Bokeh gonna burn your eyes


Mark my words (as if they are that important): the future will not look kindly on the gimmick-bokeh that dominates the aesthetic of 2000s photography, just as we get a chuckle out of 1970s pictures with excessive sunsets, lens flare, and nipples. People yet to be born will wonder why photographers in the 2000s took insanely expensive lenses, better than any ever designed to date – and cheaper – and then used them to simulate astigmatism, near-sightedness, and macular degeneration. The most charitable explanation will be that photographers were trying to show solidarity with the visually impaired.

The buzzword (today) is subject isolation. But why are we isolating a subject from its context? What’s wrong with the context? Are we creating millions of pictures of the same peoples’ faces with nothing else in the shot? Are they people or products?

In the present, good composition can still be shot at f/16. Small apertures are also obligatory on larger-format film cameras because a lot of those lenses have serious light and sharpness falloff at the edges at their maximum apertures, especially with the focus at infinity. Nobody buys a $3,000+ 6×12 camera to get the types of pictures you could see from a $250 Lomo Belair.

There is a reason that early autoexposure SLRs used shutter priority: if you had to make a choice for what would be in focus, it would be your subject; if you had light to spare, you’d want use as small an aperture as your lowest desired shutter speed would support. And that thinking underpins historic picture-making. Intentionally shallow depth of field is not a feature of most of the world’s most iconic images. Arnold Newman did not need shallow depth of field to shoot Stravinsky. Eugene Smith did not shoot Spanish policemen as an exercise in subject isolation. And David Douglas Duncan captured every crease in the face of an exasperated Marine captain. How about Richard Avedon with his Rollei and every celebrity on earth? There are exceptions, but throughout history, wide apertures were primarily driven by a need to keep shutter speeds high enough to avoid blur. Light constraints are not such a consideration when ISO 6400 is a thing on digital cameras.

The worst part about bokeh, and the one no one talks about, is that it can actually be unpleasant by causing eyestrain (or maybe brain-strain). In many ways, a human eye – if you looked at the whole image projected on the retina at once – resembles a cheap Lomo-type lens: sharp in the middle (the fovea) and blurry at the edges. It even has a complete blind spot (the punctum caecum). The eye has a slow aperture, estimated by some to be f/2.8. But, dammit, everything looks like it is in focus. That’s because your eyes are continuously focusing on whatever you are looking at. Your brain is continuously piecing together fragmentary information (the blind spot thing is incredible – vertebrate biology beat Adobe to content-aware fill by about 500 million years). The end result is what looks (perceptually) like a scene where everywhere you look, things are in focus. It’s actually pretty amazing that this works.

In every photo, there is a compression of three dimensions into two. More depth of field allows your eyes to wander and allows you to process the scene fairly normally. When you look at bokehlicious pictures, definition is concentrated on one object (and often just a piece of it). You might find your eyes (or visual perception) constantly trying to focus on other aspects of the scene besides the subject. But neither your eyes nor computational photography can remove extreme artifacts once they are “flattened.”

Scroll back up to the picture at the top. Same composition, shot at f/8 and f/1.5 with a 50mm ZM Sonnar. Look left and look right. On the left, you can look almost anywhere n the scene and see whatever visual element you want to scrutinize, at at least some level of detail. On the right, you are always and forever staring into the Contractor Ring®. You can try to focus on other elements of the picture on the right, but the information simply is not there. Need an aspirin?

And it can be fatiguing, more so that the aesthetic is played out and that anyone with an iPhone X can play the game. Pictures with ultra-shallow DOF don’t look natural. They are great every once in a while, or if you need a 75/1.4 Summilux to get an otherwise-impossible shot, but otherwise, get off your ass and move the camera (or your subject) into a position with a reasonable background.

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9 responses to “Bokeh gonna burn your eyes”

  1. David Babsky says :

    Early auto-exposure SLRs ..the Canon AE1 you mean? ..but not, of course, the Olympus OM2.

    And blur hurts one’s eyes? Er, blurry out-of-focus Turner paintings, you mean? Or all those Robert Capa photos with blurry backgrounds?

    Some photographs, I think – but what do I know? – are records of what was in front of the lens: a tree, some scenery, a street, friends in the water, but some photographs are meant to convey an idea; to convey what was in the photographer’s mind, and are not necessarily a sharp record of what’s simply facing the lens.

    Prose is a description; poetry conveys thoughts.

    Why would I always want everything in sharp focus, like a prose description?

    I may want to convey what – or who – is, for me, especially important about some scene, place, event, situation, relationship, moment or person. So why would I want what’s less relevant to be as sharp and clear as what’s most important in my picture?

    Should I ALWAYS WRITE WITH UNDIFFERENTIATED CAPITAL LETTERS? ..or may I mix CAPITALS and lower-case? Do I always need a verb? Hmm. Some sentences may be just statements. But can’t others be questions? How about dodging and burning for emphasis; allowed or not allowed?

    1970s “..excessive sunsets, lens flare..” ..yes “..and nipples” ..oh,please, yummy!

  2. Craig says :

    I thought the reason shutter priority was the earliest autoexposure mode (for Canon at least) was that the shutter was inside the camera and therefore easier to control with camera-based automation, whereas the aperture was in the lens, so aperture priority would have required changes to the mechanical interface between the lens and the body. Early SLRs had the ability to stop down the lens to whatever the aperture ring was set to, but not the ability to stop the lens down arbitrarily.

  3. David Babsky says :

    I just thought: as you’re so disparaging about ‘bokeh’, whyever did you buy – three and a bit years ago – a Sonnetar 50mm f1.1 ..?

    Just for ‘low-light use’ ..on a high-ISO-achieving digital camera? I don’t believe it.

  4. Jimbob says :

    Bokeh, the crutch of the amateur, a photo fetish. Bokeh, an easy gimmick that can be duplicated any number of ways, easily faked digitally. You can’t do composition, good light, or interesting subject with a hackneyed parlor trick though–that’s where visual skill is needed.

    • David Babsky says :

      I like the hazy outline of Herschel’s hair; makes me think he dreams of distant galaxies..

      I like the wistful background beyond Elizabeth, Elizabeth and Margaret..

      And I like the out-of-focus train station (..if you scroll down here: ) ..putting the emphasis on the women, lower-right.

      It’s easy, of course, to dismiss with all-purpose insults; “Colo(u)r is the crutch of those who can’t use monochrome”. Or “Monochrome’s the crutch of those who can’t compose in colo(u)r”, and so on.

      I’d say “the simple quippy insult is the crutch of amateur wordsmiths”. Dante’s written an essay to support his whole idea – although I disagree with it.

      But one catch-all insult takes so much less effort, doesn’t it?

  5. Scott Paris says :

    Yep, it’s weird. I have a 1970 Leica lens catalog; it’s 10 pages long, and neither the word “bokeh,” nor any mention of the out-of-focus parts of the photograph appears anywhere in it. They were not important and not of interest.
    Even the descriptions of the f1.4 lenses only suggest that they’re good for “low light photography.”
    The sample photographs suggest that the idea was to make the foreground and background work together.
    But that’s hard.

    • David Babsky says :

      Well, penicillin wasn’t discovered until penicillin was discovered.

      No-one knew that gravity was simply the curvature of space until Albert Einstein proposed that in 1915.

      Similarly, “bokeh” was an unknown concept – in the West – in 1970, until, apparently, John Kennerdell introduced the concept from the East, as sometimes mentioned, like this, in ‘The Online Photographer’.. John writes, and I quote:

      ‘Thank us or blame us, the notorious b-word first came to the West in a feature in the May/June 1997 issue of Photo Techniques magazine, following a discussion on out-of-focus lens character on the old Compuserve Photoforum. Oren Grad and I pointed out that the Japanese had a term for it: boke aji, literally, the “flavor of the blur.”‘

      And the French didn’t seem to have a word for the weekend until they adopted the English word, and it became “le weekend”.

      There didn’t seem to be a concept of “negative space” in photography ..until someone came up with it.

      No-one had the idea of perspective in painting until someone came up with the idea of perspective in painting. (But that was before 1970.)

  6. Eugen Mezei says :

    Photography books recommended to use DOF to accentuate your subject, to guide the eye to the main subject in the photograph. (Besides other methods like composition or color choose.)
    It was not about isolating it from its surroundings.
    To put it blunt: Let me the viewer of the photo at least recognise if your model stood in a city or a forest. Blur the background a bit, ok, but not up until it is only blobs of colours (or only a compact color) where I can not recognise any shape.
    Just for the fact that you bought yourself a f:1.4 lens it does not mean you have to open it to 1.4. It also does not mean you have to close it to 22. Used it so that your main subject is in sharp focus and the background a little bit unsharp and let it go more and more unsharper with distance. Don’t cut the second plane. Let me recognise the near surrounding, cut the 4th or 5th plane into abstract shapes, but let me see, even if unsharp, the 2nd and 3rd. Less is more.

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