It started when I looked at a photo by Eden Bromfield and thought, “woah, how did he get that shot?”
I’d been looking at photos for months, deciding what I was most drawn to. What type of photos did I want to take? I liked both the ultra sharp landscapes that I would later come to understand are the result of a technique called photo stacking. And I liked soft (gasp) out-of-focus photos I would later learn were the result of a fortuitous geometry in the heart of specific lenses.
But back then, gazing at that photo of Eden Bromfield’s I was simply lost in the beauty of it. The delicate over-lapping discs and rings of light echoing the cap of the mushroom and the general sense of glowing luminosity. I was enchanted. Learning the technique took a few months but it led me on a journey which culminated, finally a year later, in this shot:
Different Kinds of Bokeh
After viewing a number of the images with those glowing haloed backgrounds, I notices the common tag “bokeh.” I started looking for information on bokeh but there wasn’t a lot written about it at the time. What was, often made fun of people who liked it. They pointed to “Over done” images, in which virtually nothing was in focus. Bokeh, according to these writers, was the fixation of uneducated hipsters who merely dabbled in photography to look cool. REAL photographers understood that consideration of bokeh was only one (small) part of the photographer’s complicated thought process, somewhat important, but not more important than composition, lighting, matching a look to a subject, setting the scene, being lucky, and many of the more technical subjects that contribute to a successful shot. It was during this investigation that I first heard the often repeated advice to, “just go out and take pictures,” which was often preceded by what has now become one of the most problematic pieces of advice I hear, “it’s not about the gear.”
I completely disagree with that advice.
It is not just about getting out and taking pictures. It is about the gear. And it is about getting a number of the technical details right. And it is about developing skills with the gear and practice with the techniques.
Well Made Tools
Riding in the car the other day, returning from a photo outing beside Qualicum River, my photographer friend said something about the way a beautifully crafted lenses feel in the hand. The pleasure of using exceptionally well made tools is part of the pleasure of any task, and we both agreed that the tools of photography can vary significantly.
The lenses and cameras I now have are the best I have ever owned. They are wonderful to use. Not just in their feel, but in the way they make the photographic process possible. This experience was lost from me for a long time. In the weeks after that conversation I received 3 new vintage lenses, and two of them are such a pleasure to use, I became convinced that I took better shots with them. The right gear makes all the difference.
Eden used an old German lens to get his shot, and at first I underestimated the true importance of the lens. I had been told by a professional photographer who took a series of portraits of my wife and I, that “pleasing bokeh” can be had with many lenses that have a low f-stop.
An f-stop is a predictable way to set the diameter of the iris through which the light enters the camera. The iris opens to let light in and the size of the opening is adjusted by the aperture ring on the lens of manual cameras. The ring usually clicks from f-stop to f-stop. The f-numbers marked along the ring refer to specific opening sizes and represent the ratio of the lens’s focal length to the diameter of the opening. Because it is a ratio, the larger the number the smaller the opening. Typically the numbers range from 2 to 22. 2 is a wide opening and 22 is a small one. I came to learn that some of the best bokeh is produced by lenses that have a ratio smaller than 2.
The PROBLEM with wide apertures is that it takes very advanced optical design to compensate for problems that come along with beautiful bokeh. These problems include vignetting and lack of sharpness. I’ll touch a bit on this below when I talk about lenses.
First You Need a Camera
In order to take advantage of the right lenses, you first need the right kind of camera. For years I had taken photos with entry level Nikons. I was able to capture some nice shots with these cameras and they allowed me to get out and take pictures, as so many advise.
Then I got my first iPhone – an iPhone 5. And like almost everyone else who had an iPhone, I found I was quickly taking most of my shots with the camera in the phone, despite inherent problems with noise and pixelation.
The iPhone of that day defaulted to an optimal f-stop for a wide depth of field. This means in most shots with a phone, everything is in focus. Recent versions of the iPhone have computer manipulated effects to approximate shallow depth of field and bokeh, but this effect is unsatisfying when you contemplate the effect produced by more traditional methods. My original iPhones were limited both by the size of the sensor, the lens, and the software.
When I tried a friend’s Olympus OMD EM-5 I was stunned by the quality of the images, and after trying out a Fuji and Panasonic to make sure I wasn’t making a rash decision, I bought a newer version of the EM-5 and an adapter to use my old Olympus lenses from the 70s. I got some great shots, and most of all I was reminded of the pleasure of focusing a well designed manual lens.
My old F. Zuiko Auto-S 1:1.8 50 mm was the standard kit lens back in the day, but the precision and quality of the lens were evident. I took a bunch of photos with that lens, and was pleased with the results.
What camera should you buy? Today many cameras allow for adapting the old vintage lenses that give interesting bokeh. At the time of writing Olympus, Panasonic, Sony, and Fuji make affordable mirror-less cameras to which you can adapt vintage lenses, and Nikon and Canon offer less affordable options. I recommend setting aside a month or two to research cameras, if you don’t have one already.
Sensor size is a hot topic at the moment. After hundreds of hours shooting with a cropped sensor, there are two things I can say with confidence. Small sensors can create pleasing bokeh, and larger sensors can give even more options. This gallery was created using a micro 4/3 sensor, the 16MP sensor in my Olympus OMD EM5 M2.
Let me reiterate, you don’t need a full frame sensor to get bokeh.
The reason I upgraded from the iPhone to the Olympus was because of noise, lack of sharpness, lack of flexibility, and ease of use.
I recently upgraded to a full frame sensor (the Sony A7R2) because of noise and lack of sharpness in low light. Full frame sensors — paired with the right lenses, give better resolution, better micro-contrast, and better dynamic range. But they also magnify the flaws of lenses and the much larger file sizes makes post processing more time consuming.
See Tony Northrup’s videos on the sensor size topic for a more scientific and objective discussion. A good general summary video is the Sony A7 iii vs The World. That and some of his other more technical videos helped me understand the limitations and advantages of each system.
Second, You Need Some Good Lenses
I had to work very hard with the F. Zuiko 50 mm to get the kind of bokeh I was after. So I decided to do some research. I began looking into the effect of the old lenses. The most talked about lens at the time was the Trioplan 100. A flickr group dedicated to it shows endless images highlighting it’s virtues: soap bubble bokeh, pleasing aberrations, and saturated colours.
I went to e-bay and quickly discovered that a copy of the lens in reasonable condition was around $2,000 CAD. They have since dropped in price, in part I suspect because of the fact that many contemporary lens designers are now paying much more attention to bokeh and the same money can get you a product that produces beautiful backgrounds that are not quite as “busy” as the old Trioplan, but are awfully nice.
Nothing, however, produces bubble bokeh quite as well as that old lens. This is because modern manufacturers have corrected the designs that created these optical distortions.
Bokeh enthusiasts are not an homogeneous crowd. Some spend their time capturing circular lights, others the most creamy of backgrounds, still others, the complete isolation of a subject inside a foreground/background merging that leaves one flower or mushroom or dandilion head sharp and glowing.
Four Good Lenses for Bokeh
Here are my top 4 recommended lenses.
Meyer-Optik Görlitz Oreston 1.8 50mm
The Oreston is the lens that Eden Bromfield used, and it is the lens I have turned to the most for beautiful bokeh. Here is large gallery of photos taken with this lens.
Tamron SP AF MACRO 90mm f/2.8
The Tamron Macro 90 has a creamy even bokeh and a nice degree of sharpness that can not be achieved by the Oreston. There is not as much Character to the Bokeh, however, and I used it on my 4/3 sensor with a speed booster adapter. Large Gallery Here.
Meyer-Optik Görlitz Domiplan 50mm 2.8
The Domiplan has the most character of all my lenses, but is difficult to use because of it’s long minimum focal distance, softness wide open, and awkward aperture and focus rings. Never the less, the photos it produces can be stunning. Large Gallery Here.
Canon FD 50mm 1.4 SSC (with extension tube)
The Canon FD is a reasonably inexpensive widely available lens with a 1.4 aperture, which means it works well with an extension tube in low light conditions. Reasonably sharp when not wide open, it makes a good all around lens. Large Gallery Here.
More to Come
I’ve been working on this post for some time, and it is getting long, so I will publish it now. Perhaps if I get some questions, I will create additional posts on this subject, or expand this one.