Where is that shrieking coming from?
I've long been conflicted about showing negative examples harvested from the web in this space. I think I'd be within my moral rights to present really bad pictures as cautionary notes concerning what not to do, or what lens not to buy, etc.—the "fair use" doctrine does allow for the reproduction of other peoples' pictures without their permission for the purpose of comment and criticism. But it seems a rather nasty thing to do. What if the person who took the picture should happen upon their "work" held up for ridicule here? I wouldn't like it if someone did it to me. So why do it to others? Many times I've found myself halfway through writing a post using found examples of really bad photographs, and I've just thought, naaah, can't do that. It's not that it wouldn't be right; it's that it wouldn't be kind.
Here's one such example, however, that I believe I can countenance. This is a section comprising a third (or so) of a horizontal picture of a pretty and pleasant young woman on an autumn walk. You'll have to take my word for this, but there's nothing at all wrong with the in-focus part of the picture—the woman. She's sharp and detailed and her color is fine, and, really, she's a perfectly lovely subject for a picture. (I'm sure the doggie is nice, too. I like doggies.) But the background, which fills perhaps 2/3rds of the frame, is a perfect—or perfectly awful—illustration of why some of us care about bokeh, the way lenses render the objects in the picture that are out of the depth-of-field, or "out of focus."
Click on the image for a slightly larger and thus even more vivid look, if you have the stomach for it.
I do know that many people (their numbers seem to be dwindling now) are contemptuous of the whole idea of bokeh. They don't see the point in paying attention to it, or they think it's overly fastidious to care about it, or they think it's somehow a disreputable topic for conversation. This little detail is not the worst bokeh I've ever seen—well, not the absolute worst—but it illustrates why those of us who care about the issue do care. It's the visual equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard or John Tesh singing. I'd rather walk around with my eyes crossed for half an hour than look at this on my wall.
A concern for bokeh can certainly be taken too far—mea culpa—but when you get right down to it, it's really the avoidance of a negative we're talking about, as opposed to the cultivation of a positive. I don't know how anyone except perhaps the young woman's husband or parents could look at that picture and not be consumed by the horrible things going on in the background. You might as well have an axe murder going on back there.
If this happens to be your picture, my apologies. I'm not making fun of you—just your lens. And I won't tell if you won't.
Mike (Thanks to O.G.)
Featured Commentby Bill Bresler: "Mike, I've got a confession to make. Quite a few years ago, some guy posted a wonderful photo on a Leica bulletin board, or whatever the heck it's called now. It was one of the finest photos of human interaction that I had ever seen. I would have been thrilled and overjoyed to make such a photo. Heck, Cartier-Bresson would have thrilled and overjoyed to have made it. At any rate, some Leica-weenie (I can say this, I've owned and used an M4 and an M4-P) criticized the bokeh, another L-W piled on, then the two L-Ws got into a screaming hissy fit about who was the better judge of bokeh.
"At that point I signed off and never went back again. I've never worried about bokeh since then. Sold the Leicas, too.
"I like T.O.P. anyway."
Mike replies: You're right, of course, Bill. When the game is actually on, none of the details matter much.