Bokeh is a word that seems to have materialized out of nowhere although Wikipedia claims it was first used somewhere around 1997. It’s also one of the most misunderstood and misused terms in the whole discipline of photography.
Bokeh is an adaptation of the Japanese word boke, which is loosely translated as blur. The term is used to describe the quality or characteristics of the out-of-focus areas that occur when a shallow depth of field is used in an image. Many people commonly use the term bokeh when they actually mean shallow depth of field, and there are many discussions on whether the bokeh of certain lenses is good or bad—although, technically, there’s no good or bad bokeh. What some people refer to as "bad bokeh" others refer to as "character."
Indeed, one of the most important aspects in photography is the ability to control depth of field by selecting the proper aperture. This is how professional photographers have been isolating the subject from the background, resulting in the subject in sharp focus and the background fading into a nice indistinct blur. Since the term bokeh has become so commonplace, many photographers, even the newest beginners, quickly figure out that to make your images more professional-looking and artistic, you use a fast prime lens with a wide aperture to create a shallow depth of field.
The bokeh craze has gotten to the point where many photographers are buying up every fast prime they can get their hands on and shooting everything wide open, all the time. This has led to a proliferation of photographs where there’s a tiny subject in focus and an inordinate amount of the photograph is left as a blurry mess or becomes overwhelmed with circular blobs of light that distract the viewer from the actual subject. There even has become a propensity for some photographers to focus on nothing, making the bokeh the de facto subject, which to be quite honest, doesn’t usually make for a compelling photograph. Some photographers are getting so caught up in the out-of-focus areas that they’re forgetting to look at the areas that are in focus.
Now that we’ve talked about the bokeh culture, we can concentrate on breaking the cycle of "bokeh abuse." The fact is that you don’t always need to shoot wide open to create a photographic work of art. More to the point is that many subjects actually benefit from increased depth of field.
Let’s take a look at some subjects where deeper depth of field helps to create a more interesting image.
The most obvious genre of photography that uses depth of field for maximum impact is landscape photography. This is one of the cases where stopping down and using the hyperfocal distance is important. Shooting a landscape wide open is making unnecessary concessions with your image sharpness. There’s no real reason to photograph a standard landscape at less than ƒ/8 unless you have no tripod or you’re isolating a feature of the scene.
As with landscape photography, when executing architecture photos, using a smaller aperture to create sharp images is preferable. The key is to show characteristic detail of the structure. Unless you’re going for artistic detail shots of particular facets of the building, it’s best to keep the aperture small.
These are portraits of a person, which are generally used in documentary assignments where it benefits the viewer to see the subject in his or her home or work environment. While a typical three-quarter-length portrait of some-one may be great with an indistinct blur in the background, if the goal of the image is to tell a story about the person appearing in the photo, allow enough of the surroundings to be sharp enough to be recognizable.
This type of photography is all about the environment and the subject’s role within it, so getting things in focus is important. This brings up a challenge: how to get great street images with deep focus while still maintaining the subject as a key focal point and avoiding an image that appears chaotic. The solution requires a keen eye for composition, composing the frame perfectly so the subject and the important parts of the scene are in frame and in focus while making sure that extraneous details are left out.
Street photography is undergoing a massive resurgence right now, and I notice that the "shoot wide-open" technique is coming along for the ride. While I agree that it does sometimes have artistic merits, and in many cases works great for getting rid of distracting elements, it easily can cause potentially important and interesting details to fall by the wayside. In my opinion, shooting wide open and stopped down both have their place in street photography, but shooting wide open should be the exception rather than the rule.
This is the subject area where I find that most people make mistakes with their aperture choice. Somewhere along the line, word got out that to make a good portrait, the photographer must focus on the eye and use the widest aperture possible.
This tiny bit of misinformation probably has to be the biggest problem facing portrait photography today. The first part of the advice is absolutely true; focusing on the eye is very important for a good portrait. Shooting a portrait wide open is a little trickier—it’s not only one of the aspects that makes a portrait look great by adding out-of-focus areas, but also ruins a lot of portraits by adding out-of-focus areas.
Now, this probably seems confusing, at first. How can something so beneficial be so bad? Well, it’s simple. Using too wide of an aperture causes things that need to be in focus to be out of focus. Shooting a portrait at ƒ/1.4 and focusing on the closest eye can cause the further eye to be out of focus. Additionally, and probably even worse, are having the eyes in focus while the nose is out of focus.
When shooting portraits, it’s very important to have the entire face in focus, not just the eyes. Many
photographers, even seasoned pros, sometimes fall into this trap simply because, when doing a portrait session, time is often tight and the photographer first checks to see if the background is pleasing, then typically checks focus on the leading eye and moves on.
It’s entirely possible to get a portrait with all elements of your face in focus at ƒ/1.4, as long as you have enough distance between the lens and subject. This is one reason why many professional portrait photographers opt to use an 85mm ƒ/1.4 over a 50mm ƒ/1.4 for headshots. The distance flattens out the facial features, which not only makes them more pleasing, but also ensures they’re all in focus.
Whether you’re shooting a landscape, street scene or a portrait, the most important thing to keep in mind about depth of field is that it’s not an either/or situation. You don’t need to open all the way up to get super-shallow depth of field or stop down all the way and get everything in focus. Selecting the right aperture to get the perfect balance of sharpness and bokeh to enhance the subject is what this is all about.
J. Dennis Thomas is a freelance photographer and author based in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of Wiley Publishing’s Nikon Digital Field Guide series, as well as Concert and Live Music and Urban and Rural Decay Photography published by Focal Press. Find him at www.NikonDFG.com and @JDennisThomas on Twitter.