This post is intended to be good-natured satire. Effective satire uses humor and absurdity to deconstruct our most sacredly held tenets. As a result, it can often make us uncomfortable. Whether or not you find humor in this post, I hope nobody is truly offended by it.
It’s not a stretch to say that that these forums appeal to those whose interest is in “high end” equipment. For example, in the Canon EOS Digital Cameras forum, there is a very active thread on the EOS-1D X Mark II (81 pages as of this date) and a somewhat less active (but still quite active) thread on the 80D (18 pages), but not a single thread on the Rebel T6/1300D, almost three weeks after it was offically announced. A search for “T6” in the EOS Digital Cameras forum brings up only a couple of old posts about the T6s/T6i, and a search for 1300D only brings up two passing mentions in the EOS-1D X Mark II thread.
Similarly, in the Canon EF and EF-S Lenses forum, most of the discussion centers around L lenses. While there is grudging acceptance that some of the newer STM lenses may have respectable “sharpness”, this is usually followed with comments that the L lenses have better build quality, wider/constant aperture (for the ever popular “low light” photography), faster focusing, etc.
Now, one could argue that the people who take the time to actively participate in these forums are professionals and enthusiasts, who tend to gravitate toward the higher end equipment out of either necessity or hobby. The lower-end bodies and kit lenses, the thinking goes, are marketed to people who are interested in taking better pictures than the typical cell phone, but these are not people who spend a good portion of their lives thinking about how to get the best results out of their photography, and therefore not the ones who would be inclined to be active on Pohotography-on-the.net. Fair enough.
Which brings me to bokeh.
I became interested in photography when I was in high school in the early 1980’s, and bought my first “real” camera, a Canon AV-1, in 1982. At that time, any mention of out-of-focus highlights was usually restricted to discussions of mirror lenses, but I don’t recall the word “bokeh” being used.
I first noticed the term bokeh starting to appear in the mid-1990’s, at around the time when the old usenet rec.photo newsgroups were starting to give way to the graphical world wide web. It’s a Japanese term, the posts would say, about how pleasing your out-of-focus highlights look. For most western amateur photographers I know who came of age before the internet, “pleasing” and “out-of-focus” were not phrases we were used to seeing in the same sentence.
But bokeh caught on. Lens manufacturers and magazine editors realized they could use this intangible quality as a selling point. Just two or three years ago, one of the major US photography magazines was reporting on a new lens announcement (it wasn’t a review), and they said something like “a 9-blade diaphragm promises pleasing bokeh.” Huh? What? That’s *not* all it takes. I’ve often said in these forums that the idea that more blades = better bokeh is something magazine editors like to say, and that, while the lens manufacturers don’t explicitly say it, they don’t go out of their way to correct the misperception either. Simplifying a complex optical effect to a simple numerical relationship, more blades = better bokeh, allows manufacturers and sales people (and sellers of used lenses) to reduce bokeh to a simple numbers game. A used Canon EF 28-105 f/3.5-4.5 USM II is more desirable than version I of the same lens, it has been said, because the II has 7 diaphragm blades instead of 5. So you get better bokeh.
It’s a lot easier for magazine editors to quantify bokeh that way than it is for them to devote feature pages to actually *educating* their readers on MTF charts and concepts of spatial frequency, meridional and sagittal lines, and lens aberrations, and all of the other factors that contribute to "pleasing bokeh".
But I have another theory as to why bokeh has caught on with enthusiasts. For many, I’m sure their artistic vision is enhanced by “good” bokeh. But there are just as many, I suspect, who are more interested in gear and specs, and don’t really talk about the artistic and creative aspects of photography. For those people, the appeal of bokeh is simple: Bragging rights.
OK, stay with me here. When you are out shooting with your single-digit XD body with the vertical grip (preferably built in) and a hefty lens (preferably white) with lots of exposed glass and a red ring around it, people who know photography will see that and know that it’s an expensive rig. Even people who don’t know photography can tell it’s a “really good” camera. So, the thinking goes, people will know that you are a really serious photographer and you really know what you are doing. Otherwise, why else would you need such high-end equipment?
Why else indeed?
But here’s the problem: Once you download the pictures from your camera to your computer and print or post them, nobody knows whether you took those pictures with the latest and greatest professional camera sporting an expensive lens with exotic glass, or with a ten year old Rebel and kit lens that you just bought for $100 from a Craigslist ad. Sure, people can look at metadata if it’s included. And sites like Photography-on-the.net will obligingly display camera and lens information with your posted photos (PON won't even let you add a photo to your online portfolio if you don’t specify exactly what equipment you used). But people have to make an effort to look for that in order to see it.
Ah, but wait. Look at the image itself! Look at the out-of-focus highlights! See how smooth they are? How round and perfectly illuminated? That’s bokeh. That’s the mark of a high quality expensive lens. Compare that to the same photo taken with a plastic kit lens, where the out-of-focus highlights are unevenly lit, and may not even be round. The subject of the picture is no longer important to you as a photographer. It’s the out-of-focus background you want people to notice!
If inexpensive plastic kit lenses had this “great” bokeh, nobody would be talking about it.
So here is my proposal. Instead of worrying so much about your bokeh, and saying you have to sell your perfectly good $800 lens because you need a $1200 lens because it has better bokeh, here is an alternative. I call this the “L frame”, and I hereby release it into the public domain and relinquish all rights to it. As you post-process your images, simply overlay them with this:
Now, people who know photography equipment will see your images and know they were taken with a professional quality lens. People who don’t know photography will just think it’s a nice frame, and that’s OK too. No cheating! If your image wasn’t made with a professional series lens, don’t use this frame!
I see this as a win-win for serious photographers. Those viewing your images will know instantly that you used professional quality equipment to capture them, and you as the photographer can get back to thinking about the parts of the image that are *in* focus.