Oh...Hey Bokeh

"Amazing bokeh"
"Great bokeh"
"Buttery smooth bokeh"

These are all terms you have have heard, read or used yourself.  But what exactly is it?

Bokeh

The term "boke" or "bokeh" became popular in the late 90's and if you frequent any photography site or forum nowadays, you can't browse for longer than a few minutes before coming across someone commenting on the "bokeh" of a particular image.  It is used to describe the quality, rendition and implementation of the out of focus area in a photograph.  It's the "feel" of the out of focus area.  Generally this is done with shooting with a shallow depth of field, but can also be seen when using a tilt-shift lens, when lens whacking or in post-processing.

F/11 (click for larger)

F/1.8 (click for larger)

There's no depth to my shallowness

The depth of field, or DOF, is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that appear in focus.  The two above photos are shot from the exact same spot at two different aperture settings (or "f-stops").  The lens used was a Canon FD mount 50mm/1.4 on a Sony A7r.  The first photo, shot at f/11 still has some blur to the background, and the blur in the background does look good, but it doesn't draw the eye to the bottle.  The second photo, shot at f/1.8 is in focus from about 1/3" in front of the bottle, to the back of the bottle (meaning the entire bottle is in focus...more on this later).  Since the DOF is much shallower, the railing and lights are much more out of focus than in the first photo.  The lens itself has a good quality blur to it, it's smooth, but the implementation in the second photograph draws the eye into the subject which is the bottle.

In product photography you'll often see things blurred out as the attention is meant to be on the specific product.  In bridal photography, a very shallow DOF is used to give a "glow" to the subject.  During the holidays you see a lot of shallow DOF shots because the addition of blurred christmas lights everywhere generally creates a nice soft feel to the image.  In portraits a blurred background leads the eyes to the subject instead of wandering around the background. 
Sometimes...it's just there for an added effect...a specific "look" that the artist/photographer is going for.  Other times it's because they have no idea what they are doing,

 

"I have a 85/1.2 and I must shoot everything at f/1.2"

Too shallow.

After all, you just spent $2000 on arguably one of the best portrait lenses for DSLRs.  Why shouldn't you always shoot at 1.2?  I mean, that's what you're paying all that money for right?  If you're going to shoot at f/1.8, you could have bought the 85mm/1.8 for $360.  First, let me digress for a minute and throw out a quick disclaimer.  Art in general has no right or wrong.  That's what makes it art.  There are certain rules out there, and the first thing you learn after learning the rules is to break them.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder...and all that jazz.  So the next few statements are my personal and professional opinions.  

If you're shooting a portrait...please....pretty please.....get the whole face in focus.  Shooting every single shot so wide open and close up where only one eye is in focus is insane.  Sure, you want the "dreamy" bokeh, go up a third or two, get the tip of the nose thru the top of the jaw bone in focus.  I'm all for being artsy-fartsy, but when every single shot has only one eye in focus...you're simply being lazy.  Learn how to calculate DOF (there's even apps for it) and don't just shoot wide open for the sake of shooting wide open.  Don't get me wrong, I've seen some great shots done this way (not many as I'm very critical of this "technique"), but when you see the ENTIRE set is done this way.....we get it...you bought an expensive lens, but can we please see the brides face? (most often I see this done in wedding photography).  Not everything has to be shot wide open to give that "soft" appealing look. 

Again too shallow

I shot a row of palm trees covered in Christmas lights (above).  It's tough when looking at the photo to really see the focus point (or the point of the photo really) as it was taken just to show the blur the Canon FD 50/1.4 gave when shot at 1.4 at close range.  Some foreground blur and lots of background blur with the trees in the back.  I would have preferred shooting this at f/4 or so to keep more of the foreground tree in focus.  It's also distracting, sure it looks neat, but that's about it.

The W Motors emblem above was shot too shallow (@1.8).  If this was a product shoot it would not be an acceptable image.  Why?  Because the product, in this case, the company name isn't in focus.  Keep an eye out on product photography and very rarely, if ever will you see parts of the product itself out of focus. While we're on the topic, check out Karl Taylor's tutorial on product photography in the links section below.  I absolutely love Karl's work and his training videos are probably the best you can get, plus his accent is awesome.  "Great LoYght!" 

Below was a picture I shot with my Fuji x100s while out shooting the sunset in the Maldives.  Shallow DOF at f/2 but was only concerned with getting the back of the camera in focus.

DSCF1280.jpg

Look here

Much like selective color and vignettes are meant to draw your attention to the subject, shooting at a shallow depth of field can do the same thing.  It's not a way of insulting you as a viewer by trying to point out what the subject is, but a pleasing way of drawing the viewer into the picture.  Sometimes creating mystery of what's going on in the blurred back ground.  Well....99% of selective color is pretty insulting and a result of poor composition.  Yeah I get it...it's a picture of a apple.  Selective color should go the same route as square toed shoes....uninvented.

Angry Bird.  Canon 100mm/2.8 @ f/2.8

How do I do this voodoo?

Shooting wide open

My friend Mike Kulp of http://digitalkulprits.com/ shooting the Dubai Marina.  Shot with Canon 5D3, Sigma 35mm/1.4

Anytime you shoot at a large aperature (this means a LOW f-stop number) your depth of field is decreased.  There is less distance of area in focus and this DOF is decreased even less the closer the subject is to the camera.  There are apps you can download to your phone that do the math for you, you can read the numbers on your lens if it has them or you can press that little DOF button your your DSLR.  The further away from your subject your background is...the more blurred it is.  The quality of the blur depends on the lens your using and is completely subjective.  Rarely will you see a bad blur, only bad photography or bad post-processing.  Cranking up clarity can really add a jagged edge to the out of focus areas.  There are some lenses out there that are known for smooth transitions from in to out of focus areas and the the glass itself within the lens affects this as well as the number of blades within the aperture.  Then you have the actual max aperture of the lens.  The lower the number, the shallower the DOF and more blurred it's going to be.  Most kit lenses will have a max aperture of f/5.6.  Everyone's favorite first fast lens is the "Nifty Fifty", aka, the ~$100 50mm/1.8.  It's pretty cheaply built (all plastic body), has a noisy auto focus motor, the focus ring is horrible to use and damn near every photographer I know has one or had one and upgraded to a 1.4 or 1.2.  I recently sold mine with my Canon 5D3, but still have my 33 year old FD mount 50mm/1.4. 

Shelf at PinkBerry

Lens Whacking

The art of shooting with your lens disconnected from your camera.  This is primarily done with video to add light leaks, but any tilting of the lens will create tilt-shift effect.  I don't have much experience with lens whacking, but see the links section below for some good resources.  I have no samples images to show you.

Shoot with a tilt-shift

Since moving to Dubai and doing a lot of architectural photography my primary lens is the Canon 17mm TS-E.  It allows me to move the lens on the x and y axis to the camera (shifting) as well as tilt the lens on the axis.  What does this do?  Shifting keeps lines straight in photos.  Ever take a picture of tall building?  You notice how the building leans backwards in your photo?  By shifting the lens up and keeping the camera level, the buildings are kept straight up and down.  But we're not here to talk about that.  Tilting the lens, blurs out part of the photo.  For most higher focal length tilt-shift this exaggerates a miniature effect which can make massive city views appear to be a miniature model.  The 17mm does not do this very well due to it's wide focal length, but is fun to do sometimes.  For the most part we're just talking artsy-fartsy here.

The Waterfall at the Dubai Mall (17mm TS-E

The Dubai Marina (17mm TS-E)

Construction site next to the Cayan Tower (Infinity Tower) (17mm TS-E)

Sheikh Zayed road passing by the Dubai Marina

Post-Processing

You can also add blur into photos in post processing.  This can be done in pretty much every photo editing suite.  Or you can add a cheesy tilt-shift effect in Instagram and call it a day (please don't).  There are lots of resources out there on how to do this...but there is no guide on WHEN to do this.  Please....don't abuse it. 

Conclusion

You can stop using the word "bokeh", it's cliche, it's as tacky as Chinese word tattoos and you sound like an idiot.  Notice that I haven't used it a single time since the definition in the first paragraph (well...and just now).  Bad blur doesn't really exist.  Some looks better than others, but it's the technique we need to focus on.  Don't be afraid to shoot at something other than wide open.  But don't be scared of it...sometimes, it's dark, you're already at ISO3200, shooting at 1/30th at f/1.8 and shooting handheld.  Take the shot for the love of god!  Don't crank up the ISO...or just back up a little bit and widen up the DOF.  I LOVE shooting at a shallow DOF.  I LOVE how it looks when it's done properly.  Focus (pun intended) on composition and framing first.

Shoot a Christmas tree out of focus completely.  Shoot a night city view out of focus.  Blow something up!  Go walk around the city.  Do some macro work.  Learn how to use off camera flash.  Do a 365 project.  Be creative, just remember, too much of anything usually isn't good.  Experiment and most importantly....GET OUT THERE AND SHOOT and stop worrying about what some crappy blog is telling you to do or not to do.

How many photographers does it take to screw in a light bulb?  50!  One to screw in the light bulb and 49 to say how they could have done it better. 

Art is subjective, photography is art, therefore, photography is subjective.  Remember, the most expensive photograph ever sold, Rhein II, by Andreas Gursky, is a crappy picture that sold for $4.3 million (USD).  The horizon is crooked, has some crappy river water, crappy grass and crappy sky.  But it sold for four point three million US dollars!  But hey....it's all in focus.  Fuck bokeh!!

DSC00051.jpg

I don't want your money.  None of my links are sponsored links.  I'm not sponsored by anyone nor do I ever plan on being sponsored, unless I get lifetime Sriracha...or get some friends with benefits deal with Paris Hilton (call me boo!).  I am not associated with any of the provided links.

Additional Reading/Viewing

Karl Taylor's High End Product Shoot Video

Karl Taylor's website

Phillip Bloom's "The Art of Lens Whacking"

Steve Huff's "What is Bokeh" article with 50 lens ratings

The 10 most expensive photographs in the world