Bokeh – Finally Rationalising my Relationship with this Overinflated Element of Photography

I’ve just returned the 100mm Trioplan to Meyer Optik Görlitz having borrowed it for review for quite a long time. I’ve been so busy with reviews lately, that I didn’t spend as much actually shooting it as I’d have liked. Whilst I had it though, it did give me a chance to reflect on my relationship with bokeh, and moreover the comfort I now have with it as part of my photography.

I’m not going to say that I was once obsessed with bokeh, but I think – like many who go through a journey with classic lenses – it did fascinate me in an unhealthy way for a while. The obsession with bokeh is almost part of the default journey with classic lenses. But my journey as a photographer has also since included a bokeh related photography breakdown, a period of bokeh-cynicism, years of writing about it as part of lens reviews and articles, and now – some years later – finally finding peace with it.

Thinking back to the period of time I was fascinated with it, it makes sense to me how I’d got to that point. I’d shot point & shoot cameras as a kid a lot, then moved to a film SLR, then a digital SLR. The film cameras didn’t really inspire any interest in things like bokeh. If I got some sort of interesting out-of-focus effect when shooting film, I probably would have wondered what it was and simply disregarded it as some sort of odd aberration rather than attempting to replicate or repeat it.

Nikon RF10
My First camera – not exactly a bokeh king

But when I started shooting digital, I remember a bit of a mental shift. I’d bought a Nikon D70 and a manual focus 50mm f/1.4. The combination of the shallow depth of field and being able to see the result straight after I’d taken it fascinated me. I specifically remember taking a photo of a weed growing out of a crack in some bricks down an alleyway and shooting is at f/1.4 just to see the background blur.

The problem with the Nikon – as I soon discovered – was that it didn’t really offer a great platform for mounting other old lenses. Nikon cameras, in case you don’t know, have a long flange back distance that means they just aren’t suitable for mounting many other mount-type of lens.

This fascination with out-of-focus rendering didn’t disappear though. In fact, the lack of technology at the time to allow me to shoot different types of lenses only frustrated the fascination. Working in the camera shop with lots of weird and wonderful old lenses on the shelf, I remember wondering what the out-of-focus rendering would look like if I was able to shoot them with a digital camera.

Outside of this fascination, I’d continued to pursue photography in lots of other ways. I’d been developing my own film, bought into m-mount rangefinders, and had even begun to pursue a career as a professional photographer. In fact, the latter paid a further part in my eventual bokeh-related breakdown.

Professional digital photography had initially inspired me, but after a little while I’d begun to find it a little bit of a drain. When I first started shooting weddings, I couldn’t think of anything better. I was doing something I loved to make money. The problem was, as much as I enjoyed it, digital photography eventually became something that felt like work – even when I wasn’t doing it for a job. I’ve always enjoyed shooting digital, but doing it for work almost felt like work had taken it from me. I carried on shooting film as an escape from that, but I wanted digital to inspire and interest me in some way too.

And then mirrorless cameras came to market. I didn’t jump straight away – I couldn’t afford to – but I remember immediately seeing the potential they had for allowing me to mount weird and wonderful lenses to them. None of the cameras were full frame, and that felt like a shortcoming, but I was sure I could still get a lot of fun out of the combination.

In the end, after dabbling with a Panasonic, I settled on a Sony NEX-5n. All of a sudden, the classic lenses world felt open to me. I bought a stack of adapters and started experimenting with a whole load of different classic lenses. This was in the early days of the classic lenses boom too, so they were much cheaper than they are now. I bought an Angenieux 28mm 3.5 RII and a Meyer 100mm Trioplan for less money together than either of them would fetch by themselves today.

P Angenieux retrofocus type r11 28mm 3.5
Some 2012 Angenieux gear porn

I bought a lot of other lenses too. But these two in particular stuck in my mind as being at the centre of everything that went wrong with my relationship with classic lenses back then. The issue I had – after all that time I’d waited for the technology to provide me with a platform for enjoying classic lenses – was that I didn’t actually enjoy shooting them.

Part of this was down to the technology. I can’t remember what it was about the NEX-5n that made it feel less than perfect, but for one reason or another, I didn’t quite get on with it. But that was only a tiny portion of the issue. The big issue was that rather than finding shooting these classic lenses rewarding and inspiring, I actually found it boring and frustrating. The funny thing is, it took me a few years to completely understand why.

That said, I did come to understand some of my folly at the time. There were occasions with both of the lenses I’ve mentioned that whilst taking the photo I realised I wasn’t looking at my subject, but instead I was looking at the out-of-focus background. The years of wondering what sort of out-of-focus rendering I would get out of a lens had corrupted my photography process. I knew it too.

waiting for mum
I remember taking this photo and feeling an overwhelming sense of the pointlessness of some of my photography

The fascination with bokeh over subject felt wrong. The issue was, I didn’t understand at the time how I could otherwise harness these lenses. I didn’t fully understand the other character traits of the lenses, and certainly didn’t know how I could properly use them to good effect. I ended up getting lost in post process creating inconsistent images that I didn’t really like. It was a mess, and frankly, I felt quite shit about my photography!

Not long after this, I walked into London Camera Exchange and saw a Yashica T5 on the shelf which Gareth (who’d not long been running the place) agreed to let me have for £30. This is a story I’ve told a number of times before on this website, podcasts etc. It was the beginning of a new era in my photography. I shot a roll of XP2 in that camera and felt so inspired by the results, I decided to start this website.

The classic lenses were shelved, and I felt I had found a new direction. I soon sold most of them, used the money to buy point & shoot film cameras, and for the first time in a long time was happy with my photography. I rediscovered the subject matter, and forgot about the out-of-focus background.

Taken With yashica t5 and xp2
I remember being so profoundly happy with this snapshot – I think it was the first image I looked at from the first roll with the Yashica T5, and I couldn’t have been happier with it, despite in many ways it being a fairly unremarkable photo.

Of course, the fascination with classic lenses never completely died. It just took a back seat for a while. I’d kept one of the lenses I’d bought back then – a 50mm f/1.5 Summarit, and after a year or so of running this website bought a Leica M7, then a few other rangefinders in quick succession. I was shooting a lot more film again too, and combined with the experience of rediscovering subject matter, I was starting to understand better how to harness the complete character of a classic lens to take a photo I actually liked.

Summarit 50mm 1.5 ltm and M2
I understood Summarit’s bokeh, as well its lower contrast when wide open and susceptibility to flare – all to the point that this was how I visualised this photo when I took it. I remember the satisfaction in it coming out exactly as I expected! 

I soon concluded – as I talked about in this article – what defined the perfect lens. It wasn’t about just bokeh, nor actually was it about just the subject, it was about choosing the right lens for the style of image I wanted to create combined with the right subject matter. Lenses – as I conclude in that article – are part of an image making puzzle, and not the solution to “good” photos by themselves. It seemed obvious in hindsight.

I then discovered the Zeiss ZM Sonnar. And totally fell in love with what the character of that lens brought to my photography as a whole. Then the classic Sonnar fascination begun and I’d finally been able to afford a digital Leica which made shooting this particular breed of classic lenses both easy and satisfying. I came to understand what I’d been missing those years before.

Until the Sonnar fascination kicked in though, I’d probably have told you I didn’t really care about a lens’s bokeh. I wrote an article about bokeh just before I bought the ZM Sonnar, and though I still stand by much of what I said – and in fact come to the same conclusions as I do in this article – there’s a definite hint of cynicism to my tone. I think this was sort of residual frustration from when I’d fallen out with classic lenses – I still wasn’t totally at peace with bokeh as part of my own photography. You can read that article here.

The funny thing is, over the years, I’ve reviewed quite a few lenses, and but for a few ultra-wides, I think I’ve mentioned bokeh in every single one of them. Despite my protestations about it being something I found myself “frequently rolling my eyes at”, it’s always something I’ve felt inclined to look at as part of my lens review process. I can’t even claim that I only look at it because I look at all lens character traits. I don’t, I only look at character traits that I feel are either relevant to my photography or the particular lens in question.

First roll with 50mm Sonnar
Once of my first shots with the ZM Sonnar – still my favourite lens to this day!

This for a long time created what felt like some sort of cognitive dissonance. On one hand I still felt that I held a view that I didn’t care for bokeh and it wasn’t something I put much thought to, and on the other, I always wrote about it in my reviews as part of a list of things I always look at when I shoot lenses to review.

As if to complete some sort of circle, this all came home to me whilst investigating the optical traits of the new Meyer 100mm Trioplan II. As I talked about in that review, as I’d begun to appreciate different character traits of lenses over the years since I’d sold my original Trioplan, I’d come to regret selling it. I remembered the bokeh it was capable of, but wanted to shoot one again to explore how it created a complete image. I wanted to see how the crazy bubble bokeh combined with the other character traits of the lens and what – as a whole – they would bring to my photography.

I had my answer in the first couple of images I took. We decided to go apple picking as a family not long after I received the lens from Meyer, and I took the first couple of photos of Norah just after she got into the car as we were soon to leave.

Meyer Optik Görlitz f/2.8 100mm Trioplan II

I was immediately incredibly impressed with the photographic outcome, but also had a moment where I realised that I wasn’t instantly drawn to look at the bokeh as I would have if it shot this lens on my NEX-5n those few years ago. Instead I instinctively regarded the complete picture, as a whole. I liked the lower contrast, especially in combination with the bright sunshine. I liked the softness of skin tone it created, the glowing look that even the in-focus areas of the image had. I also like how the in-focus melted into out-of-focus and, yes, how characterful yes simultaneously un-distracting the bokeh was. In short, I liked the complete image.

This wasn’t really a revelation in terms of my response. This is how I’ve been judging lenses and the images they allow me to create for what feels like a long time now. What satisfied me was instead a realisation that I even with a lens that had once been a part of of some sort of bokeh related photography breakdown, I was able to shoot it without immediately ogling the bokeh. And with this, I had the sudden sense that the cognitive dissonance I have felt I’ve had issue with was no more. I finally had clarity on the subject.

Bokeh doesn’t fascinate me in an unhealthy way anymore, I’m not motivated to include it in every image I take, and don’t buy lenses just for how they might render the out of focus. I simply just consider it as part of the whole. When an area of an image is out of focus, I might note it as either being positive or negative in terms of the overall aesthetic of the image. And as someone who creates images, I simply see it as one of many tools in the bag, so to speak. It is, if I so desire to use it, just part of an image making puzzle, and there’s nothing wrong with that! It’s just important not to fall into the trap of thinking it’s something more…

…Of course, this was exactly the point I was making in my article about defining the perfect lens and the conclusion I come to in my article about understanding bokeh – both from 5 and a half years ago! I guess it’s just taken me a bit of time to catch up with my own way of thinking when it comes to this overinflated topic. Or maybe I just needed to shoot the 100mm Trioplan again to complete the circle (bubble) of bokeh…?

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11 thoughts on “Bokeh – Finally Rationalising my Relationship with this Overinflated Element of Photography”

  1. I definitely caught that bokeh obsession like 15 years ago when I picked up an old sonnar rangefinder lens (Nippon Kogaku 8.5cm f/2 p.c LTM) . Still one of my favorite lenses of all time, but not the most practical because it weighs 550g (fully chromed brass) and is less than ideal to focus (suuuper long throw, tight machining, and inverted rotation).

    I’m also less bokeh obsessed now, but still love sonnar lenses (mostly use the Sony-Zeiss 55mm and 35mm).

  2. I quite agree. Perhaps it’s the crappy lenses that I use, but whenever I shoot for Bokeh in my photos the backgrounds look boringly out of focus. Nothing special, just out of focus. The swirly bokeh that I see in some photos leaves me more dizzy than impressed. I think to myself “he’s just shooting for bokeh,” or “she’s just showing off a new piece of gear.” As you note, the main content of the photo becomes of secondary importance to the bokeh. Not my style.

  3. I enjoy your reflective pieces and recognise many aspects of your struggle to find hard conclusions in the photographic journey. My shelves are full of cameras and lenses I’ve tried and then parked as I’ve moved from one experiment to another and I see these as ‘chapters’ in my hobby. Initially I thought I was simply working through a range of options until, one day, the results would be in and then I could sell off everything except the chosen one. Now I think this is not the case and my chopping and changing is curiosity working itself out and that it will go on as long as I do.
    A couple of last thoughts:
    1) Could you spot a Sonnar image in a blind testing?
    2) This angst about bokeh or other subtle effects, is it just a male thing?
    3) I know I said ‘a couple’ but I forgot this one about your last photo of Norah (yes, I like it too): I converted it to black & white and marginally prefer it that way for reasons I cannot describe. Which do you prefer? Do you have any insight why?

    1. 1) It would depend on the other lens. My preference for sonnar lenses isn’t just bokeh, and I don’t just like sonnar lenses, I like lenses that have a series of qualities. In truth, I would could be tricked, but what would be the point – I shot what I shoot because across all the images I take with certain lenses I find them outcome more appealing more often.
      2) I wouldn’t say it is just a male thing, but yes, I think the male mind is more prone to obsessing over these sorts of things.
      3) I’ve not tried it. I shot it to be a colour image, and I rarely convert colour to b&w when I have committed to the idea of what I want it to be when I take it

  4. Sometimes lovely bokeh contributes a lot to an image. Sometimes it is just a distraction, or a waste of a good background. The only time I have a very strong reaction to bokeh is when it harsh and jittery. Ugly bokeh is an abomination. I have some lenses which produce every kind of bokeh from beautiful to grating, often depending on the distances between camera, subject, and background. Bad bokeh is not always simply due to the lens itself.

  5. I honestly think that digital has gone a long way to making bokeh overrated. As you’ve heard my story a few times I’m sure, I started on film and back then I had zero idea what bokeh was but liked the result. I could not for the life of me figure out what created it. I moved on to digital, Canon mostly, for the next 15 years. I came to understand how to create the effect through the instant gratification of immediate results. In 2019, I got my first mirrorless Sony. My ultimate goal for 2020 was that I needed an 85mm f1.8. Lots of digital photography sites focus on it so heavily that I was ensnared into it. When the world stopped, I rediscovered film, and of course, this site. Since my 15 year (mostly) hiatus, I had not played with any of the popular trends until 2020. So I started from scratch and played with the vintage car, gas station, etc trends. Instagram had a ton of inspiration that, while maybe overdone, they were not overdone by me. Funny thing is, bokeh rarely factors in the film photographers that I follow. My digital obsession with bokeh did not transition to film.

  6. Interesting journey into choosing lenses. Decades ago, I barely ever heard photographers talk about bokeh. Hasselblad or Leica photographers rarely complained about the look of the out-of-focus areas in their pictures. They just concentrated on the main subject and took their photographs. I think much of this bokeh concentration came about in the digital era. Two issues:

    1. Digital lenses, especially kit zooms, may indeed create unpleasant out-of-focus features, especially bright spot features, like bare light bulbs.
    2. Many D users confuse the quantity of out-of-focus (i.e., the infatuation with ƒ/1.2 or ƒ/1.4 lenses) with the appearance of out-of-focus features. In other words, more of the picture being out of focus does not mean better better or more bokeh.

    I personally like slightly lower-contrast lenses. But that, too, is not directly related to bokeh; that is an issue of transfer function from bright to dim objects in the scene. Maybe some modern super-contrast lenses create harsh bokeh, but the optical design is the main issue, not the coating and contrast.

  7. I too got distracted with bokeh, especially when I upgraded from aps-c to full frame. My 1.4 lens became quite the bluroficator. It wasn’t until rangefinders found its way to my hands when subject matter over lens characteristics took its place. Now together with subject matter it has come full circle completing the image.

  8. When I first became interested in photography I became obsessed with bokeh. I rarely ever used anything but the widest aperture. I was fascinated, but there was a point where I was more focused on shallow depth of field than on the overall composition. When I switched to film I started using narrower apertures. I still find bokeh appealing, but I don’t use it in every shot.

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