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FORUMS Photography Talk by Genre General Photography Talk 
Thread started 07 Nov 2014 (Friday) 22:49
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Bokeh: The Most Overrated Technique/Look/Quality... An Amateur's Crutch?

 
Xyclopx
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Nov 07, 2014 22:49 |  #1

Hi,

So,... I started taking pictures a few years ago and have been gradually getting more serious. The more I shoot, the more I am aware of photography as an art. And as I progress, I've been buying more books of the famous masters to study... and after looking at thousands of photographs from famous photographers I found it impossible to ignore the lack of one of the most valued techniques/looks/lens-properties/talked-abouts: Bokeh.

On my coffee table sits Helmut Newton's Sumo. My shelves are lined with the likes of Annie Leibovitz, Kishin, Steve McCurry, and many others of many genres. And of thousands upon thousands of pictures on my shelves, I'd say less than 0.5% have significant bokeh, and by that I mean elements that are so out-of-focus they lose recognizable structure or context. Personally, I find McCurry's pictures some of the most beautifully haunting images of people I have ever seen, and of all the photographers I looked at, he probably has the most pictures with the strongest bokeh out of my collection. But even then, only a small percentage of only his tight face portraits feature bokeh--the other 95% of this work has the whole scene recognizable, even if it's obvious that the subject is a single person.

I know this might sound offensive to some, but to be blunt, I am starting to feel that Bokeh is the Crutch of Amateurs.

It appears easy to make pretty pictures these days--get yourself a big aperture prime, and if you got the dough whip out the 85 f1.2 lens, or if you really are spendy the 200 f2, and dump gallons of cream over all but your subject and voila, a pretty picture that has half the board here clapping their hands.

So... why am I writing this? Well, it started as I was thinking about this thread:

https://photography-on-the.net …/showthread.php​?t=1405661

Just your standard discussion of what lens is good for portraits. Yes, there was some talk of different focal lengths, but ultimately it came down to bokeh with many folks saying that the 85 f1.2, 135 f2, and 200 f2 being the kings. BUT, the lens that the OP originally honored was the 70-200 f2.8 IS II, which covers all those focal lengths in one single lens. Being also a superbly sharp lens, the only real-world difference is the amount of bokeh achievable, and arguably the quality of that bokeh.

Without trying to sound arrogant, but I guess I can't escape it--I think I've finally reached a point of awareness in my photographic journey to realize bokeh is more of a hindrance than aesthetic prize.

Thoughts?


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Nov 07, 2014 22:58 |  #2
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Depends on style. But yes, something can be overused to the point of it becoming hateful.

As far as the 'portrait lens' well, I've seen amazing portraits shot with a fisheye.


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Nov 07, 2014 23:00 |  #3
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I thought it has always been the 135L. F2.8 is nothing when you can use F2...hehehe... The reality is that at times, you can't just isolate the subject with a blurry background. The subject has to interact with his or her environment. If you are in a studio, having a shallow DOF is a moot point because you can use a mono color background. Or even, using a shallower DOF of light to isolate your subject shooting at F5.6.


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Nov 07, 2014 23:22 |  #4

One flaw in your premise bokeh is a qualitative measurement, not a quantity. Bokeh is smooth or blocky. Background blur which is what you are talking about can be measured in quantitative terms. Call it a crutch if you like but the ability to blur a bacground is useful. You can always get more depth of field by stopping down to f8 if you wish.




  
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Nov 07, 2014 23:31 |  #5

I'm new at this photography stuff but maybe back in the days photographers couldn't chimp it so they were playing it safe by stopping the lens down to have the object in focus.


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Nov 07, 2014 23:34 |  #6

The purpose of selective focus is to create depth perception in a flat photograph so that it appears more real to the viewer. Along with directional lighting, they are powerful tools to transform 2D into 3D.

But what good is a technically perfect photo without a message? I think that's what you're getting at. And I agree with you. But don't discount a useful tool because of how others use it.




  
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Nov 07, 2014 23:39 |  #7

+1 for gonzogolf's comment defining boke (Japanese word misspelled bokeh in a popular photography article) as quality of blur, not quantity.

It is just one aspect to be aware of and controlled, just like exposure composites, frequency separation, hard light vs soft light, that can be abused and misused. I have seen plenty of people in college with a 135L thinking it was the next best thing since sliced bread, and while it's a great lens, you can tell when someone hasn't mastered their tools and are just beginning to explore the novelty of said new toy. Which is why I don't recommend the lens anymore until I know someone is truly devoted to mastering it (it is a difficult lens to use in several scenarios). It has fine quality of blur, but should not be used without understanding its limitations and how to apply said tool.

Actually, the best example of people exclaiming about bokeh is their first purchase of the 50mm f/1.8. These beginners rarely know that much about fine quality of blur, and likely the first crowd you, OP, are complaining about. When they pick up 50L's or 85L's or 200L's, they are spending the cash but not focusing on their technique, hence some mediocre photos that you mention that ignore other aspects of the art such as composition, light (photography = study of light, not gear, guess a lot of people forget about that), moment.


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Nov 07, 2014 23:40 |  #8

gonzogolf wrote in post #17258834 (external link)
One flaw in your premise bokeh is a qualitative measurement, not a quantity. Bokeh is smooth or blocky. Background blur which is what you are talking about can be measured in quantitative terms. Call it a crutch if you like but the ability to blur a bacground is useful. You can always get more depth of field by stopping down to f8 if you wish.

Hi, I'm not talking the semantics of the word or its technical meaning, if there is such a thing--few people use the word for its technical definition.

But if we must clarify, yes, I am talking about the amount of background blur.


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Nov 07, 2014 23:46 |  #9

Xyclopx wrote in post #17258859 (external link)
Hi, I'm not talking the semantics of the word or its technical meaning, if there is such a thing--few people use the word for its technical definition.

But if we must clarify, yes, I am talking about the amount of background blur.

But if you are going to be the arbiter of what is amateur snd overrated you ought to be precise.




  
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Nov 07, 2014 23:47 as a reply to  @ Xyclopx's post |  #10

I'm thinking people are missing the main point: of thousands of pictures from accepted masters of the art, an extremely small percentage have heavy background blur.

yes, I get that blur is a tool. I am saying that the majority of famous pictures do not use it.

thus, what is your conclusion given that observation? or perhaps my sampling of pictures is skewed? of course my conclusion is that blur is not conducive producing to memorable or iconic pictures, except in rare occasions.

for instance, the famous afghan girl picture does have the background nuked. but then you look at most of McCurry's people pictures and the vast majority have the background in focus enough that it gives context. and those pictures are hauntingly beautiful. they reverberate in my mind, lingering after I close the book.


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Nov 07, 2014 23:51 |  #11

Xyclopx wrote in post #17258795 (external link)
Hi,

I think I've finally reached [an epiphany] to realize bokeh is more of a hindrance than aesthetic prize.

Thoughts?

Btw, I'm not saying this is a black and white issue like you make it. Bokeh (quality of blur) is appreciated by fine artists too. Misinterpreting how to judge bokeh (quantity of blur) as quantity of blur is the very problem that you are identifying. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of the artistic quality that is being judged and what you're saying is a bit of an oversimplification. What others do shouldn't "hinder" your use of any one tool. Is bokeh incorrectly cited, misinterpreted and abused to the point of annoyance? I would agree with you on that. Does it hinder your art? You can answer that, but going full-on-black-and-white/good-and-evil would hinder your ability to recognize a tool for what it is. Just that, a tool.


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Nov 07, 2014 23:55 |  #12

You have your terms mixed up, which is odd as you mention all these photo books in your library.
Subject isolation via narrow depth of field, and or blurry backgrounds resulting from a combination of focal length, aperture, distance to subject vs. distance from background, none of this is "bokeh".

That said, what you ARE referring to, subject isolation, is indeed a well used technique. Overused? Maybe,.. Amateur? No. I don't think so. It has it's place, even for the seasoned pro and true artist.


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Nov 07, 2014 23:57 |  #13

Tbh, I think bokeh is important. Nothing like a great portrait with pentagon in the background to ruin the vibe.


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Nov 07, 2014 23:58 |  #14

McCurry simplifies his backgrounds and makes sure what's in the frame contributes to his story. Blurring background can do this (simplifies) too if the situation calls for it. Adding more or less context is a decision made at the time of capture. Not understanding why the decision is made is the real problem. Liebowitz likes elaborate sets and lighting setups. It is true that a prime lens used wide open all the time can be a crutch, but to cite famous artists as support for your argument that blur is BAD is a little weird. Your landscapes could use some more work through understanding of lighting, weather and composition. Does that mean your deep-focus is overrated? That you shouldn't have used a tripod? That people with Facebook pages are dumb photographers? You're making a generalization like the examples I have provided. I agree with you, wide open for the sake of wide open is dumb, but it's a useful tool for a huge variety of situations and if you think it denotes beginner amateurism vs professionalism/master​y of amateur photography, think again. Plenty of people use the same tools to different levels of success. Judge them separately. This is a lesson in nuance and seeing the world as grey.

Xyclopx wrote in post #17258795 (external link)
Hi,

So,... I started taking pictures a few years ago and have been gradually getting more serious. The more I shoot, the more I am aware of photography as an art. And as I progress, I've been buying more books of the famous masters to study... and after looking at thousands of photographs from famous photographers I found it impossible to ignore the lack of one of the most valued techniques/looks/lens-properties/talked-abouts: Bokeh.

On my coffee table sits Helmut Newton's Sumo. My shelves are lined with the likes of Annie Leibovitz, Kishin, Steve McCurry, and many others of many genres. And of thousands upon thousands of pictures on my shelves, I'd say less than 0.5% have significant bokeh, and by that I mean elements that are so out-of-focus they lose recognizable structure or context. Personally, I find McCurry's pictures some of the most beautifully haunting images of people I have ever seen, and of all the photographers I looked at, he probably has the most pictures with the strongest bokeh out of my collection. But even then, only a small percentage of only his tight face portraits feature bokeh--the other 95% of this work has the whole scene recognizable, even if it's obvious that the subject is a single person.

I know this might sound offensive to some, but to be blunt, I am starting to feel that Bokeh is the Crutch of Amateurs.

It appears easy to make pretty pictures these days--get yourself a big aperture prime, and if you got the dough whip out the 85 f1.2 lens, or if you really are spendy the 200 f2, and dump gallons of cream over all but your subject and voila, a pretty picture that has half the board here clapping their hands.

So... why am I writing this? Well, it started as I was thinking about this thread:

https://photography-on-the.net …/showthread.php​?t=1405661

Just your standard discussion of what lens is good for portraits. Yes, there was some talk of different focal lengths, but ultimately it came down to bokeh with many folks saying that the 85 f1.2, 135 f2, and 200 f2 being the kings. BUT, the lens that the OP originally honored was the 70-200 f2.8 IS II, which covers all those focal lengths in one single lens. Being also a superbly sharp lens, the only real-world difference is the amount of bokeh achievable, and arguably the quality of that bokeh.

Without trying to sound arrogant, but I guess I can't escape it--I think I've finally reached a point of awareness in my photographic journey to realize bokeh is more of a hindrance than aesthetic prize.

Thoughts?

Xyclopx wrote in post #17258868 (external link)
I'm thinking people are missing the main point: of thousands of pictures from accepted masters of the art, an extremely small percentage have heavy background blur.

yes, I get that blur is a tool. I am saying that the majority of famous pictures do not use it.

thus, what is your conclusion given that observation? or perhaps my sampling of pictures is skewed? of course my conclusion is that blur is not conducive producing to memorable or iconic pictures, except in rare occasions.

for instance, the famous afghan girl picture does have the background nuked. but then you look at most of McCurry's people pictures and the vast majority have the background in focus enough that it gives context. and those pictures are hauntingly beautiful. they reverberate in my mind, lingering after I close the book.


I like big cinema cameras and I can not lie
You other brothers can't deny

  
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gonzogolf
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Nov 07, 2014 23:59 |  #15

Xyclopx wrote in post #17258868 (external link)
I'm thinking people are missing the main point: of thousands of pictures from accepted masters of the art, an extremely small percentage have heavy background blur.

yes, I get that blur is a tool. I am saying that the majority of famous pictures do not use it.

thus, what is your conclusion given that observation? or perhaps my sampling of pictures is skewed? of course my conclusion is that blur is not conducive producing to memorable or iconic pictures, except in rare occasions.

for instance, the famous afghan girl picture does have the background nuked. but then you look at most of McCurry's people pictures and the vast majority have the background in focus enough that it gives context.

The vast majority of famous pictures you mention are likely photojournalism, not potraits. In the film days you couldnt gamble with f2 and the concept of off camera flash for portraits didnt really exist as it now does. If you coulnt chimp you were more likely to shoot at f4 or more. Lighting was mostly on camera flash at iso 400. That meant dark backgrounds and more obvious flash. Technology has opened up all sorts of techniques that weren't easily workable before.




  
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Bokeh: The Most Overrated Technique/Look/Quality... An Amateur's Crutch?
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