Bokeh is Overrated – Eric Kim

In an article called Why Full-Frame is Overrated in Photography, Eric Kim discusses “bokeh.” When I got back into photography seriously a few years ago, I had never heard of this word. Back in the day when I shot film, it was simply called “shallow depth of field,” or “background blur.”

A lot of photographers, myself included, thought buying a full frame camera would give you better bokeh, which would make you a better photographer.

But, making photos with creamy bokeh doesn’t make a good photo.

In fact, most of the best photos of history were NOT shot wide open.

Henri Cartier-Bresson had a 50mm f3.5 Lens. His best photos had deep depth of field.

Richard Avedon shot with the smallest aperture possible, to get insane detail with his large format portraits.

Why is bokeh so popular in photography? My theory:

1. Photographers want to differentiate themselves from phone photographers, therefore they want the visual “wow” of bokeh photos. Because phone cameras cannot make bokeh, blurry background photos like high end digital cameras. There is software that can mimic it, but it doesn’t look the same.

2. Camera companies want to sell more expensive lenses (f1.2-f1.4 lenses). Therefore they pay photography bloggers, or give them free gear, to influence the market— to increase demand for fast Lenses.

3. Blurring the background while shooting wide open is an easy way to simplify the scene, and remove distractions from the background.

But to be frank, to blur the background is a lazy technique. A truly great photographer will consider the background, to make a strong environmental portrait. Or easier, just to use a simple black or white background is a good way to make a better portrait.

Takeaway point: Full frame is overrated, because the selling point of full frame is better bokeh. But better bokeh doesn’t lead to better photos.

As Kim says, this is a lazy technique. I see lots of photos on the usual photo sharing websites where it seems that “bokeh” is the point of the photo. I don’t think it’s always a bad thing. Here’s a photo I shot just today, where I wanted to highlight this fading rose against the background of a church and cemetery.

Fading rose

I think the shallow depth of field here works well to separate the foregrounded item (the flower) from the background. It also has, to me, a bit of a nostalgic effect. (Note that I shot this at f 5.6, not wide open; I didn’t want the stronger blur that would show with the lens at its widest aperture, f 2.)

But here’s a shot with pretty much everything in focus. I often see photos like this online with blur, where the photographer has focused either on the near elements or the center of the image.

Kim is mostly talking about portraits and street photography; you certainly need shallow depth of field with macro photography to highlight your subject. But this depth of field trickery is overused, and overrated, and it is often a cheap effect. Like any effect in photos, it should be used sparingly.

Source: Why Full-Frame is Overrated in Photography

6 thoughts on “Bokeh is Overrated – Eric Kim

  1. It makes no sense to criticize a tool because people don’t use it appropriately. I have two extremely fast teles, and I appreciate being able to get better control of DoF, and to shoot at higher shutter speeds.

    • I reacted to this in part because, on a photo forum, discussing the Fuji X100F which I have, someone said he was hesitant about buying the camera because he didn’t see much bokeh in photos people had posted online. It’s a fixed lens camera, so he didn’t want to buy it because he thought the lens didn’t have bokeh; rather than thinking, perhaps, that people weren’t using it to make blurry photos…

      In any case, i do think it’s a cheap effect, and one that people misuse, and it makes for many ugly photos. It’s far from the only overused effect, of course: HDR makes for many ugly photos as well.

  2. Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer (TOP) has had several posts griping about this. Especially when the urge to bokeh ruins the subject, as in portraits, human and pet, when the eyes are in sharp focus but the nose and chin are blurry.

    A clean background can be very helpful for macro to reduce distractions, but a better way to get that is to use a long focal length macro lens, e.g. 180-200mm. A regular telephoto with a good doublet closeup ‘filter’ can also work. Since longer focal lengths have narrower fields of view, you get less background in the photo to begin with, so can often find a blanker background. A longer focal length also usually provides a longer working distance (distance between front of lens and subject), which lets you keep more of the subject in focus and still blur the background some if you need to. Lighting techniques can help too.

    But a wider angle that shows the background, as in your cemetery photo, has the advantage of showing the environment and context as well as the subject, which can be more interesting. There are some wide angle macro lenses available now, but you don’t really need one. Paul Harcourt Davies is one of pioneers in making it popular:

    If you haven’t read it yet, you’d probably enjoy John Shaw’s “Closeups in Nature”, which is still in print and also readily available used. It’s the classic book for closeup techniques. It was written for film, but physics is physics. Sensors have different exposure characteristics than film, but the light bending is all the same.

    • Interesting, but those are really wide-angle close-ups, not macro shots; macro makes the subject much larger. But I think it’s a good point, and it’s something I’ll explore. And the use of extension tubes; I had always thought they were a bit of a hack. I bought a pair for my Pen-F, and put them on my 25mm and 45mm lenses (35mm eq: 50mm and 90mm). It didn’t look very good. But I’ll try them on a wider angle lens and see how that works. Thanks for pointing that out.

      Re bokeh in portraits: I’ve noticed a number of portraits later where the eyes and nose are in focus, but the ears are not. That’s just wrong.

  3. Wide angle macro can be more extreme than those examples, but I think it works better for larger subjects than small bugs.

    I suspect the sharp line between ‘close up’ and ‘macro’ is fading with digital and so many different sensor sizes; it was already kind of arbitrary in film between 35mm and the larger formats. Knowing the actual magnification can still be important if you want or need to do any calculating, but for most people that’s much less necessary than the old days since the camera, lens and flash get together and figure things out, and you often only need to adjust to taste.

    Extension tubes can be useful, but they take some practice, and generally need some fiddling. Macro lenses have the extra extension built in so you don’t have to think about it; they’re also tuned to the extension so the quality can be better than with tubes. But tubes can get you to higher magnifications than any macro lens except the Canon MP-E 65mm which can do 5x. If you do use tubes, you definitely want ones that pass the electronics. A given length tube does make more difference on shorter focal length lenses. There’s some discussion and a calculator for figuring out the magnification for a given lens and tube:

    The page also talks about closeup filters, which are usually handier than tubes, though they can’t give you the higher magnifications. You can get very cheap ones to play with, but they tend to have bad chromatic aberration, and that gets even worse if you stack them. Good doublets cure most of the aberrations and are sharp, but they’re somewhat heavy and expensive. Canon makes two nice ones, the 250D (+4 diopters) for 30 to 135mm and the 500D (+2 diopters) for 70 to 300mm. I sometimes use a 500D on the Panasonic 100-300mm, and that gives a good working distance, though that lens is a bit soft at the long end (is that a good enough excuse to get the 100-400?) The Canons come in several diameters, but you’ll likely need to get a bigger size plus step up rings for the lenses you’d want to use with it. Olympus makes a couple of singlets that fit their most common lenses. They’re good quality for a singlet and light to carry, but they use the bayonet mount instead of the filter threads, which is a non-starter if you also want to use a lens hood, and keeps you from using them on other systems.

    • I have an Olympus macro adapter. It’s pretty good, allowing me to get closer focus on a couple of lenses, but it’s still inferior to a macro lens. As you say, they have the extension built in. The 30mm (60mm eq) lens I have is quite long for what it is, because of that, but it’s a pretty sharp lens.

      In any case, this is an interesting element of photography. I see too many photos shared that just show technical prowess – getting all of an insect in focus, etc. – but I’m interested in finding interesting colors and contrasts.

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