Musings on Photography


Posted in equipment by Paul Butzi on September 22, 2009


It took me a long time, but I’ve finally broken free of the compulsion to make sure everything in the frame is perfectly in focus – a habit learned and ingrained deeply during my years of view camera use. I still make photos where everything is in focus, but I also feel free to make photos where only one or two things are sharp, and sometimes I’ve made photos where nothing is in focus at all.

I struggled for a long time to get a toehold on how things will look out of focus – lens choice and aperture, and focus distance. When I say struggled, I mean struggled in the sense that I felt everyone else had figured it out and was a) laughing at me, and b) engaged in a large-scale conspiracy to NOT tell me the secret.

Part of it is lens choice. Some lenses have ugly out of focus rendering no matter what you do. Some seem to do the right thing no matter what. But most often, a lens will give you good stuff in some situations, and ugliness in others. How to figure out which you’ll get?

Andreas Manessinger blurts out the secret:

So often I see people ask on forums what lenses they should buy for good bokeh, and then they get all sorts of answers from 50/1.4 to – of course – 85/1.4, but what so many people don’t recognize, is that near focus beats wide aperture all the time. That’s why this lens is so useful and that’s why the Sigma 70/2.8 Macro wipes the floor with the Nikon 85/1.8, although they have so similar focal lengths and although the are similarly priced.

Why does it seem that always, always, the pictures improve as you get closer?

15 Responses

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  1. Martin Doonan said, on September 22, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    Are you kidding? I’ve been looking at your stuff and wondering how I get anywhere near that good. Plus Doug Plummer & Matt Alofs. You guys seem to have it nailed and I’m floundering.
    Recently bought Sugimoto’s “Architecture” – masterful out of focus, the sort of result I wish I could get close to (but then I’d be famous like him:-)).

    Reminds me, must finally get round to buying that 100 f/2.8Macro (not the fancy new one).

  2. photoburner said, on September 22, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    John Shaw says the opposite, pushing for the use of longer lenses to give you OOF backgrounds. 200mm and up

  3. matt said, on September 22, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    I think Andreas is confusing the ability to create shallow DOF with the ability to render the out of focus areas smoothly. Apart from the lens, the distance from focus point to the out of focus areas makes the most difference. That and leaves. OOF focus leaves always look ugly.

    The true secret to Bokeh starts with asking what you mean by Bokeh.

  4. Gordon McGregor said, on September 22, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    It does sound like the quote is describing the best approach for shallow depth of field, not qualities of OOF regions (bokeh)

  5. Dave Kosiur said, on September 22, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    On a totally different subject,today’s photo reminded me of an upright piano. πŸ˜‰


  6. Paul Buti said, on September 22, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    “The true secret to Bokeh starts with asking what you mean by Bokeh.”

    How ugly the out of focus rendering is. For this purpose, ‘ugly’ is like peanut butter: smooth and creamy is good, chunky is bad.

    Those of you who like chunky peanut butter are horrid barbarians who do not appreciate the finer things in western civilization. πŸ˜‰

  7. Rosie Perera said, on September 22, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    I find that Bokeh works best with macro photography, particularly flowers/plants, where the background is all varying shades of one color. Macro forces the very shallow DOF, focus on the item of interest.

    I can imagine it would be hard to transition to selective focus from view camera, when there is so much in the frame that’s of interest. You’ve got to get used to seeing differently. Looking for the lone blossom that sticks out by itself, or a row of many vertical objects of which you’re going to choose one to focus on and let the rest go out of focus (piano keys, for example: focus on the middle area where the player’s hands are).

    Silly practice exercise: set up still lifes with three simple objects that are basically vertical (we used film canisters, AA batteries, etc.). Place them at different distances from each other and work with a wide aperture, narrow DOF, focusing on one or the other. Stand at different distances from the subject. Use different focal lengths. You’ll begin to get familiar with what combinations give the best selective focus.

  8. Oren Grad said, on September 23, 2009 at 12:43 am

    Matt and Gordon are exactly right about the distinction between shallow DOF and OOF character. (But Matt isn’t right about OOF leaves always looking ugly.)

    Paul, if you want an education in bokeh, set up an 8×10 view camera with an Apo-Sironar-S of suitable focal length in the middle of a stand of trees, on a day of soft, luminous overcast. Focus on a tree at middling distance. Stop down to a middling aperture. Expose a sheet of black and white film. Contact print the resulting negative and look closely at what happens as sharpness gradually attenuates in the trees receding into the background beyond the plane of focus.

  9. matt said, on September 23, 2009 at 5:43 am

    ‘But Matt isn’t right about OOF leaves always looking ugly.’

    Your right, they don’t always look ugly, but they are a hard background to render OOF smoothly; I’ve always figured it was the combination of backlighting and lots of detail.

    ‘smooth and creamy is good’

    The smoothest, creamiest bokeh seems to come from some of the least well corrected lenses. The 50 Hexanon I shoot with a lot is super creamy, but it isn’t terribly sharp, its infinity performance is fairly poor, it shows a fair amount of spherical aberration, etc etc etc. But it renders OOF areas really nicely. More modern lenses seem to perform better in almost every measurable dimension.

    One of the appealing things about larger formats is that you can throw lots of things out of focus without resorting to long lenses or close working distances. You never used shallow DOF in your large format days?

  10. matt said, on September 23, 2009 at 5:46 am

    Developers that build up edge effects (D76 1:1, or Rodinal 1:50 or even better 1:100) can help too, particularly with subjects rendered more in outline. Gotta be a way to do that in PS.

  11. Paul said, on September 23, 2009 at 7:35 am

    @Paul: I happen to love chunky peanut butter! Smooth peanut butter is for wimps without teeth!

  12. Gordon McGregor said, on September 23, 2009 at 11:19 am

    chunky all the way. But almond, not peanut.

  13. Rosie Perera said, on September 23, 2009 at 10:43 pm

    I got my best ever smooth bokeh shot with a Canon 28-70 f/2.8L at f/4, with leaves in the background. I think the keys are strong differentiation between foreground and background colors, relatively little gradation in color in the background, and enough distance between foreground and background that with your particular DOF the background will be totally OOF while the foreground is totally sharp. In this photo of mine, I cropped drastically from a larger frame, so the resolution isn’t the greatest, and my focus could have been a bit sharper on the flower. But I’m still quite pleased with the results.

    I don’t know if this HTML code will work in a comment, but just in case not, here’s the link to the photo in question.

  14. Rosie Perera said, on September 23, 2009 at 10:43 pm

    Ah, the img HTML tag doesn’t work in comments. Good to know.

  15. Andreas Manessinger said, on October 13, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Matt, Gordon,

    Of course you’re right, it’s shallow DOF that you create by going near, but the effect is the same, and once you get near enough, even an ugly bokeh gets creamy. Ugliness of bokeh is a function of DOF: the shallower (i.e. the more blurry the out-of-focus areas are), the more pleasing is bokeh.

    Think of what really looks ugly with ugly lenses: foliage. That’s fine detail getting rendered with all sorts of crazy outlines. The more lines, the more outlines. Now if you go nearer, DOF gets shallow enough that the lines melt together. Near enough, and everything is creamy, and what’s important: a better lens could not do it better at these distances.

    Thus: Bokeh is really about how creamy a lens is at depths of field where the difference matters. If on the other hand you are not interested in the out-of-focus qualities of a particular lens, but just want that creamy out-of-focus quality, going near does the trick perfectly.

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