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“Crank the lens wide open and blast out that infernal (distracting) background!” is a familiar battle cry if not on the lips, then on the minds of those who shoot portraits, fashion and some photojournalism whether for a living or just for “serious enjoyment.” But for those who know (or think they do) all about bokeh – what it is and how to use it - and use it all the time via selective focus effects (sharp subject against a blurred background, wide open aperture), a single quick approach may not be the best approach. There are many factors that affect a lens’s bokeh (a Japanese term that, among other colorful definitions, like “jetlag” or “senility”, refers to the qualities of how an image/lens renders it’s out of focus areas, i.e. smooth, hard-edged, etc.). Knowing via firsthand experience what a lens’s bokeh looks like under your shooting conditions and where it works best for you and your types of subjects/shooting style(s) is a valuable though overlooked asset to most people’s photography. If you shoot mountainous landscapes or seascapes with your lens stopped down for maximum depth of field, bokeh will have no meaning for you. Everything is sharp (unless you are suffering from jetlag during an earthquake). However if you shoot portraits, macro shots, close-up flower shots, etc. with shallow depth of field for selective focus effects then it is in your best interest to attune yourself to how the out of focus (from here on referred to as “oof”) areas are rendered. Much of your photograph’s “real estate” in a selective focus style shot is taken up by oof areas. Photography is more than just recording subject matter (though for some, that’s all it is). So if you want to improve your photography beyond just a snapshot level its best to, if you’ll pardon the pun and the literal impossibility, “focus on bokeh”. Here are some not overly technical, not so quick thoughts (by no means the last word or the last out of focus blur circle) to mull over when you are considering buying, renting or using a lens(es) that you already own for its/their bokeh qualities…
oof highlights should have no bright edged ringed circles a. dpreview. It pays to do some searching on the internet (flickr.a. etc.8 Distagon for the now defunct Contax SLR line as well as less “posh” (read expensive) brands such as Canon. it may not be even an afterthought or a consideration at all in a lens’s design. “good” bokeh means soft edges to out of focus elements with discernable if not readable detail within the blur. a wide zoom range for a zoom. exhibit pleasing bokeh.LENS DESIGN Lens design for good bokeh is very intentional on some lenses and on others. whether designed for good bokeh or not. (What’s “good” bokeh to one person may be unimportant or “bad” bokeh to another’s preferences – but this is a topic for another article. etc. in other words.k. but also to look for actual images shot with them (and film camera data or EXIF file data on digital) so you can judge for yourself. Nikon also has made their own defocus control lenses around the 100mm range.) to find not only other people’s opinions/comments on the lenses you own or are thinking of purchasing/renting/borrowing from a friend. The Leica M 35mm f/2 Summicron 4th generation “bokeh king” comes to mind as does the Zeiss 16mm f/2. not here – for our purposes here. Though it may seem like many of the “good bokeh” lenses are normal lenses and longer telephoto or telephoto zoom designs there are wide angle lenses. “donuts”). Good (or bad) bokeh may be an unintended consequence of the lens’s design where supposedly more important factors (to the manufacturer) come into play as more important design considerations than bokeh– like close focus ability close range image sharpness correction . etc. well who knows?. Nikon. depending on degree of out of focus and oof highlights that have blur circles that are either evenly illuminated discs or have their circular edges fade off in intensity. now a days) SLR Minolta (now Sony) makes/has made a 135mm STF (Smooth Transition Focus) lens whose main function is to deliver pleasing background bokeh (smooth out of focus rendition). In the so-called “portrait range” (short to medium telephoto of about 85mm135mm on a full frame 35mm film (or digital. Pentax. .
100 feet. is to actually shoot with the lens(es) (on film and/or digital) you are interested in using and do a bokeh test. or. so as not to try their patience) is usually . sitting. as an example. aperture and focal length of the lens used. Also include the distance of your various background (and foreground) out of focus elements in your shot i. because by definition every lens focused at infinity should by defacto should have both subject and background in focus. along the rebate/clear edge outside of the image area/frame . and possibly minimum lens focusing distance too . Don’t trust to mere memory what your lens was and your shutter speeds. For a film camera.e. where there is no bokeh. lens focal length and brand and its maximum aperture. trees or bushes at 20 feet. try marking down with magic marker on an index card or paper in the shot. though more useful for negative film. I strongly suggest including your camera data on an index card (or larger sized paper) in the shot where there’s no possibility of losing your notebook data later or writing the wrong data on the wrong slide). in largish neat hand writing. For a digital bokeh test the camera’s EXIF data makes it easy on many DSLRs. unless they’re fiscal conservatives – just kidding.there’s not much point in testing a lens’s focus at infinity. If possible. apertures and foreground/subject/distances. don’t photograph Democrats.TESTING BOKEH The best option. such as foreground/subject/background elements distances it pays to record them if not in the shot then in a notebook for later inclusion by typing them into your file’s addable EXIF data. etc. I strongly recommend a tripod for best sharpness even when shooting handheld both to maintain the exact same composition and ultimate subject sharpness (some people who highly prize bokeh also prize lens sharpness too. If you photograph Republicans. fence at 10 feet. Data backs (on film cameras) also work well so long as they’re on and record all the data you need to refer to – either in the image itself. to recall which aperture and shutter speed a shot was taken. etc. supposedly. For portraiture a person (standing. or preferably. 50 feet. if not the name brand. they are not mutually exclusive) so as not to add any camera shake blurring as an element to the bokeh testing. though for additional data. focus distance set for your subject (a good place to start is at both 1 and 2 meters. Use whatever you prefer as your in-focus subject as long as it pertains to your type of photography. unless you just want to test the lens’s sharpness at various aperture and shutter speed. of course.
plant or hippopotamus). not a full length statue). Plastic flowers might also do in a pinch. naked tree branches which are a repeating hard edged pattern and probably the best (read most trying) test of far distanced background bokeh because any lens that can handle such hard edges as tree branches in the distance without de-doubling them has proven its ability to handle a difficult background and then some. For flowers.best. Brick walls at an angle receding into the distance and bills (posters) with lettering along a receding building’s “face” are also good tests for bad bokeh because of their hard edged lettering. is it? Concerning the in focus subject itself (person. Let the type of environment determine exactly which “bad” bokeh hard edged elements to include but at least try incorporating some of these trying elements in your shot – if you shoot everything against a blank sky or in front of a white washed building then that isn’t much of a test for bokeh now. Statuettes or mannequins (heads or full figures) are convenient and always ready for a good “portrait” test. even in front of some less than pictorial backgrounds). or during a colder season. though I try not to shoot with tree branches as oof backgrounds in real shooting situations. try not only doing lens tests for (in-focus subjects) at various distances you commonly shoot at (everyone is different here as my average subject distance may start at a . For me. but if you have to resort to plastic flowers as bokeh “stunt doubles” perhaps flower photography is not your bag (or cup) of top soil… As for your out of focus backgrounds I recommend different types of backgrounds (from soft pleasing foliage to distracting regular repeating hard-edged patterns) at various distances throughout the same shot. it’s nice to know that my lens(es) can handle such a difficult background when the need arises/can’t be avoided (like in photojournalistic-type shots where the subject does what s/he wants and goes where they want to go. perhaps about 2-3 meters (or roughly five to ten feet) or more behind your subject you might want to include a hard-edged chain-link fence with some “softer” bushes/other foliage both in front and back of it and in the far distance beyond the fence either trees with leaves where sunlight peeks through the gaps. though in a pinch you may be able to get by with a substitute such as a relatively large doll or a mannequin head (in a pinch I have even used a statuette of Moses!! holding the Ten Commandments with an index card with shot data stuck to it via looped Scotch tape and standing/resting on a table top to give it some height – it was a bust of Moses. try shooting flowers you usually would shoot whether singly or in larger groups.
a person’s head.6 or smaller to get both eyes. If you photograph people try photographing them on both overcast days and on days with direct sunlight (either with reflector and/or regular or high-speed fill flash to fill shadows) to record how specular oof highlights look on different oof objects at various distances as well as areas where light seeps in such as the oof highlights through gaps in tree leaves and other areas. may require f/5. Picking the bare minimum degree of acceptable blurriness of oof foreground and background areas. While your subject.8 or f/4. not all bokeh is smoothest at wide open aperture). good or bad bokeh aside. some flower shooters may need to shoot at one or two feet or less depending on the size of the flower and their lens’s focal length to get a good “head shot” (to borrow a people portraiture term) for their particular kind of flower(s)) (hippopotami may require you to be a lot further back. . you’ll want to not only compare foreground and background bokeh at different apertures for their softness and/or or cleanness in rendering oof details but also compare in focus sharpness of your main subject between shots. When you test for bokeh (and other factors in your photography) you have an invaluable visual reference – a few images (bokeh test(s)) are worth many more than a thousand comments. let’s say. Once you get your images back from the processor (for film) or digitally processed them in Photoshop and/or some other image manipulation program. smoothest bokeh rendition (remember.meter or less while 5 feet or two meters may be more to your liking for people. Nobody knows what you like/prefer or can even stand but you. Bokeh does not exist in a vacuum. The smoothest bokeh may be wide open at f/2. if you want to be around later to actually look at the shots you’ve taken) but also try doing tests either at different times of day and/or different lighting conditions conducive/similar to the way you normally shoot your subject. even at a zoo. tip of nose. no matter how knowledgeable the authority. best depth of field to include all of the parts of the subject(s) you want in a zone of focus. and ears (depending on your lens distance and how your subject is angled to the lens) in focus. Your lens may not really start sharpening up (assuming you want some degree of subject sharpness) till about f/2.8 even though you prefer the maximum blurriness of oof background areas when the lens is used wide open at f/1. your needs and your shooting style. depending on the type of subject. and the lens’s best aperture for a sharp subject is a careful balancing act with perhaps many tradeoffs.4.
where there are no aperture blade effects because there are no aperture blades in the way.some will render backgrounds with softer edges and/or smoother tonal transitions where details can still be maintained/seen even though they are out of focus and at least some lenses’ bokeh may clean up nicely once slightly stopped down from wide open. lenses). some lenses will render harsh bokeh .e. in lens vignetting.the oof background (and/or foreground) with sharp edges and/or "jittery" or “jumbled” essentially wiping out oof details. so did some of my Leica (when I owned it). further away backgrounds (i.BOKEH IS NOT ALL ABOUT THE APERTURE BLADES… Also. All they do is give a specific however many sided shape (or circular) appearance to the out of focus highlights. etc. or other deformation of the out of focus highlights) but not all of these lenses will have the same bokeh characteristics – even when used wide open. aperture blades (whether rounded or not. With the exception of perhaps very long focal length telephoto lenses known as “catadioptric lenses” (which use both regular lens elements and curved mirrors in the center of the lens to “fold” the light path and make a more compact/shorter lens than a regular telephoto glass lens and therefore make donut ring oof highlights due to the circular mirror obstruction in the center of the lens) virtually all lenses when used at wide open aperture. the amount of stopping down depending on the lens (my Zeiss SLR lenses have smooth detailed bokeh. The actual character of the out of focus area itself is not dependent on the aperture blades but on the (under) correction of spherical (and possibly other) aberrations. My Yashica 50mm f/2 has an odd bokeh to it. there is some (very slight?) de-doubling of lines in the background when focused closely (about 2-3 feet or less) for backgrounds close to the plane of focus. will give roundish oof highlights (assuming there's no coma. Oof highlights aside. let’s say about 6 feet or more . Some lenses will have ni sen bokeh (a dedoubling of the lines of an oof area in the foreground/background) while other lenses with regard to oof specular highlights (blur circles/”circles of confusion”) will have bright rings towards the edges and yet still others will have flat evenly illuminated discs and others will have discs that gradually fade in intensity towards the edges (often called by some as the most pleasing form of bokeh but I also prefer the flat discs too) – all at wide open aperture. however. whether 2 or 9) are a very small part of bokeh.
design). I don’t know. I also like the look of the oof highlights/circles of confusion which looked. again. though.e. My 50mm Nikon Series E (cheaper) normal lens had bokeh that cleaned up nicely at f/3. Still. subject movement blur or both) by cranking the lens wide open and letting the shutter do its thing (in aperture priority or manual).5 whilst still rendering a nicely defocused/selective focus effect on the background but sometimes I preferred the almost telephoto lens effect gained when I used the lens wide open – although perhaps not as clean as other lenses’ oof details wide open it seemed to defocus backgrounds more than other brands of similar focal length lenses. the oof areas are not as clean/have readable detail as lenses w/ good (better) bokeh – this may possibly be due to its close range correction system (i. etc. as mentioned above. if you want or need to use the lens at wide open aperture for either selective focus effects to pop the subject and de-emphasize the background/foreground elements in a shot. like large “coins” of sunlight coming through tree leaves. So what I am trying to say here is.4 AIS (manual focus) Nikkor lens in that while the subject may separate well from the background and the background does not have any harsh bokeh characteristics. a specular oof highlight might be rendered as a bright ringed edge “donut”/disc at f/2 but may become a flat evenly toned disc by f/4 with “cleaner”/more discernible oof detail) and this stopping down may be a detriment to you. how clean you want your oof bokeh details is a personal choice. may/will change its bokeh characteristics and sometimes clean up "bad (harsh) bokeh" (as well as some lens aberrations) but at the cost of more depth of field (ie.away from the camera) appear "pillowy" (as in soft and fuzzy) which I consider “good” bokeh (for my purposes) despite the fact that the integrity of the out of focus detail does not hold together/is not as recognizable as in some Zeiss/Leica lenses. forget about what a lens “should do” to deliver the “best” bokeh (best aperture to clean up the bokeh. focus/subject distance set.) and instead think about how does . STOPPING DOWN AFFECTS BOKEH Stopping down a lens a few stops from wide open. I've even heard of "complex bokeh" with regard to the 35mm f/1. though perhaps slightly ringed. or if the lighting conditions and film require as fast a shutter speed as you can get (to avoid camera shake. de-emphasizing the background and thereby popping the subject more.
the Canon 28-105mm EOS EF lens (rotten ring?-like highlights) and the 75-150mm Nikon Series E zoom (smooth bokeh). DISTANCE The distance a lens is focused at may also affect its bokeh (how smooth or harsh it is). the 105/2.ie. The link used to be. what effect works best for each individual shot and go from there. one of the worse bokeh oof background renditions and one of the best oof background renditions both come from zoom lenses.html . And just because a lens has good bokeh at 1 meter may not mean it has good bokeh at 2 meters. because this image is actually used as an example of horrendous bokeh on that web page). Note: this webpage seems to no longer exist though those with greater web savvy than me might be able to find some kind of archive of it and come up with the webpage that has that image.5 AIS MF. Some lenses may not have been intended/designed for good bokeh but receive good bokeh as a bonus characteristic of their design. … Test and find out. Every shot has a different purpose/reason for being. Every shot is unique. as well as the 105 f/2 and 135 f/2 DC lenses which are designed to have under to over correction of spherical aberration for smoother oof backgrounds and foregrounds respectively depending on which way their defocus rings are turned. Choose wisely. either at certain distances or nearly at all distances. I believe: http://people. This is odd because Nikon has (at least in the past) gotten a bad rap for bokeh (especially their normal lenses) yet Nikon. Bokeh can't be broken down completely among lens types or brands because there will always be exceptions . etc. Bokeh data/testing is a means not a quick mechanical no think kludge to an end.e.the bokeh work best for your subject – i.smu. BOKEH IS NOT BRAND SPECIFIC Bokeh is (are?) not countries. Many Canon (along w/ most Pentax and some Minolta lenses) are noted for having smooth bokeh. but the example I've seen from the 28-105 EF Canon EOS lens on Bob Maugham's bokeh web page simply sucks! (That's ok. makes one of the best "bokeh: lenses on the planet for portraiture.edu/rmonagha/mf/bokeh. in addition to the zoom mentioned above. There are no evil empires or Shangri-Las in Bokehland (or Bokehlands).
you must pick and choose which lens works best at which apertures and which distances to subject and background elements for your desired bokeh and selective focus/depth of field effects. during and after you shoot. There are no Ten Commandments (read “rules”) of bokeh. As with sharpness and other factors in photography. see how different kinds of bokeh affect you visually/emotionally and develop your own tastes and preferences. NOT JUST THE LENS… Think about bokeh and how it affects your shots both before. OPEN UP YOUR MIND.FOR “BEST” BOKEH. ©2001 and 2010 Lewis Edward Lang ALL RIGHTS RESERVED . No one can tell you how (or even why) you should shoot a particular lens in a particular way for a desired bokeh effect – not even a ceramic Moses figurine with f/ stops instead of commandments taped to his torso!! Happy Bokeh and Happy Shooting. but more so than going for some kind of artificial standard of a “perfect bokeh lens” or “perfect” bokeh itself.
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