The Bokeh Life Trend
Lately it seems like the buzz word of the internet for photographers and videographers is bokeh. If you're unfamiliar with the term, it's a Japanese term used to describe the out of focus areas of an image and its qualities. Bokeh has become a hot topic in nearly every camera related video and article on the web. Everyone is out to bokeh their lives, constantly chasing after that ultimate creamy goodness in the background of their photos. My question is: Do we really need it that badly?
Certainly, using selective focus in order to create separation from your subject and background is a well established and much loved photographic technique. It's perhaps one of the more simple ways to improve the look of your photos as a beginning or amateur photographer. Setting the lens of your camera to the smallest f/stop number it can manage and shooting in aperture priority or manual to properly expose your image will get you on the track to making more "bokehful" photos. Using longer lenses, say 50mm and above, will also help you begin your bokeh journey. Also, the faster your lens is (the smaller the f/stop number it can achieve e.g. f/1.4), the smaller the in-focus area of your image will be, thereby increasing the amount of out of focus area, or bokeh, in your image.
How Much Bokeh is Enough Bokeh?
Today tons of lens options exist for ultra-fast glass. There are options from inexpensive Chinese lenses all the way up to the newest Canon RF lenses offering maximum apertures of f/0.95 and f/1.2! Of course there are obvious benefits to using lenses this fast, low-light and astrophotography shooting being the big ones. These lenses let in TONS of light. This allows you to drop your ISO and maintain a safe shutter speed which will decrease the amount of noise in your low-light photos.
These lenses also allow for buttery smooth backgrounds. An 85mm f/1.2 lens will produce such a blurry background that you could shoot a portrait in front of nearly anything without the background being distracting. Of course more goes into it than that, the distance from subject to background being a big one, but in general low aperture numbers equal big bokeh.
There are downsides to this, however. At f/1.2 with an 85mm lens, very little of an image is actually in focus. A close up portrait may have the eyes, parts of the cheeks, and a sliver of forehead in focus, while everything else on the subject is soft and out of focus. This also makes nailing focus more difficult, as everything must be perfect in order to achieve the intended focal point. A slight movement forward or backward by the photographer or subject could easily result in a soft image. Another consequence of shooting many lenses wide open, is that they tend to perform less well at their maximum aperture. Many times a lens will be sharper and perform better at f/2.8 than at f/1.2.
Due to these compromises, when I do want to use selective focus to separate my subjects, I often find myself shooting between f/1.8 and f/2.8. I find that even on crop sensor cameras this offers a pleasing background with nice separation, particularly when using longer focal lengths. This also ensures that the majority of my subject remains in focus and retains a good level of sharpness.
Separation Without Bokeh?
In my opinion, many of us get stuck using bokeh as our only method of subject separation once we discover it early in our photographic journeys. This was certainly the case for me. I got a nifty fifty and ran around shooting everything wide open. It wasn't until I later realized that having context to a location sometimes is more important than ultimate bokeh.
The introduction of OCF (Off Camera Flash) to my life was a game changer. Using artificial light with a slight background blur can really set an image apart. Using OCF can enable a photographer to overpower the sun. This will result in a darker background with a properly exposed subject, perhaps the ultimate in subject separation. When you have a flash with HSS (High Speed Sync) capability the possibilities expand even more. Using HSS can enable you to combine shallow depth of field with a dark background more easily.
Another great thing that comes with using OCF is the ability to create separation without needing to rely on background blur. When you're in an area that requires a wide angle lens or perhaps you can't bring your subject away from a wall OCF is an incredible solution.
I found myself in the first situation on a photowalk with my friend Jeremy. We came upon a location that was perfect for a quick portrait, but I was still shooting my Lumix G85 at the time, I had to stand between Jeremy and the lake, and that required me to shoot at a wide angle. Wide angle portraits are typically not conducive to good bokeh. Another issue with using bokeh for separation was that the background was a strong element in the photo. I wanted to keep it identifiable to make a nice environmental portrait of Jeremy. My solution was to use the sun to rim light Jeremy, and use my flash to light him from the front. (You can find Jeremy on Instagram @jjbearphotography)
I also found myself in the latter situation on a recent photoshoot for a local band. My buddies from Oakville reached out to me to shoot new photos for them. They were wanting to do some casual shots in studio. This setting require me to be able to work in tight quarters, and OCF was the obvious solution again. This allowed me to shoot between f/4 and f/8 for optimal sharpness and in order to be able to get a group of people all in focus. Trying to shoot a group at f/1.2 is asking for issues. Having said all of that, even at higher f/stops using OCF allowed me to emphasize the band members as the subjects of my photos without relying on bokeh, even during the outdoor portion of our shoot.
This blog post only offers a small amount of insight into the ways to use compositional tools to your advantage when shooting portraits. Bokeh, off-camera flash, and high speed sync are only a few tools that need to be in our toolboxes while we grow as photographers. I feel the current trend to rely on bokeh may only be just that, a trend. In the 90's we had soft-focus, big hair, and sequins (yes, I'm old enough to remember Glamour Shots, haha.) Today we have people buying huge, expensive f/1.2 lenses and shooting them at f/1.2 all the time. Cell phones are even getting in on the game with their computational compositing abilities, rendering photos with bokeh.
Do I think bokeh will go the way of Glamour Shots? No. Bokeh is a great tool. While I feel it may be overused currently, I do still love it. I enjoy shooting my vintage lenses for their unique characteristics, particularly in the bokeh department. There is just something special about being able to appreciate the out of focus areas of an image. We just can't stare at the out of focus things our eyes render, and that's something we get to provide in our images.
In closing, guys and gals, get our there an make some bokehful images! Just don't forget that you have other options in your kit. Variety is the spice of life, after all.
Find me on social media below: