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Artistic / aesthetic use of Bokeh?

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Bokeh (blurry backgrounds) is trendy right now, but it also has roots in how we see, so it helps to add depth to an otherwise flat medium.

I'm curious to understand more about what is going on from an artistic perspective so I can use it best in my projects.  Technically having shallow DoF is a pain because it makes focus even harder to achieve, thus things like Sonys eye-detect focus which are required.

If you hold your hand up close to your face and focus on it, and then without changing your focus pay attention to things further away they aren't actually that blurry.  OF course, if it's dark then the iris in your eye will open up more and things will be blurrier.

So if we were going for 'natural' in order to create depth, this might be appropriate:

bokeh_Full2.jpg

This is probably too exaggerated (especially during the day):

Bokeh-1-JodyDole-1.low.jpg

And these are completely artificial and distracting:

lenses-with-special-bokeh-01.jpg.optimal

bokeh1.jpg

heart-bokeh-overlay-actions-9-.jpg?15135

In cinema people used to be impressed with deep depth of field, and it was used for storytelling purposes:

I know that using shallower depth of field is a good compositional tool to draw focus to the right areas of a frame, and I know that people sometimes use the strange and artificial bokeh of lenses to simulate when people have been drugged or injured, but what else is there?  What else does it do aesthetically?

How do you use it in your films and why?

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I am not too big of a Bokeh fan at all. Now some isolation sure that works, but total out of focus blurs, nah I'll pass. We don't see that kind of stuff in real life unless our eyes are watering or something that is so far away we can't focus on it like headlights in the far distance. And even that is distracting more than pleasing.

To me it is overused to hell and back, especially at night in city scenes. Sure you are going to see it in scenes naturally because you are never going to be at infinity all the time, but to do that silly slow zoom out stuff over and over to get in focus, Jesus I hate that. Been used a Million times.

Now something like I took today, yeah that works. That is not too radical to me. Pentax M42 55. f2.0 @ f5.6 on my Sony A7s. One of those 4 lenses I bought for a total of 16 dollars and the camera, and camera bag at a thrift store. 2 of the 4 are super sharp and have a nice coloring to the lens output. Sort of Leica like looking. Both of them were the Pentax ones. The 135mm 2.8 Pentax M42 is crazy good. The car shot is the 135mm. The Canon FD is pretty good, but sterile. There is one called a Toyo and it is hard to tell it is so wide, a 24mm at f 2.8. I like though. I have not taken anything super close with it yet.

 

 

DSC01563.JPG

DSC01557.JPG

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Bokeh or out of focus areas aesthetically add depth to photo or video. Depicting depth is important because essentially you are trying to depict a 3D scene in a 2D format.

Essentially bokeh to a certain extent mimics 'aerial perspective. Aerial perspective is the concept that we view things as being further away if they have less contrast, detail and saturation.

Here is a random example off the internet...

download.jpg.6667f1e00f41fd579428036db11e585a.jpg

Essentially we can 'see' a range of hills further and further in the distance.

If you consider that bokeh is essentially 'blurring' the background it is creating the illusion of aerial perspective and depth. The bokeh/blurring clearly reduces detail, reduces contrast (by merging the highlights, mid tones and shadows, and reducing saturation (by merging highly saturated areas with less saturation.) (of course you could achieve a similar effect by adding smoke to your background.)

nepal1.thumb.jpg.c9231ea101b41fc89bda3ed741e24f0e.jpg

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3 minutes ago, Robert Collins said:

Bokeh or out of focus areas aesthetically add depth to photo or video. Depicting depth is important because essentially you are trying to depict a 3D scene in a 2D format.

Essentially bokeh to a certain extent mimics 'aerial perspective. Aerial perspective is the concept that we view things as being further away if they have less contrast, detail and saturation.

Here is a random example off the internet...

download.jpg.6667f1e00f41fd579428036db11e585a.jpg

Essentially we can 'see' a range of hills further and further in the distance.

If you consider that bokeh is essentially 'blurring' the background it is creating the illusion of aerial perspective and depth. The bokeh/blurring clearly reduces detail, reduces contrast (by merging the highlights, mid tones and shadows, and reducing saturation (by merging highly saturated areas with less saturation.) (of course you could achieve a similar effect by adding smoke to your background.)

nepal1.thumb.jpg.c9231ea101b41fc89bda3ed741e24f0e.jpg

I would not really call that Bokeh. I agree it is blurring. Bokeh is to me is what @kye is showing.

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Bokeh refers to quality of blur really, not how blurred something is (IE you can have something very blurred but with horrible bokeh and something lightly blurred but with nice bokeh).

Most people would probably not go to the lengths required to use a variety of lenses for different bokeh and blur effects in a film.        At least it is something way beyond me and my limited video use usually involving just one lens (maybe to shoot a song live).

If I was capable of making a decent film using a variety of focal lengths, I might use a long lens to isolate an individual (300 2.8 at a normal distance gives plenty of DOF for a person with a highly blurred background) where you JUST want them in shot and with wider lenses, I doubt I would want too much blur at all.

Depth of field isn't just a property of f stop and focal length but distance as well (IE you get infinite DOF with an 85mm 1.2 lens with enough distance).

I do think different formats have different focal lengths that work best for people at usual distances for depth of field (IE FF seems to work best for longer lenses in the main and M43 for normal lenses- other subjects and it might be different lenses).

300 2.8 covers a person body at 2.8 fitting them in frame but with a well blurred background.

DSC08638.jpg

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From another thread:

3 hours ago, webrunner5 said:

According to Ken Rockwell we Do see grain in our eyes if he is to be believed. We probably do.

https://kenrockwell.com/tech/how-we-see.htm

He also talks about aperture, saying the iris normally ranges between 9mm and 1mm.  Google says the diameter of an eyeball is ~24mm, so that would make the eye f24 in daylight and f2.6 when it's dark.  I guess that contributes to the popularity of the 24-70 2.8 and 70-200 2.8 lenses.

4 hours ago, webrunner5 said:

I am not too big of a Bokeh fan at all. Now some isolation sure that works, but total out of focus blurs, nah I'll pass. We don't see that kind of stuff in real life unless our eyes are watering or something that is so far away we can't focus on it like headlights in the far distance. And even that is distracting more than pleasing.

I think I'm with you on this one - I did some tests with my Sigma 18-35 1.8 and decided that I liked 2.8 (which is F4 on FF) because it was enough to get a bit of depth and separation.

2 hours ago, Robert Collins said:

Bokeh or out of focus areas aesthetically add depth to photo or video. Depicting depth is important because essentially you are trying to depict a 3D scene in a 2D format.

Essentially bokeh to a certain extent mimics 'aerial perspective. Aerial perspective is the concept that we view things as being further away if they have less contrast, detail and saturation.

I'm aware of these elements..  a friend of mine lost sight in one eye and he was surprised about how some things were almost unaffected (playing squash, driving, appreciating scenery) and other things were completely hopeless (trying to catch something) and we talked about the different ways that we perceive depth.

That actually further reinforces other 'cinematic' techniques like adding smoke.

Is everything to do with cinematic-ness just trying to add the third dimension back in?

2 hours ago, webrunner5 said:

I would not really call that Bokeh. I agree it is blurring. Bokeh is to me is what @kye is showing.

33 minutes ago, noone said:

Bokeh refers to quality of blur really, not how blurred something is (IE you can have something very blurred but with horrible bokeh and something lightly blurred but with nice bokeh).

I thought it was both how out of focus something was as well as the quality of the blur, but I'm happy to be corrected.

I just did a test of focusing on my hand and looking out the window and I was surprised to find that the 'quality' of the bokeh on the building perhaps 1km away was just awful - very hard edges and interference patterns from the repeating high contrast patterns.  I was surprised about that as I thought it would be softer.  I'll have to try tonight with lights in the distance and see how hard the edges are.

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1 hour ago, kye said:

Is everything to do with cinematic-ness just trying to add the third dimension back in?

For stills I think it has a lot to do with it. A smart photographer/artist I know says the main purpose of photoshop is add depth to your photos by essentially cooling, reducing contrast, reducing clarity to the background and doing the opposite to the subject.

If we are specifically discussing bokeh balls, I dont like them much as they detract from the subject in a photo. When someone says 'nice bokeh' about your photo, it is just a polite way of saying 'crap photo'.

Are bokeh balls a case of 'look how expensive my lens is?'

I think for film/video it might be slightly different. A couple of years ago I had a production shooting part of a film at my house and they put large fairy lights at the end of my driveway. This seemed odd to me. Why? (I have never thought of putting large fairy lights at the end of my driveway and still dont get it but they clearly knew what they were doing.)

You can see a shallow DOF screen grab here (the fairy lights are orange and in the middle.)

669273134_ClipboardImage(164).thumb.jpg.0a83c14f598dfb7df085529aa288fa52.jpg

And another here with deeper DOF....

 

There was clearly purpose behind this lighting choice but I have no idea what it was.

image.png

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Here is a screen grab from test footage that shot a few years ago with an EOSM and a tilt/swing adapter, and, as I recall, a Nikkor 50mm, f1.4 (don't know the exact aperture setting, but it was almost wide open).  Note how the bokeh has a "gradient" from left to right.

koung_screengrab.thumb.jpg.ea9a94b389377db3c9705a36206b85ba.jpg

 

I went a little over the top, as I wanted to push it to the extreme.  Such adapters can give a more subtle bokeh gradient, with the right touch.

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Eh, Bokeh is alright and good bokeh and separation are important "tools" for a cinematographer, much like any other visual styling. Being for or against distinctive bokeh is kind of moot. It's like going "yeah three-point-lighting is bad, you shouldn't use it because it's artificial". Cinematography doesn't always aim to reproduce reality in an accurate manner. I'd say it's more often the opposite. With pronounced bokeh, like with any tool, you just have to have some taste and brains. Sometimes it works for what you want to achieve, sometimes it doesn't.

Edit: I guess I should mention that the times I HAVE messed round with the bokeh in my work, be it with vintage lenses or with self-made bokeh modifiers, they've always garnered praise and astonishment from peers. You can do a lot by reshaping the out of focus areas of your image.

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1 hour ago, Ehetyz said:

Eh, Bokeh is alright and good bokeh and separation are important "tools" for a cinematographer, much like any other visual styling. Being for or against distinctive bokeh is kind of moot. It's like going "yeah three-point-lighting is bad, you shouldn't use it because it's artificial". Cinematography doesn't always aim to reproduce reality in an accurate manner. I'd say it's more often the opposite. With pronounced bokeh, like with any tool, you just have to have some taste and brains. Sometimes it works for what you want to achieve, sometimes it doesn't.

Edit: I guess I should mention that the times I HAVE messed round with the bokeh in my work, be it with vintage lenses or with self-made bokeh modifiers, they've always garnered praise and astonishment from peers. You can do a lot by reshaping the out of focus areas of your image.

Yeah nothing is set in stone. It is hard to do something that has not been done before. But to me Bokeh that is overdone stands out like a sore thumb. Now that can be good or bad, depending on the circumstance if you want it to stand out, but doing it over and over in a short or film to me gets old. It gets predictable ,and that gets stale and boring, and well to me garish..

Now for a Photo sure I think that s OK because it is sort of a one off experience. But to see it overly used in video when it occupies hundreds, thousands of frames, nah. I am not saying don't use it. Sure if you have a fast lens you are using at night you are going t have Bokeh, probably big time. And that is fine. justdon't dwell on it.

Although I do remember some film where a guy was leaning against a wall at some restaurant staring into space at night, and all the backgrounds were OOF, and it was Bokeh hell, but it worked even though it was a long, motionless take. So that stuck in my mind forever I guess. So it worked, and worked well.

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9 hours ago, Ehetyz said:

Eh, Bokeh is alright and good bokeh and separation are important "tools" for a cinematographer, much like any other visual styling. Being for or against distinctive bokeh is kind of moot. It's like going "yeah three-point-lighting is bad, you shouldn't use it because it's artificial". Cinematography doesn't always aim to reproduce reality in an accurate manner. I'd say it's more often the opposite. With pronounced bokeh, like with any tool, you just have to have some taste and brains. Sometimes it works for what you want to achieve, sometimes it doesn't.

Edit: I guess I should mention that the times I HAVE messed round with the bokeh in my work, be it with vintage lenses or with self-made bokeh modifiers, they've always garnered praise and astonishment from peers. You can do a lot by reshaping the out of focus areas of your image.

I totally agree that there's no such thing as 'bad', everything just has a different aesthetic which may or may not suit your project.

Even if the bokeh was hugely distracting, maybe you're making a film about the POV of someone with ADHD and so you deliberately design shots so that the viewer is always distracted and missing important elements :)

My goal is to understand what range of aesthetics it has so that I can incorporate it into my work in a way that supports what I'm trying to achieve.

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10 hours ago, Ehetyz said:

Edit: I guess I should mention that the times I HAVE messed round with the bokeh in my work, be it with vintage lenses or with self-made bokeh modifiers, they've always garnered praise and astonishment from peers. You can do a lot by reshaping the out of focus areas of your image.

Funny you say that, because I think a lot of people now, me included are now more and more using, depending on, fly by wire lenses, and we are missing out on the joy of being able to use MF, and put it to good use. I really wish I had the money, as do most people,to have a damn nice matched set of dedicated Cine lenses. I am sure it would up anyone's game a bit, and make it feel like you are Really in control, as you should be.

My trouble even with older MF lens it that surprisingly a heck of a lot of them are small as heck. And it is hard to grab hold of the dials to change things without looking and that adds to slowing things down, and to camera movement etc. Plus the lettering size on them for F stops, Distance sure are not geared for older people I can tell you that LoL. 😬

But I agree it is not needed on every shot in this day and age like it used to, and in reality had to be. Run n Gun stuff you pretty much need AF. But wow to be pretty well off money wise would be nice. 😐

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3 hours ago, webrunner5 said:

Funny you say that, because I think a lot of people now, me included are now more and more using, depending on, fly by wire lenses, and we are missing out on the joy of being able to use MF, and put it to good use. I really wish I had the money, as do most people,to have a damn nice matched set of dedicated Cine lenses. I am sure it would up anyone's game a bit, and make it feel like you are Really in control, as you should be.

My trouble even with older MF lens it that surprisingly a heck of a lot of them are small as heck. And it is hard to grab hold of the dials to change things without looking and that adds to slowing things down, and to camera movement etc. Plus the lettering size on them for F stops, Distance sure are not geared for older people I can tell you that LoL. 😬

But I agree it is not needed on every shot in this day and age like it used to, and in reality had to be. Run n Gun stuff you pretty much need AF. But wow to be pretty well off money wise would be nice. 😐

For your older MF lenses that are too small is there a way to mount threaded adapters (the kind for a follow-focus) to the MF / Aperture to make them bigger so it's easier to control?  I know the outside would be geared, so maybe running some tape around the outside to smooth those out a bit might work?  It would mean it's not hard to find the rings without looking and would give you finer control as well.

Anyway, just a thought..

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On 7/4/2018 at 2:12 AM, kye said:

Bokeh (blurry backgrounds) is trendy right now, but it also has roots in how we see, so it helps to add depth to an otherwise flat medium.

Bokeh actually is a rather esoteric term because it doesn't mean blur, but the aesthetic quality of the blur. In the same way bouquet does not mean stinky wine. That's why there are so many criteria to judge the bokeh of a lens.

It had been a trend for long, but it's nothing special anymore.

Last but not least, why is it a flat medium? There are other factors to make us feel depth:

fc320637527bb04462403d1c09c6e229_950x600

On 7/4/2018 at 2:25 AM, webrunner5 said:

Now some isolation sure that works, but total out of focus blurs, nah I'll pass. We don't see that kind of stuff in real life unless our eyes are watering or something that is so far away we can't focus on it like headlights in the far distance. And even that is distracting more than pleasing.

We don't *see* it in real life, but something very similar happens. Apart from the fact that our vision has a permanent vignette at the borders, we only see the momentary object of interest really sharp and clear, even if the other objects/persons are optically in focus. If you want to focus on something/someone, it's therefore justified (if also often crude) to throw the background oof.

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Canon 5DmkII changed everything. Then everyone could have the shallowest depth of field ever.

People loved it because it was something they never had. Apple and Google and other phone companies trying to immitate shallow depth of field in their mobile phones and their small sensors and is a great selling point for them.

People use it regardless, do not care about meaning or reasoning, and younger generations do not know any better. For most people, shallow depth of field and/or bokeh, is amazing and somehow "professional".

Because this generation will dictate future market, the bokeh/extremely shallow depth of field and the appropriate cameras/lenses/accessories will be the norm (unlike traditional S35 aesthetics in moving images).

I do some camera work for a young-ish guy and he started "shouting" at me when I used 5.6f on a Zeiss prime (full frame camera) for someone talking in a podium, with nothing in front of him, and a white wall behind him. They only think he knows, is wide open full frame lenses, regardless!

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Yeah but I think it is like Anything that is new. You use the hell out of it and then you get tired of it. It is a passing fad. That is why company CEO's stay awake all night thinking of new crap to come up with when we get tired of what we already have.

And that is the reason Bell Bottom pains come back in every 20 years. A new batch of older teens doing all the same basic instinct things over and over every new generation.😬

7 hours ago, Axel said:

Bokeh actually is a rather esoteric term because it doesn't mean blur, but the aesthetic quality of the blur. In the same way bouquet does not mean stinky wine. That's why there are so many criteria to judge the bokeh of a lens.

It had been a trend for long, but it's nothing special anymore.

Last but not least, why is it a flat medium? There are other factors to make us feel depth:

fc320637527bb04462403d1c09c6e229_950x600

 

That is one ugly ass tree, sorry. But I see the point of why you used it. ☹️

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