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On The Quest For Beautiful Bokeh

John Duder is hunting the bokeh masters in a search for perfectly out of focus backgrounds and interesting shapes.

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Lensbaby Creative Bokeh optic, together with the inserts, the magnetic tool for removing them, and the ingenious container they live in.

Lensbaby Creative Bokeh optic, together with the inserts, the magnetic tool for removing them, and the ingenious container they live in.

 

Beginnings

I think that the quest for 'beautiful Bokeh' is a recent trend, and it's possibly come from the lack of differential focus that standard zoom lenses allow. As formats of film and sensors have got smaller, considerable depth of field has become the norm, and the use of limited depth of field got rarer until software started to offer an artificial recreation of the effect. The depth of field of a 300mm lens on 10"x8" film is shallow, even at apertures that we now regard as quite small.

Wide apertures used to be the way that we compensated for slow films: for most people, I think, the ability that an f/1.4 lens gives you to fade out the background was a secondary consideration, tempered by the difficulty of achieving sharp focus away from the focussing aids in the middle of an SLR's screen.


I can't remember when I first started using heavy differential focus as a creative tool. Certainly, I've owned the lens that I first started doing it with as a conscious thing since 1977, but it took a while before I really started to exploit the maximum aperture of my 85mm f/1.4 Planar...

By the early Noughties, it had become something of a trademark shot for me – sharp eyes or lashes, with an out-of-focus body behind. I’m now addicted to Lensbabies and all manner of other interesting and imperfect lenses. Softness is interesting!

 

1 Trademark f/1.4 eyelashes. Absolutely precise focus is needed, and the advantage a mirrorless camera’s electronic viewfinder gives is enormous. Manual focus is a must!

Trademark f/1.4 eyelashes. Absolutely precise focus is needed, and the advantage a mirrorless camera’s electronic viewfinder gives is enormous. Manual focus is a must! Model: French Chloe

 

Definition

Bokeh is a much-abused word, and at least one monthly British magazine uses the word to mean 'out of focus' – but that’s not what it means in Japanese. Bokeh only becomes apparent when you have out of focus areas, but it refers to the quality of those areas.

Good bokeh is generally considered to be present when the transition between different areas is smooth. If there’s a pattern, any sign of jaggedness, it’s probably bad bokeh.

However, let’s not get too hung up on definitions, or what is good or bad. Essentially, if you like an effect, use it. And what is traditionally thought to be bad may be useful for particular effects in a specific image.

I’ll add an apology – I have written this article with only full-frame cameras in mind. This doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve great things with APS-C and Micro Four Thirds – merely that shorter focal length lenses have a greater depth of field and thus less scope for extreme bokeh. There are wonderful lenses for these systems, but even the near-legendary Fuji 56mm f/1.2 can’t quite match an 85mm f/1.4 for sheer lack of depth of field. For once, bigger is definitely better, as I proved to myself a few years ago.

It’s interesting that a mechanism for isolating the subject has, in a sense, become the subject itself…

 

2 Bad bokeh – shot at a small aperture with a 50mm f/1.4 CCTV lens. At this sort of aperture, the iris is a long narrow rectangle, and that means that the out of focus highlights are long, narrow, and tending towards rectangular.

Bad bokeh – shot at a small aperture with a 50mm f/1.4 CCTV lens. At this sort of aperture, the iris is a long narrow rectangle, and that means that the out of focus highlights are long, narrow, and tending towards rectangular.

 

Cause & Effect

What makes the difference between different looks for out-of-focus areas? The most obvious thing is the shape of the aperture blades: most of the ‘best’ lenses have nine or eleven blades to give a really round aperture: cheaper lenses may have only two blades (like the CCTV lens used for the shot above), or may give jagged openings. Each will give a characteristic pattern to out of focus areas, from the pentagonal look that comes from many older and slightly cheaper lenses to the doughnuts that a mirror lens gives. Even then, careful design of the curve of blades can allow a smaller number of blades to give a near-circular aperture at most settings.

Lensbaby have exploited this beautifully with their Creative Bokeh optic, which comes with a number of shaped aperture plates which drop into the front of the lens. Want heart-shaped highlights? Can do! Bird-silhouette highlights? Of course.

The Creative Bokeh optic is available either as a lens to use with any of the camera mounts it has made (Composer Pro, Muse, Control Freak, etc.), or with a Spark mount, which appears to be available only for Nikon at present. That’s a pity, as the Spark lens and mount cost the same together as the lens does on its own...

 

3 Bird bokeh from a shaped insert in a Lensbaby Creative Bokeh lens – see the header.

Bird bokeh from a shaped insert in a Lensbaby Creative Bokeh lens – see the header.

 

Showing It Off

What do you need to do in order to get obvious bokeh in your pictures? And what will show off the more interesting types of bokeh well?

The big thing is to have an out of focus area, and the more out of focus, the better. Two things will influence this above everything: using a wide aperture, and having a big difference in distance between the subject and the background (or foreground… It’s not usually considered, but an out of focus framing device in the foreground may show up the same sorts of effect as a blurry background).

Consequently, for the most extreme effect, you will want a lens with a fixed, long focal length – there’s a rash of new lenses coming from all sides. The Sigma Art lenses are noted for sharpness and lovely bokeh, as are Sony’s G-Master lenses, and the way that both companies are developing big and expensive optics with f/1.4 and f/1.8 apertures along with focal lengths over 100mm is turning into a bragging contest. But there are other options, especially if you’re not shooting fast-moving subjects and can take your time with manual focus. Sigma bill their 105mm f/1.4 as 'The Bokeh Master'...

 

4 Samyang 135, at f/2: you have to choose which eye to have in focus – and decide between the lashes and the iris. Model: ShellB at SS Creative Studios.

Samyang 135, at f/2: you have to choose which eye to have in focus – and decide between the lashes and the iris. Model: ShellB at SS Creative Studios.

 

This article was actually sparked off by reading the review of the new Sony 135mm f/1.8: a spectacular lens, but at an eye-watering price that’s the far side of £1,500. The reviewer noted that Sigma offers a rather cheaper version, but failed to mention the entry-level competitor, the Samyang 135mm f/2. A third of the price of the Sigma, I picked up a secondhand one for 60% of the new cost, in mint condition.

 

Practical?

Now, let me disabuse you of the idea that it’s trivially easy to do this stuff: you need a bit of thought and practice, or a great deal of luck! You need to focus very carefully indeed, and to choose your background carefully to show off the effects.

For instance, I was captivated by the doughnut bokeh of a mirror lens that I saw in Amateur Photographer in around 1969, but it was some years after I first acquired a mirror lens that I managed to get the effect: the background needs to contain small, bright highlights.

 

5 Mirror lenses give characteristic doughnut-shaped highlights. I lusted after such a lens from the first time I saw the result of pointing one at a sunlit, backlit beach picture. They’re actually quite hard work: and cheap mirror lenses really are not very sharp. This picture used the only autofocus mirror lens made so far, the Minolta 500mm f/8 Reflex.

Mirror lenses give characteristic doughnut-shaped highlights. I lusted after such a lens from the first time I saw the result of pointing one at a sunlit, backlit beach picture. They’re actually quite hard work: and cheap mirror lenses really are not very sharp. This picture used the only autofocus mirror lens made so far, the Minolta 500mm f/8 Reflex.

 

Frankly, to test it out for yourself, the best thing you can do is get out your Christmas lights, or a set of LED decorative lights, and set them up at the very far end of the room.

But don’t just plonk them in front of the window: you need a dark background. Night-time shooting will work, as will dark curtains or black card.

Next, you need a subject, and lighting on it, well in front of the lights. Get close in to the subject, and focus carefully at a wide aperture, making sure that the Christmas lights are clearly visible in the background - remember, the greater the differential in distance between subject and background, the more pronounced the effect will be.

Now all you have to do is translate that to your everyday photographic situation… And that’s the part that is often a bit elusive. It’s incredibly hard work constructing a shot around a couple of technical considerations.

 

6 Distorting the rule of thirds composition can help… Lensbaby Twist 60 at full aperture, focussed on the leaf in the middle, and showing the characteristic swirly bokeh of the lens round the outside. Leaves and branches work really well as background with this lens.

Distorting the rule of thirds composition can help… Lensbaby Twist 60 at full aperture, focussed on the leaf in the middle and showing the characteristic swirly bokeh of the lens around the outside. Leaves and branches work really well as a background with this lens.

 

Along with all of this is the fact that many of the lenses that give interesting bokeh are manual focus and offer tiny depth of field, and you may well want to be sure that you have a way to focus with great precision – simple (relatively) with my Alpha 7 bodies, but maybe a bit more complex with a DSLR, as the screen's not intended as a focusing aid.

 

Effective FX

I’ve known people who have bought optics described as 'Bokeh lenses' – which, in fact, are simply older manual-focus optics. They’re bokeh lenses in the sense that they will, quite definitely, give bokeh when there’s an out of focus background – but will it be interesting or beautiful? Of course, if your usual lens is a kit zoom, maybe an 18-55mm with a maximum aperture at 55mm around f/5.6, an old, manual focus 50 or 58mm f/2 lens will be a revelation (as well as much harder to focus!)

There seem to me to be a small number of distinct categories of lens that you may want to consider:

Lenses with a very distinctive and beautiful bokeh. For instance, the Meyer Trioplan, which was once a rather cheap and nasty East German telephoto lens, delivers a unique look which is actually the absolute opposite of ‘good bokeh’ because the highlights have a light ring at the edge, rather than fading gently away. But it’s eye-grabbing, and can be used very creatively. The equally ‘bad’ doughnuts that a mirror lens gives (because the design involves a mirror on the back of the front element so that the aperture is annular) are similarly seductive.

 

7 Meyer Trioplan 100mm at full aperture renders Aleksandra M nicely sharp, and background highlights showing the ‘bubble bokeh’ for which the lens is well known.

Meyer Trioplan 100mm at full aperture renders Aleksandra M nicely sharp, and background highlights showing the 'bubble bokeh' for which the lens is well known.

 

Very wide aperture lenses offer great scope for differential focus. If they’re equipped with aperture blades that are curved, so that the aperture is close to being perfectly circular at most wider apertures, they will probably produce a dreamy, creamy look. Nice… This is an area where Sigma and Sony have been notably busy over the last couple of years, and others are following suit. A classic, which I admit I’ve never used, is the Canon 85mm f/1.2. I suspect that its reputation depends on sheer differential focus, as the resolution doesn’t seem to be that high compared with newer lenses, and the compromises needed make it big, heavy and expensive – for everyday use, the Canon 85mm f/1.8 has it beaten all ways round (I’ve owned one of these, and it’s one of the absolute bargains in the Canon range, especially if you can find a well-used secondhand example).

And there are also a very few ways to get the sort of specific results that the Lensbaby Creative Bokeh kit gives, even cheaper: simply make a black paper cut-out of the shape you want, and tape this in front of your lens – that’s precisely what the Lensbaby does, in a fully-engineered way with magnetic shapes. The aperture will be a combination of the diaphragm setting, and the light-blocking effect of the cut-out. This isn’t a time to use manual mode without careful testing! (My brief check with the CB and the 'birds in flight' mask indicated that it cuts two stops off the aperture set – results will vary depending on how much of the pattern you use is blank, and how much allows light to pass. The variation may also alter as you change the aperture.)

 

8 Even the basic Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 lens – the cheapest Sony full-frame lens – gives a forensic level of detail wide open. Eden Elizabeth at Dolphin Studio.

Even the basic Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 lens – the cheapest Sony full-frame lens – gives a forensic level of detail wide open. Eden Elizabeth at Dolphin Studio.

 

Trade-Offs

At the very peak of the market, you may find lenses that are incomparable in terms of quality, as well as giving amazingly pure bokeh. It’s tempting to believe that nothing less will do. And it’s not true.

On the one hand, classics like the Trioplan were never THAT good in the first place: expect a lack of pin sharpness in most areas, and be grateful that the centre is half-decent. It’s like expecting the same car to be lightning-fast round corners and provide luxurious comfort – there will be compromises. You are, essentially, conducting exercises in degrees of unsharpness, and sometimes lenses that don’t come out of test comparisons well are delightful for the right subject.

Remanufactured lenses (like the modern, £1,000 Trioplan) are not going to be much better, I suspect, though they may be better coated for greater flare resistance. (Do you actually want greater flare resistance, though?) I’ve often seen remarks about the cost of Lensbaby optics – I am very pleased with the ones I own, but I’m under no illusions that they will rival my Sony and Minolta lenses for everyday use.

Modern lenses, on the other hand, tend to be remarkably good at delivering sharp results, and at times the results can seem characterless unless you use control of the aperture to create softness.


9 Degrees of unsharpness – at their widest apertures, where all the effects are most pronounced, Lensbaby optics have limited sharpness – but the effect of focussing on the nearer leaves of the tree on the left with a Burnside 35mm at full (f/2.8) aperture is unusual and attractive.

Degrees of unsharpness – at their widest apertures, where all the effects are most pronounced, Lensbaby optics have limited sharpness - but the effect of focussing on the nearer leaves of the tree on the left with a Burnside 35mm at full (f/2.8) aperture is unusual and attractive.

 

What you’re looking for is beauty, and contrast between the sharp and the soft. My feeling on the basis of owning two Samyang lenses, and having met a couple of others, is that they have a performance which is disproportionate to their price, and you will need to be a good technician with a high-resolution camera to separate them from the Sony and Sigma market leaders, and the new generation of lenses coming from Nikon and Canon. There will be others – I don’t know the market inside out, and my knowledge is based on my own experience.

All models and studios in pictures used in this article can be contacted through their Purpleport pages, searching for the names as given in captions.

 

Personal monster menagerie – Lensbaby Twist 60, Meyer Trioplan, Lensbaby Burnside 35 (showing the vignette control between aperture and focus rings) and Samyang 135mm f/2 manual focus lens.

 

About Author: John Duder 

John Duder has been an amateur photographer for fifty years, which surprises him, as he still reckons he’s 17.

Over the last year or so, he’s been writing articles for ePHOTOzine, as well as being a member of the Critique Team. He’s also been running occasional lighting workshops and providing one-to-one photographic tuition.

He remains addicted to cameras, lenses, and film.

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Comments


mistere Plus
6 4 3 England
10 Sep 2019 9:50AM
Interesting and informative article John.
Thank you.

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