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.
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.