpness and detail away but you can't add it if its not there to start with.

None of this is of course what Nikon, Canon, Sony, Zeiss want you to hear, there is big profit and bragging rights in them there speedy optics. I just think perhaps many photographers should spend a little more time thinking about their composition and editing skills and less time worried about lens Bokeh.

Of course as always I could be totally wrong and I am not dissing those who find Bokeh a big issue for their particular style of work....to each his own.

Marcin Gil's picture

Though I'm not even an advanced amateur I find the lamp in background distracting on the close-up Nikkor shot. It's kinda shaky and drags my eyes there. Yet it is not distracting on the Sigma shot!

Robin Browne's picture

Shoot at 22, blur in post. OMG. Great article.

Brian Brigg's picture

I have to admit that I am also getting sick of hearing about the "bokeh" attributes of a lens. I have seen countless images with hexagonal or even pentagonal out of focus highlights which work very well. I've also had a lot of fun using catadioptric lenses with their donut shaped highlights. A lot of the images that worked with these primitive "bokeh" styles might not have been as good with creamy "bokeh".

I also dislike using the term "bokeh", borrowed from the Japanese. We also borrow "sashimi" from them when we had a perfectly good word already for raw fish . . . "bait".

Duy-Khang Hoang's picture

What's funny is that I find so many more posts/articles about how bokeh is overrated as compared to posts about how critical bokeh is. In any case, this article while a decent read, doesn't really address bokeh all that well. What we can see from the sample pictures is that the Nikon 50 1.4D has a more distracting background blur as compared to the Sigma 50 1.4 Art despite being a sharper lens. So unless you are after distracting looking background blur, the Sigma 50 1.4 Art is a technically better lens if your budget allows and if the weight and size are not a problem. You might want to test the foreground blur in a similar way and there is a very real possibility that the foreground blur on the Nikon may be smoother and less distracting than that of the Sigma 50 1.4 Art.

Brad Delaney's picture

Nice article, I like your style !

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