The Great Bokeh Controversy of 2019

Bokeh is the Japanese word for “blur” and it’s the word photographers around the world use to describe out-of-focus fields and elements within photos. As I’ve written about in past years, I enjoy combining street photography, abstract photography, and bokeh photography to create impressionistic photos like this:

U Street (med).jpg

I took this the other night and shared it on 500px, Instagram, and the other usual places. When I added it on Flickr, I included it in a number of groups including Bokeh Photography, which is Flickr’s largest bokeh group in terms of membership. I had been a member of that group for many years, often adding similar photos. Unbeknownst to me, the group founder had quit Flickr, and the group has fallen into new management. When I submitted the photo above, it was rejected and the group’s acting admin commented on it, “That is not bokeh, it's merely a defocused lens.”

Certainly one of the weirder comments I’ve ever had on a photo. I replied explaining to him what bokeh is (I didn’t realize he was with the bokeh group), and that while bokeh photos with focused subjects are nice, a photo that is entirely bokeh is still, well, bokeh. This led to a rather absurd debate and if you have a high tolerance for long-winded blowhards, you can read the whole thing in the comments of the photo on Flickr.

But the tl;dr version: This fellow only considers it bokeh if it’s a standard portrait-style photo where a flower or bird or model is in focus with creamy bokeh elsewhere in the frame. He doesn’t recognize bokeh light points as being bokeh. I enjoy those well enough, and as I pointed out, of course I know how to take photos in such a standard style:

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I don’t take photos like that much these days unless it’s for a job, because I don’t find them particularly challenging or satisfying. This fellow seemed offended by this, and was determined to convince me that my abstract street photos were in fact easier to take. If there’s anyone out there who agrees with that, then I’ll say to you what i said to him: Go out and try it. If you think it’s easy to create a compelling photo out of a completely unfocused frame, then I encourage you to take a few minutes to prove it. I look forward to seeing your results in Flickr’s other bokeh groups.

Crosswalks and Bokeh

Hellios 44-2 58mm f/2 lens. 16th Street NW at U Street NW, Washington, DC.

Crosswalks are ground zero for street photography. One of my favorite street photographers, Tokyo's Tatsuo Suzuki, does a lot of his work walking through Shibuya Crossing where he always has thousands of passing faces to choose from. Having strangers in close proximity with a wide open space around you, which usually means more (or at least more uniform) light than on the sidewalk, is perfect for using a mid to wide-angle lens with zone focusing to get street portraits. There's the added bonus that people are so focused (forgive the pun) on getting to the other side of the street that they're less likely to stop and yell at you for taking their picture.

So I use crosswalks a bit for standard street photography...

Rough Day. I'm tempted replace his backpack with a briefcase and the cars with 1960s Buicks and Fords.

I was so excited by the idea of catching Justin Bieber's face like this that I ran up so I get the shot while the shirt-wearer was still in the sun and I could get lens flares.

Everyone always takes some variation of this shot sooner or later. Cliché or not, it's too fun to resist.

A map of DC walking through DC.

But what's drawn me more lately is using crosswalks for abstract bokeh experimentation. They're good spots for that because the various background lights will be nice and far away (and completely out of focus), and no matter how abstract the shot is the white stripes give an easily recognizable reference, and nicely frame the dark silhouette-blobs of anyone in them...

The Soviet Jupiter-3 50mm f/1.5 lens. This is an example of how delicate this lens's blur spots can be, with most of the blur spots brightest around their edges, and showing various personality and shape depending on where they are in the pictures frame. This was looking across U Street NW, at 14th Street NW - one of my favorite DC intersections.

I've written before what a great bargain the Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 is. One of the reasons it's one of the best lenses you can find for under $50 is the bokeh...

While the blur spots don't have quite the subtle personality of the Jupiter-3, look how ginormous they can get. The Helios 44-2 can focus to very close distances, giving far off lights extra big blur spots.

Next up is a more obscure lens, at least going by popularity on flickr - the Asahi Takumar 35mm f/2, which I found mounted to a Pentax in a bin of old film cameras. The camera's price tag said $80. I brought it to the register, unscrewed the lens from the Pentax body, and told the store owner, "I don't need the body." He replied, "I don't need the body." I said, "How about $75 for the lens?" and she said sure. Probably not perfect haggling on my part, but it was a good deal for both of us - they go for around $125 to $200 on eBay, but this one is pretty beat up and hazy.

Not bad, but not as good as the Jupiter and Helios.

One more, this time back to the Jupiter-3...

Dupont Circle, looking north up Connecticut Avenue NW.

Dupont Circle, looking north up Connecticut Avenue NW.

...I liked how the abstraction doesn't make it any less clear what's being shown here - I was lucky with how well the white of the crosswalk so nicely frames the couple's interlocked hands. When I posted it on 500px, photographer Joseph DiPolito commented with a more clever caption than I ever would have come up with - "Love is always out of focus."

Ireland with Leica Leitz, Industar, and Zeiss.

In June I drove around Ireland and Northern Ireland, taking occasional photos between beers. My primary lens for the trip was the only native lens I continue to use on my Sony a7ii, the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 Sonnar T. Otherwise I packed light with three little M39-mount lenses:

1951 Leica Leitz Summaron 35mm f/3.5
Industar 28mm f/2.8
Jupiter-3 50mm f/1.5

I'm mainly into the Jupiter-3 for its bokeh, particularly at night:

This was taken on U Street in Washington, DC. Shutter: 1/160, ISO: 640, f/1.5. So much lens personality showing here - note the two blue lights bottom center: perfectly round with classic rings of brighter light at their edges. The lights toward the edge become more misshapen, and there's the nice lens flare to the upper left. You can also pick up some of the lens's scratches and imperfection within the individual light spots.

But bringing my favorite night lens to Ireland in June wasn't the best planning ... because there was 16+ hours of sunlight a day there. So I never actually used the Jupiter there, because the light at night was like this, which I took with the Leica Leitz 35mm at 10pm on the night of the Summer Solstice in Oranmore, a nice spot outside of Galway.

Shutter: 1/80, ISO: 200, and aperture somewhere around f/8.

My favorite shot with the Leica Leitz was at The Rock of Cashel, which is well worth the visit and a quick drive from Dublin or Cork...

With a scene like this, most any wide lens would've done here! Shutter: 1/250, ISO: 250, f/16 (probably).

I rarely use the Industar-69, but it's so tiny I usually keep it in my bag anyway. And every now and then there's a good chance to take advantage of its unique look. Someone in the Industar-69 flickr pool pointed out to me that the gobs of vignetting I get on the lens is because it was made for half-frame cameras, and I'm using it on my full-frame Sony a7ii. It seemed appropriate for this shot, inside the castle at the Rock of Cashel...

Shutter: 1/60, ISO: 1250, f/5 ish (this lens has one of those old-style aperture rings that's on the front, right up against the glass, and it's tough to know exactly what the setting is).

As I said the native Sony Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 was my main lens. It's so comfortable in the wider apertures, while also showing enough personality to satisfy even us lovers of old weirdo lenses. In Galway I visited the grave of my great, great, great grandmother Mary...

I should've left some flowers, but I was a bad great, great, great grandson. Next time! Shutter: 1/1600, ISO: 200, f/1.8.

The background of that shot looks nice and distantly faded and blurred. Mainly because the shot was wide open at f/1.8, but also a bit because it was a misty day with cool light rain, as is typical in Galway. The same shot, full crop and unedited...

I once heard a great tip from a lightning photographer - he always tried to catch lightning that was at the front of the storm, because even lightning bolts lose clarity behind rain.

The sharpness of the Zeiss helped with street photography - most of those shots I had to crop down in editing because I was extra shy about the distance I took them from, as my fear of getting yelled at is great when I'm a dumb foreign tourist. This one was from Cork, which I found to be an incredibly friendly place, though even other Irish sometimes have trouble understanding the unique song-like accents of the locals.

Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 640, f/1.8.

This one was in Belfast. I was drawn to his expressive face. It was only later when editing the photo that I noticed what was on his shirt and how well his hand was placed on it...

Shutter: 1/250, ISO: 80, f/4. That's the sharpest aperture for this lens, which helped here because I had to crop the shot down quite a bit - I was across the street when I took it.