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Evaluating Bokeh and the 3D “Pop” – (Part 1: Bokeh)

The Japanese term boke (ボケ), or the Americanized spelling bokeh, discusses the aesthetics of an image’s out-of-focus blur. The 3D “pop” describes the abrupt separation between sharpness and unsharpness that propels a focused subject on top of an unfocused background. The two concepts are closely related but aesthetically separate. A lot of people get these concepts mixed up, assuming one goes with the other, confusing correlation with causation.

In this series, we will attempt to separate the two concepts. First, we will describe each of them individually. Then, we will look at how they tie into each other in making a great image. 

Evaluating Bokeh

Daniel Zedda - Canon 85mm f12
Creamy bokeh, a hallmark of a Canon holy trinity, the EF 85mm f/1.2 L. Pop? Not so much. Image by Daniel Zedda https://www.flickr.com/photos/astragony/

Bokeh is the easier concept to wrap your head around.  It’s instantaneously describable and noticeable. So let’s start with this one first. Look at the image above. The out-of-focus yellows and greens next to the in-focus model is bokeh. The image really draws you into the model’s eyes because we are naturally drawn to areas of focus and brightness. Think of bokeh as shadow or negative space, bringing out and highlighting the positive space.

1. Creamy Bokeh

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Look at the way the Nikon 135mm f/2 DC melts the background. Not as sharp (perhaps due to post processing) but more 3D pop than the Canon 85mm. Image by Jonathan Kos-Read https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonathankosread/

Let’s not boil it down to good bokeh and bad bokeh. That’s a bit simplistic and binary. As the cliché goes, art is subjective and it all depends on the look you are trying to go for. Generally, desirable bokeh is buttery. Soft and creamy bokeh doesn’t have hard edges, out-of-focus objects melts into one another, and the background doesn’t subtract from the subject. It’s like a quiet piece of music that adds a mood to the scene without ever taking center stage. It’s subtle and modern high-end portrait lenses strive for this type of bokeh.

2. Swirly Bokeh

Piotr P Cyclops 85mm f:1.5
The bokeh cocoons the model in an intimate blanket of green. Image by Piotr P, taken with a Helios Cylcops 85mm f/1.5 – https://www.flickr.com/photos/atheist_lenses/

Another type of bokeh is more in your face. Swirly and surreal bokeh. Not only are there hard edges in the blurred shapes but the background seems to revolve around the center of the shot, framing the subject within a spiral of blur. It is striking, distinctive, but more of an acquired taste. Older lens designs, particularly Russian lenses from Helios and Jupiter, are known for this type of bokeh. Not a lot of modern AF lenses produce this effect, but there is definitely a market for this desired effect. It can be a spicy flavor that defines a bold dish or it can be too much for some to handle.

3. Impressionistic Bokeh

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The bokeh from the Russian Jupter-3 50mm f/1.5 has so much soul, striking yet subtle, almost like watercolors. Comparing the Canon 85mm or Nikon 135mm, you can almost say those are too clinical. Image by Piotre P https://www.flickr.com/photos/atheist_lenses/

If creamy and swirly bokeh are two ends of a spectrum, impressionistic bokeh would be somewhere in the middle. The bokeh doesn’t swirl around the center but it isn’t without hard edges either. This is where individual lenses reveal their own unique characters.

Sorin Mutu - Canon 50mm f2
The $125 Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 is often the first large aperture prime lens amateur photographers purchase. Its bokeh is respectable and a joy to experiment with. This little lens opens up a whole new way of looking at the world in a way no kit zoom can ever match. Image by Sorin Mutu https://www.flickr.com/photos/73767885@N00/.

Expensive or not, the wide gamut of large aperture lenses out there gives you so much room to explore this particular aspect of photography. Check out the array of portrait lenses, AF and MF, that we have recommended in the past here, and here.

Things that Affect Bokeh

Obviously, lens and aperture design affects the aesthetics of the bokeh. Aspherical elements can lead to “onion ring” bokeh balls. The number of blades and roundness of the aperture determines the bokeh balls’ shape. But there are aspects which you can control.

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Shot with the mostly unknown but exceptionally exotic Minolta/Sony 135mm f/2.8 STF sleeper lens, with its twin apertures and apodization filter. Busy trees and flowers in the background are completely blurred into oblivion, while the model remains tack sharp.

You can control the type of background you’d like to keep out of focus. Backgrounds with busy details such as trees and flowers are difficult to handle in terms of bokeh. Mix in pin point light sources such as the sun shining through foliage or city lights and things may get very busy. Most lenses will swirl or have an impressionistic effect. If you are looking for the creamiest of bokehs, stay away from busy backgrounds.

Distance from your subject also makes a difference. Some lenses like the Helios 85mm f/1.5 won’t swirl unless shot at a specific distance. Experiment with the distance between the subject and your camera and the subject and the background.

Conclusion

The saying goes that if you want to use a lens at its optimum sharpness, stop down a bit to sharpen things up. But if you aren’t using your f/1.4 lens at its widest, you are losing something in the process. Don’t be afraid to shoot wide open and explore the extent to which your lens have to offer. Give up a little bit of sharpness and open yourself up to the world of bokeh. After all, you can always sharpen in post process. Next time, we will explore the 3D “pop.” It’s less talked about and often confused with bokeh, but its subtleties really separate the good lenses from the great lenses.