27 July 2009

Get Your Bokeh On

Bokeh is the photographic effect of out-of-focus highlights in a photo, especially the rendering of points of light. The term comes from the Japanese word for fuzziness. But no real need to explain what it is. Here is an example:

The out-of-focus circles of light, the bokeh, is really the subject of this photograph.

Photographers love bokeh. They debate what is good bokeh and what is bad. Many would say, for example, that the bokeh in the above photo is ugly "doughnut" bokeh, with hard outer edges. The theoretical ideal is that bokeh should have edges that are completely undefined, i.e., fuzzy. So this photo is said to have fantastic bokeh:

Photographers debate which cameras and lenses produce the best bokeh. Minolta and Leica went through a period of designing lenses that specifically produced good bokeh. Nikon makes expensive "Defocus Control" (DC) lenses which let you manipulate bokeh. Different numbers of blades in a lens diaphragm also affect bokeh. With six-blade diaphragms, very common in cheaper lenses, "bad" bokeh will often turn into hexagons. You can count seven diaphragm blades in this "bad bokeh" photo:

No disputing matters of taste, but I kinda like bad bokeh. And good bokeh. I just flat like bokeh. So do a lot of other people. Hence all the groups dedicated to bokeh on Flickr.

The bad news is that bokeh is hard to achieve with a digital compact camera. One of the problems is that the tiny lenses and sensors in compacts produce enormously deep depth of field, and bokeh is a shallow depth of field effect. You can produce a kind of fake bokeh in Photoshop, but your picture will look photoshopped. Bokeh is mostly an SLR thing.

But I'll just take it wherever I can get it.

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