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Saturday, 10 January 2009


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On the Rangefinder Forum they coined a new term:
SOFA. Soft Out of Focus Area.
I think it's meant to describe a certain effect of bokeh rather than bokeh itself.

I like those terms. Probably too subtle for the Public At Large, but then, I like subtlety.

Mike J.

As for the photonet posters not paying any attention to comments...that's standard fare for pnet these days. It's kind of like the way wireless phones are marketed--talk more, talk longer. Everybody's talking and no one is listening.

Reading photo.net often makes me dizzy.


I went back and looked at your boke-aji ratings .pdf again. I noticed that the Pentax limited lenses you've treated so kindly in other write-ups are missing from your list. Any thoughts on how the ones you've used might shake out numerically?

Just curious,


I rather like the terminology used in one of my old photography books - I think it was by Andreas Feininger - which distinguishes unsharpness from blur. Unsharpness is defined as not in sharp focus (which includes discussions on the quality of bokeh), while blur specifically refers to relative movement between the imaging surface (film or sensor) and subject during the exposure, i.e. motion blur, whether caused by camera or by subject movement or by both.

"'Selective focus,' another term causing confusion, just means choosing which part of a picture is in focus and which part isn't—hopefully, photographers know enough to control which is which. (Some photographers don't, sadly. I see a lot of close-up portraits of dogs where the eyes are in focus and the end of the nose isn't.)"

Surely you mean the opposite? The eye being sharp is more important than the nostrils being sharp, even in a dog. And it's even harder when photographing citters to get the eye sharp. I've got lots of nearly shot where the nose is sharp and eye isn't - it rarely looks good, unless it's extreme.

"The opposite of selective focus is sometimes called 'pan-focus,' which just means that everything is sharp from front to back. The term pan-focus has nothing to do with panning, which is a different technique altogether. I know, photographic terminology is a mess and getting worse. Don't blame me."

Pan in panfocus simply means all. Just like in panchromatic film - film sensitive to all colours. From ancient Greek.

This re-explaining every week is as much a creation of those who enjoy explaining as those who ask the questions. Both are required. Those who ask the questions are either lazy or trolls, and at least laziness should surprise no-one.

But those who answer already know enough that they should move on, but they don't. The pop photo writers at least got paid! Perhaps because it's comforting to be the guy in the room who knows everything? It's something I do myself, and then slap myself and try to stop. Very seldom do you learn anything from explaining simple things a third time.

On the subject of bokeh, I'm always saddened to see the word to mean (lack of) depth of field. It's useful to have different works for how much is in focus, and what the out of focus region looks like, and I'm worried that rabble's abuse of the language might rob us of this distinction.

I think you're being too harsh. Often, newcomers don't know where to look for answers--sometimes they don't even know what their exact question is. And if everything needed to be explained only once, where would teachers be? "I explained this 15 years ago, to people who are now in their 30s. I'm not going to explain it again to you punks"?

One reason people like live answers is because the answer can be tailored to suit the level of the questioner's knowledge. He or she can ask for clarification. He or she can argue or challenge. It's not just repetition, it's making something fresh for a new audience. And you never know when you're going to learn something new. As one of the "explainers," I often learn something new about things I already thought I knew all about.

Mike J.

Well done write up Mike. When the un-avoidable confusion about what boke is comes up I'll be sure to link to the blog post.

It is true the term is in danger of being diluted to mean 'out of focus area' by sites like flickr where people throw it around like candy without a deeper understanding of the concept. Unfortunately I'm not sure there's any real cure for the buzz word phenomenon other than making accurate concise information about the topic available to those who wish to educate themselves.

Almost as grievous is the common misconception you address where many people who concern themselves with boke only believe, or only look at, a lenses OOF highlights. Convincing those folks that the rest of the OOF image is just as important and is rendered with a subtel signature by different lenses is often an exercise in futility.

I do wish you'd someday update your boke ratings PDF, It's a fun little document to keep around!



Yes I suspect I was being too harsh. Photo.net just really gets to me sometimes. Nobody will shut up once something has been answered well, everybody writes to hear their own voice not to help. (The best mailing lists seem to avoid this somehow, perhaps by having a big enough core of people who know each other.)

I do very much prefer this world to that of 10-15 years ago, in which the library had a few confusing books for beginners and there was nobody to ask. Especially in fields in which I know nothing: with google and a few minutes I can find answers to all sorts of things I'd never know who to ask about.

But the web is certainly a strange creature, it's not written word in the sense we knew before, but it still seems strange to re-explain so many times what's written well, in a way that verbal explanation doesn't. Anyway, interesting times.

On second thoughts, even the endless repetition of verbal re-explanation does bother me. I know it's useful to have someone explain to you what's written in perfectly good textbooks, but I'm not sure how many times I could do that and stay sane. (This is a career choice I'm trying to make right now.) Others seem to manage, but ideally I'd like to see some system in which those just ahead of you teach you many of the basic steps, since this tends to be good for both parties.

There's always something new under the sun.

This is the first time I've ever seen someone's willingness to assist someone who knows less than them, with no compensation expected, described as a character flaw!

The mind just boggles.

pax / incredulous Ctein

Bokeh seems to me like a tech flaw that has become an art fetish. Not that it's a bad thing, mind you, just that its origins seem unintentional.

You said:
The word or spelling have nothing to do with the French word "bouquet."

Are you sure?

hankachi - handkerchief
chizu - cheese
foku - fork
puroresu - pro wrestling
bottoru - bottle

Sometimes a foreign work is adopted and used in a different way.
consento - electrical outlet from the use of "concentric plug" when electricity was adopted.

It is an easy jump from bouquet which is the quality of the aroma of wine to bokeh being the quality of blur.

Mike J. wrote:
> There's no perfect lens for bokeh.

Oh, but there is! It's called STF 135 mm f/2.8 T/4.5. It's for Sony (formerly Minolta) Alpha mount. STF stands for Smooth Trans-Focus ... and is often mistaken for a soft-focus lens.

Enjoyable discussion.

Reminds me of rainy days at school when I used to read the encyclopaedias in the library. Pick a topic, follow the links until the bell went.

The Internet is great for someone like me - the world's largest encyclopaedia. A few well directed searches and pretty much anything you want is there. And it takes less time than asking a question and waiting for a reply.

I fondly remember a final lecture delivered by my chemistry professor. Asked why he liked teaching the same things year after year, he replied teaching chemistry basics was like listening to a piece of beautiful music. He never tired of it. And he loved introducing its mysteries to each new class.

As a slight aside, in Japanese "boke" (惚け) is mostly used as a part of compound words. Like "boke-aji" for out of focus blur or "jisa-boke" for jetlag. Just "boke" has a somewhat negative mental connotation, used to call someone an airhead, zoned-out or stupid, or, especially, being senile or getting Alzheimer's.

"I see a lot of close-up portraits of dogs where the eyes are in focus and the end of the nose isn't."

Hey Michael, then you should LOVE this photo: http://www.dragonsgate.net/pub/richard/PICS/_C292223-Edit.jpg :-)

BTW, it's too bad that maintaining a forum is a lot of work (you basically have to keep vigilance against spambots - it's a full time job by itself :-( ). Otherwise, I see an opportunity for you to host (yet another) photo forum...

"Are you sure?"

Yes. It's from bokeru, "to be blurred, indistinct, senile" etc., a word that existed long before cameras. Most Japanese still know the word mostly or only in non-photographic contexts, like "jissa boke" = jet lag.

And then there's lenses with changeable bokeh...


BTW, Mike it's interesting that you dislike the bokeh of almost all 50/1.4 lenses you tried. Although I do agree about Zeiss 50/1.4. FWIW.

I don't think the lack of searching on forums is a human-nature thing at all. I think it's directly because the "BB" style forums rampant on the web these days (and almost certainly what's used for the MMOG sites) have a terrible user interface usually coupled with a search engine that can only be described as "robust" within some sort of fantasy universe (massively multiplayer or not).

Sure, one can dig, but the very nature of the software design — emphasis on articles with new posts, horrible UI for topics with more than a dozen replies, horrible UI for digging through archives — encourages people to just ask instead.

And since forum regulars get site cred (and usually a post count "score", complete with advancing titles as the count goes up), easy questions that come of often get answered quickly. So the behavior is doubly-rewarded.

You say there is no perfect lens for Bokeh. Actually the Minolta/Sony 135 STF was designed expressly for optimizing Bokeh. Please see:



With regards to Winsor's query about the possible French origin of bokeh: probably not. Boke (in Japanese) can be written in kanji (Chinese based Japanese ideogram characters). This is the first clue, since loan words are mostly (but not always) written in katakana (one of the two Japanese phonetic syllabaries). The second clue is that the term comes in several word forms and has specific and long standing meanings in Japanese. For example, the verb 'bokeru' (呆ける / ぼける) can mean either 'be senile' or 'to fade / blur.'

Regards loan words, my favourite is karaoke. This word, a fairly modern amalgam of the Japanese for "empty" (kara) and the English "orchestra," and properly pronounced with equal stress something like "ka ra o keh," has travelled a tortuous road. First, "orchestra" became the Japanese loan word "oke," and then, as "karaoke," it travelled westwards to be twisted next into the infamous "carry o-key."

Right, I better "move on."


Just to add a bit for those who study Japanese, the character for bokeh as blur is 暈ける. Another nuance of this term is "to mute" colors.

And, one finds in Japanese photo magazines the term "mae-bokeh" to refer to the technique of setting off the main subject by rendering the foreground with a blurred effect. It is a common technique in flower photography.

"BTW, Mike it's interesting that you dislike the bokeh of almost all 50/1.4 lenses you tried."

That's not quite true...I gave the Canon EF a very high rating, and the Pentax family of fast 50's is good too. There's another fast 50mm I like, the older (55mm filter thread) Leica Summilux-R. And a number of 1960s-vintage 58mm f/1.4 lenses are good, too. I remember a Miranda lens that was lovely, as long as you didn't point it at anything bright. It flared easily.

Mike J.

I on occasion use "Bokeh", but being kinda West Coast School-ish, very seldom. I like doing environmental style for portraits, so not much use there (for me) either. Very interesting discussion though.

MSJ grumbled: "no one paid the least bit of attention to anything I said. Not that it was so important...it's just that, around here, I tend to get listened to. A lovely luxury, and thanks for that."

That doesn't seem to be true in the latter half of the thread at p.n.


I wonder what role loneliness or boredom has in the simple question phenomenon. Certainly we've all seen responses like: 'I can't post the picture now, I'm at work and it's on my computer at home.' ie the bored at work, check out the forum.

And for the folks mentioning the Sony lens, Nikon makes a 105 and 135 which offer this adjustment and I'm almost certain Canon does as well.

Based on what I've seen in forum postings about bokeh, most folks are looking for the effect you get from a longish lens: subject sharp, background so out of focus that it is smooth and featureless the so called creamy effect. This is "good" bokeh. Little interest in anything more complex. MIke has a really interesting example in his PDF article titled Mimi IV shot by Tony Rowlett using a Leica Noct. Much more engaging.

I get a kick out of photo.net's archaic forum structure. The bokeh thread is listed under "classic manual cameras>Brownie>BOKEH, BOKEH..."



The Sony lens we are referring to has a tinted element that has increasing thickness to the edges. No other lens is designed this way.

Other lenses may produce good bokeh; I have several. Nothing else is in the same league as the STF.

Please read the links provided before making assumptions.

While the Nikon defocus control system is interesting, it doesn't have the graduated neutral density element of the Sony, rather moving a lens element to alter spherical aberration.
I'd never heard of the Sony lens before, and while it seems to require compromises (no Af, slower exposure), the sample pictures do have quite remarkable (and probably unrivalled) bokeh.

Excellent explanation and discussion. Maybe you shutterbugs get tired of talking about it, but we painters hardly ever hear the term even though we use the effect all the time.

I'd like to post a link to this explanation to my art readers. Mind if I do?

My favourite is the one where bokeh doesn’t exist, because the person (or worse, the person’s photography teacher) has never heard of it. Seriously, to the effect of “I’ve been taking photos for thirty years, and I ain’t never heard of no stinking bokeh. It ain’t real!” I even heard something like “I don’t think it is really true, because my photography teacher said he never heard of it.”

To which I tend to reply, “Good point. It also explains why I used to float away into the atmosphere before I heard about gravity.”


Surprised to see Nikkor lenses do so poorly - had decent luck with Nikkor 50mm f1.8


Have lenses gotten so good that we're tired of talking about how sharp they are? It seems the internet is all a buzz with how wonderfully out of focus a lens can be.

Whatever floats your photoboat I suppose!

I always loved that shot of Mimi. It was probably not the very first day I owned that lens, but certainly not later than the second day. I remember how amazed I was that I could use such a fast shutter speed indoors without flash. We were at the food court in the mall close to where we work. I was driving her crazy (still do to this day) with always needing to take "test" shots of her. When Mike graciously asked if he could use the picture in articles, I was dumbfounded and very pleased.

Anyone see the inside front cover ad in the February Pop Photo - for a Photoshop plug-in by Alienskin called Bokeh? According to the ad copy, it's "the only software that accurately simulates the distinctive blurring and creamy highlights of real lenses." What gets me is that Alienskin appears to have trademarked the word Bokeh (it has an unregistered "tm" trademark, but not a registered "circle r" trademark). Now let's hope the trademark police don't come after those who use bokeh as a common noun and claim we're infringing their trademark.

I would love to see an updated version of your Lens Bokeh Ratings as can be seen at this link: http://www.lulu.com/items/volume_1/129000/129691/4/print/bokehrankings5.pdf

I think that one of the problems that many people have with the concept of bokeh, and many other lens characteristics that aren't immediately apparent to the unfamiliar eye, is simple lack of experience with different lenses.

Without even discussing compact cameras where lens choice isn't available (and small-sensor digital cameras where you have to work pretty hard to get anything very much out of focus), most people just don't have that many lenses. In fact, I'd bet the vast majority of digital SLR users have two lenses: a wide-ish to long-ish kit zoom and a telephoto zoom of some sort.

Zooms are hard to assess and become properly familiar with, given the huge ranges of focal length and aperture combinations available. And with modern AF "system cameras", the range of prime lenses available for a particular mount is limited. Even for the minority who have and use prime lenses, I doubt that many have multiple lenses at the same or similar focal lengths in the same mount, chosen for their different characteristics.

While aware, in a more theoretical than practical way, of the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between different lenses, I didn't begin to fully appreciate them until I "stepped back" into the world of manual focus rangefinder cameras (not that I've in any way abandoned digital and AF).

For RF cameras, by way of example, I have 2 28mm lenses, 3 35mm lenses and 3 50mm lenses in LTM or M mount as well as single lenses in other focal lengths. I use the different lenses quite deliberately for different effects or where I think one or the other may better suit the photographic opportunities I'm expecting.

This would be difficult to achieve with modern AF SLR lenses due to the comparatively limited range of lenses available and due to cost, as modern lenses go for modern prices while the range of available "old-fashioned" lenses is large and often (but by no means always) quite inexpensive.

There have been many times when I used bokeh as the most important part of the photograph. It's a good time going out and thinking that way. I went on bokeh photo outings just walking around looking for subjects where bokeh could play an important role in the image.

Here are a few examples at the following links:

Hi Mike,

The first time I encountered the "bokeh" term, I asked a Japanese grad student what it meant (I was in Japan that time). The reply was "Why? Who is fuzzy/foolish!?". Now it seemed to me that boke(h)(ぼけ) became close to baka(h) and to a certain extent bakero(h). It is now a photography term very popular on the net, and as becoming as confusing (to many) as depth-of-field. What will we do if you were not around (at least even online) explaining these things! Mabuhay ang TOP!


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