Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bokeh Of Barbed Wire

If you are British and of a certain age, you'll remember the very edgy drama from the 70's with a similar title to the above, and I am sorry - I couldn't resist it. Later FBs will no doubt contain similar puns.
You had better sit back down too, as this morning's FB will tax you like no other. You'll either jump from your seat, shouting 'Balderdash!', sending flocks of toast-crumb birds across the table, or else you will go and grab a camera and try it out and then say 'What the . . .?'
You see, a lot of photographers these days are totally crazy about bokeh. Bokeh this, bokeh that, bokeh the other. In case you didn't know, bokeh is a term coined (I believe . . correct me if I am wrong) by Mike Johnston, prolific columnist and all-round great writer. It is loosely based on the Japanese term for an elderly brain at work - bokashi  and it sort of loosely means senility, or lack of focus.  It refers to the out of focus areas produced in any photograph, and is generally these days defined as being either good or bad! 
I am British, and it seems funny quoting something based on a foreign language especially when it is such a hip word, so (and you read it here first) I'll introduce the British acronym OOFA (Out Of Focus Areas). I've never read of anyone saying oofa, so it'll do for me!
As I said, those crazy guys and gals . . it drives you mad. A lens has to be razor sharp AND show pleasant oofa or else it is generally regarded as rubbish. Now obviously lens designers should know what they are doing, but also photographers should know what they are doing too. Yes certain lenses produce far more pleasant oofa images than others, there is no getting round that, but this obsession with it has taken it somewhere it was never meant to go.
There are about a billion images out there with people shooting lenses wide open and commenting on the oofa - it has actually become rather a trend that is also seen on TV and in films. It is actually like Group f64 (look it up!) never happened. No longer is it enough to have a sharp lens, but that lens has to operate in a razor fashion at its widest aperture, AND the oofa has to be a perfect blur, none of the strange stuff you get with mirror lenses and it definitely can't be jaggy (a Scots word meaning jagged).
The thing that most photographers fail to realise, is that good to excellent oofa can be coaxed out of most lenses, so long (and here is the kicker) as you are focussing in on something quite close. It simply isn't enough to focus on something 12 feet away and start commenting on whether the out of focus bits are good or bad. You need to get in close, and by that I mean pretty much as close as you can focus with your lens. In the case of one of my favourite lenses (the 35mm f2.8 Nikkor) that distance is  0.3 meters, or a little under 1 foot. At these sort of distances oofa is very prominent.
By the way the f2.8 35mm Nikkor is universally disparaged as being a not so great lens in Non-AI and AIS versions. What you need is a late AI one. These are know as the K series, and have 6 elements in 6 groups - they are very different to the later versions. I've compared this 'rubbish' lens with a lens which  has great oofa (the Pentax SMC-M 50mm f1.4 - a lens Mr Johnston recommends as his paupers 'Leica For A Year' lens) and you know what - there's precious little difference as far as I can see. Both lenses operate very well and produce pleasing images if used properly.
Anyway, try this for yourself. Focus as close as you can go at an angle to say the spine of a book in a bookcase, and check out the background. Beautifully out of focus, Now move back a bit (say, just over 2 feet) and focus on that same book spine from the same angle and look at the background. You haven't actually changed anything except the focus, and yet the oofa is very different. It is more defined, and the objects within it are also more defined. Now do the same thing at about 4 feet. Background is really clearly defined; 6 feet, ditto. You haven't changed a thing except focus. And just to make sure you aren't going nuts get back in to your minimum distance. Look how the background goes.
Actually you can almost forgo this altogether and just set your lens to its minimum focal distance and look at something distant (say about 8-10 feet away) and gradually focus on it watching your focus screen as you do it and seeing how the blur is slowly rendered into focus. If you have an autofocus camera, focus on something close and the slowly pan away so that your aparatus of the devil can focus on something about 12 feet away and just watch your screen. Admittedly this will be less successful, because most AF systems are very fast, and also because focus screens on the back of cameras are pretty much inherently terrible.
Personally,  I think there is nothing prettier than an image on a 'proper' ground glass or focus screen.
Now obviously focussing in close isn't really quite the thing, especially when you want to get Aunty Maureen and the kids in the picture, but rather than plonking them over there and having acres of space within the picture frame. Move in close, fill the frame as much as possible. At least that way any Gnarly Oofa* can be less distracting.
What I haven't mentioned so far are two other factors that seem to be forgotten about in the quest for nice oofa . .  .those of the focal length of the lens you are using, and a strange and unquantified one, the number of aperture blades. I intend to write a whole FB about the latter later on. But in the case of the former, you will get differing effects with how much background is compressed by the lens you are using. You know what I mean, the perspective with a long lens is totally different to that from a normal or a wide, and as such the oofa is more, how shall we say, obvious with a longer lens.**
You could really go nuts if you wanted to, examining this that and the other - testing lenses in this way has become the whole drive of a lot of peoples hobbies rather than the actual point of it, which is surely to make good images.
I am sure that Mr.W.Eugene Smith never thought to himself: 'Gosh I wish the bokeh was better in that picture.'
It simply doesn't matter that much.
Obviously if the background is smooth then it renders a more pleasing image to the eye, and also helps the subject stand out, however if it isn't, who cares?
Surely the whole point of a photograph is the subject matter.

The above is a young man I met in my travels - his name was Alec Turnips (to get that, you have to put on a heavy Scots accent). The lens was a 50mm f1.4 Nikkor-S.C.
The oofa in this picture I think is really good. The photograph was made with the lens at either f1.4 or f2 - I would probably say the former though.
Film was Fuji Neopan 400 at EI 320 and developed in Barry Thornton's 2-bath. Mr.Turnips was unimpressed however . . .but that is youth for you.
As with any portrait, I will pass on advice given to me by Mr. Joseph McKenzie, and that is this -  pretty much any portrait will only live if you have a catchlight in the eyes (the catchlight is that tiny sparkly bit you can see in the eye). And it is true.
Oh and if you are photographing B&W, ignore your meter and place the skin tones on Zone VI. In other words overexpose by 1 stop - it works.

* A particularly nasty villain in an early Dickens novel
** If you have any comments on this please feel free -  it would be nice to get some!

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