« Rather Be a Dental Floss Tycoon | Main | Say It Ain't So, Soth »

Thursday, 15 November 2007


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Hi Mike,
this crop you showed is a pretty strong picture. Well done. Recently, I actually found that massive cropping, I mean like eliminating 90% of the picture, can extract very interesting images out of otherwise rather bland sceneries.


I can see that the bokeh is jarring to look at, but as a non-afficionado of bokeh, it would be very useful if you could give us a rundown on what you look for in the bokeh produced by a lens. Is this something you can deconstruct?

This is a great photo. I'm incredibly nearsighted and this photo looks exactly the same with and without my contact lenses.


First off, I agree that the lens has pretty bad bokeh and I'm normally the sort of person who cares about that since it's important to a lot of the photos I take.

Yet...I dunno, there's a stained glass look to the that section you cut out that I kind of like. Ok, it doesn't look so good in that photograph but somehow I get the feeling I could make something nice with that camera. I'd just need to find the right subject for it.

Maybe it's too many years of turning lemons into lemonade, but sometimes the flaws or limitations in the equipment give a nice constraint to push back on.

Looking at that picture actually makes my eyes hurt, not just my brain. I agree with Huw, examples of some good bokeh would be interesting. ch

Mike, if you need bad examples I'm sure there's plenty to choose from among us commenters that show up on your blog. I doubt many of us would decline if you asked to highlight a picture for its deficiencies. And since the photographer is available on this blog you could even get some backstory - why did it turn out so bad; what was intended; if it's no good, what qualities makes the photographer want to post it anyhow?

if a certain lens has harsh bokeh wide open, i find a good rule of thumb is to stop it down twice.

I'd like to see the whole image. Taking potshots out of context is a no-no so far as I'm concerned.

Didn't I explain at GREAT length precisely why I DON'T show the whole image?!? Fer Pete's sake.

Mike J.

Hahahahhahathe first thing that came to my mind before I even read anything was "If it was even remotely possible for a photograph to trigger a seizure, this one should do it".

The worst of it is that I like that back-lit dog. I wish I could see it clearly.

"Didn't I explain at GREAT length why I DON'T show the whole image?!? Fer Pete's sake."

Yes, Mike you did. And I don't buy it.

After having been spoiled with Leica (I still have that one), Zeiss, Schneider and Rodenstock, I am now a Canon user and Bokeh is by far the main problem I currently have.

This sample picture shows the problem exactly.

The 2 stops stopping down tip given above is effective with some lenses but not all.

Bokeh is a complicated problem. One lens will be horrible no matter what, another of the same brand will be consistently brilliant, and some will only suffer at some apertures. The actual background content makes a difference too.

My canon EF 55-200mm f/4.5-5.6 II produces bokeh just like this. It used to bother me, but I have since gotten quite adept at fixing it in PS.

The horrible bright blue fringing on the sky is dealt with by using the select->color range tool (deselecting anything incorrectly added in the in focus area), followed by desaturating the blue to closer to sky coloured. Follow this by roughly selecting the OOF areas, feathering that selection and then applying a gaussian blur (numbers varied by image).

With a bit of practice, you can turn the worst bokeh into something beautiful. Of course, buying a decent lens in the first place is also an option I suppose.

The bokeh wouldn't look so bad if the image wasn't blown at both ends would it? These out of focus forms look as if they would have been circular and fairly pleasing were it not for the high contrast scene with high contrast rendering.

Mike, I get the "idea" of bokeh but I just can't judge it. Although I might get some good or bad gut feel about out of focus areas I'm not sufficiently attuned to the differences to tell when I've got it good and bad. How about an article with examples of both the good and bad to educate our eyes to what's good and what's bad about bokeh?
As for the fragment you posted, yes it was hard to look at. I wonder if you'd shown the whole frame ("for pete's sake" notwithstanding :-) then it would have been easier to look at the OOF areas because our eyes would have been able to rest on an in-focus area? It's always difficult to look at a shot that's completely out of focus, whether the bokeh is good or bad (I'm guessing).

Despite the somewhat lampoonish nature of this post, some good and insightful comments.

Anthony, I'm sure you're right--and I also believe that for some people, bokeh like this makes the in-focus image look crisper by comparison; in some cases, very gentle and smooth bokeh elicits complaints that the lens is not very sharp, despite the fact that the in-focus image is perfectly sharp.

Graham J. and StephaneB, you're right, the contrast of the out-of-focus areas does matter. Also, in some cases, the part of the tonal range the background occupies...with some lenses, darker areas "hide" problematic bokeh better than highlight areas.

StephaneB, tell me about it--in all the various testing for bokeh I used to do, the one thing I really learned was that the behavior is *extremely* complicated. Not only is the nature of specific effects really just a matter of taste, but there are so many variables that it's very difficult to predict how any lens type will behave.

Finally, to answer your request, Anthony, the closest I've come to writing about what you ask about is the free download at my book site called "Lens Bokeh Ratings." The download is free if you don't have it yet--the link is:


Mike J.

Hi, Mike: I have downloaded your "Lens Bokeh ratings" more than a year ago. I have it saved in my PC, and would like to have it expanded and updated. "Bokeh" (IMHO) is important, and it is understood by precious few out of Japan. We should get more attention to it: It certainly would kelp us to be better photographers.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

mo' bokeh, mo' bokeh...

Found on flickr:


That's funny. Also, good bokeh! That lens in general is very well behaved. I'd own that lens if I had a Canon 5D.

Mike J.

Well I guess it must be partly personal taste, because the EF 50/1.4 has pretty horrible bokeh in my opinion. Certainly a lot worse than the 85/1.8 which gets the same rating from you, and also worse than the 28/1.8.
At f1.8 even the lowly 50/1.8 looks better because it is wide open. It's not as sharp obviously.

When you said "if you have the stomach for it" i thought you were joking so i clicked. I felt ill and my head hurt. That lens is almost as bad as my Nikon 50mm f1.8 d wide open.

To be honest, that bokeh could work depending on the subject matter. Nitpicking elements of photography out of context of the entire photo is really the worst form of criticism. I'm reminded of a saying involving a forest and trees...

While I agree that this is a good example of bad bokeh, I also find it's a superb example of photography. It has a very 'stained glass' look to it which is oddly pleasing.

But it would be actively painful with an in-focus subject. It's far too distracting.

"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."

It's great that you think like that.

Perhaps you can just ask first: "Would you be terribly insulted if I used your picture as an example of this following photographic weakness...?"

Perhaps many would be less insulted and more flattered by the attention from a Famous Site and perhaps thinking they might learn something.

I'v been shooting for over 55 years and never knew about bokeh until recently. I wonder if Stieglitz,Sudek,Adams or Weston lost sleep over bad bokeh in their photos.
The circles look like something you would get from a cheap mirror telephoto lens. The dog looks like he's wondering why the picture taker is taking a picture of his back side.
Gees, now I have one more thing to worry about,Bad Bokeh.

I have been a picture taker all my life, going back more than 50 years. I won't call myself a photographer, as I feel that designation should be reserved for the professionals. I have only recently become enthusiastic enough about the art that I began to read blogs - like TOP - which I find fascinating. Fascinating partly because of discussions of subjects like this one on "Bokeh". Would it be half as engaging if it had a less peculiar name? Now I'm scrutinizing all my lenses to determine if their "bokeh" is acceptable. Knowledge can be a problem.

I don't get how this is "bad" bokeh... because the COF is taking on a kind of donut shape? In other words, because, the center of the out-of-focus "discs" is darker?

Like some of the previous posters, I'd love to have you flesh out your approach to bokeh.

@ Bill Bresler: Unlike the average populations of many other photo forums, the folks that haunt the Leica forums are generally too old to be referred to as "weenies". With an average age surpassing 40 (at least when I surveyed it just over two years ago) they must be denoted as "wonks" or "grinds". Many may know much about Leica cameras and lenses but little or nothing of photography. Hence the frequent forest-and-trees discussion syndromes there.

(I, too, can make such an indictment. I own my share of Leica-ware and visit that forum now and then.)

... er ... uh-hem ... art?

It looks like a Cat lens, as the out of focus sparkling lights are donuts

@ben: Good bokeh is smooth, bad bokeh is rough. The latter can be quite distracting in an image with a lot of patterned out of focus areas, like Mike's example. It draws the eye away from the in-focus subject.

Alright, ok, maybe I've been in bokeh denial-- but help me face the facts-- I still don't entirely get it.

I've read the lens bokeh article. I do see some of the differences, but I don't see them as being so tragically awlful as the bokeh devotees seem to think they are. Even the dog example in original post-- yeah, it's harsh in the highlight areas. Certainly I would tone down some of that harshness in Photoshop, but epileptic fits? Nails on a blackboard? It don't look that bad too me.

So I'll offer up some of my own images as sacrificial lambs. These are shot with some of the lenses the I believe made Mike abandon Nikon glass. What's so bad about these? Is the Bronica one any better?


(And don't worry about my fragile little ego; it can take it.) :-)

Jonathan Taylor,
It's really all a matter of personal taste and interpretation, so don't take my opinion as being anything more than my opinion, but don't find any of your examples terribly objectionable. The first and the last ones are the best to my eye--the venerable AF-Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 is actually a very nice lens for bokeh. (Ditto the AIS 85/2.) I think "Rachel in Zenebia" is the worst one of your group--there's some "swirling" effect and some fairly strong ni-sen in the grass--but then, I don't think it's a terribly strong picture in other ways either. I generally don't like the fast Nikon 50s, but in your examples here I don't find myself distracted by the backgrounds, which still seem soft and not very obtrusive. As a broad generalizations, Bronica lenses are underrated for bokeh--many of them are really good, very soft and coherent without being fuzzy.

Bokeh is really just one more technical aspect of pictures like any other--like color accuracy or fine detail resolution or "maximum black" in B&W prints or any one of the dozens of other technical properties. There's no reason to obsess about it unless it interests you to do so--remember, there are lots of ways to enjoy this hobby, and not all of them have to do with the meaning or emotion of pictures. Some people like to focus on the technical properties.

Objections to technical properties are probably best characterized as "sensitivities." For instance, I'm sensitive to drum machines in music--I just don't like 'em, I find them distracting, and occasionally they do ruin a piece of recorded music for me. But I know that some other music listeners don't pay any attention to drum machines and may not even be aware of them when they hear them. So who's right? No one's right. Sometimes, technical sensitivities might even blind an overly sensitive person to a picture's real merits. Bokeh is a sensitivity for me, for other people it may not be important, and then there are those lucky people in the middle who are aware when they hear a drum machine or see what I would consider "bad" bokeh but don't let it get to them, who take it in stride so to speak. That middle road is probably the healthiest approach--a holistic appreciation of any picture's merits needs to be flexible, willing to consider strengths on their own terms and, sometimes, to ignore certain weaknesses.

Mike J.

I must confess that this bokeh thing has me beat. I've listened to many self confessed experts and read a great many articles and I've come to the conclusion that most don't know what they are talking about.

This image

taken with a Canon 70 - 200 f2.8 with matched x2 converter wide open produces marked circles of confusion in the high lights has been condemned by many viewers as having ugly bokeh by several "experts" and praised by others as being beautiful.

Same lens combination again and wide open


no donuts and most consider it butt ugly (not the girl but the OOF areas)

I am beginning to think that the whole bokeh thing is a bit like the emperors new clothes. If you want to see it it's there.

Someone considers your second example "butt ugly"? That seems like a very questionable conclusion on their part. There's nothing at all objectionable or obtrusive in that as far as I can see. In the first example, yes, in the area above and to the left of the bull rider's head, although there's not enough of it to worry about it too much. Again, if you don't see it, then don't worry about it.

Mike J.

I don't see what's so hard to understand about good vs. bad bokeh. Bad bokeh just doesn't "get out of the way" enough.

Part of taking any picture, involves getting the "right" exposure. As a direct consequence, you're going to have a limited part of the scene that lies within the DOF.

It's nice when the lens is forgiving enough so that the OOF areas stay out of the way, and "in the background"--it just makes your life easier. Bad bokeh is when the OOF areas have certain characteristics that start competing with the in focus areas of your pictures for attention, and therefore start distracting the viewer's eye from your subject in ways that you didn't plan/want.

Interesting to have this so closely precede Ctein's article. So is this about a chicken?

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007