Revisited: A word (or ten) on bokeh

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This article is one of my first from the archives, brought up, dusted off and refreshed with new images in preparation for the next mini-series on cinematic photography: let’s just say that bokeh matters, and having a little pre-prep can’t hurt. Plus, things tend to get buried in the depths of time and forgotten…

Bokeh. Possibly one of the most misunderstood, yet most bandied-about terms in the world of photography today – right up there with dynamic range, resolution, A-is-noisier-than-B and other such myths.

The term is a derivative of the Japanese word boke, which doesn’t really have a good translation into English. I believe Mike Johnston was the one who coined/ Anglicised it, though there may be earlier derivations. The closest we can get is ‘the nature/ character of blur’. It’s certainly not quantitative in any way – what constitutes good bokeh and what is bad or ugly bokeh is very much up to the viewer. There are some who like ‘busy’ bokeh where out of focus areas take on double images, swirls or other patterns; some like the pentagons and other shapes on highlights. Yet others prefer a uniform wall of gaussian blur foreground-background.

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What factors affect bokeh? Mechanically, the lens design plays a big part. The nature of the optical formula and placement and design of the diaphragm, specifically. In general, round diaphragms produce the best bokeh; though having said that, the Leica 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH has some of the nicest bokeh around, but that has a strange multi-pointed star-shaped diaphragm. Telecentric lens designs generally have better bokeh than conventional spherical designs; this is because you’re less likely to get crossing of rays after and before the nodal point within the lens, causing double images and the like. It’s also why most of the new Nikon f1.4 lens designs have beautiful, non-offensive, smooth bokeh; they’re all telecentric designs and optimized for digital sensors.

One important concept to explain up front is depth of field. For a given aperture and focal length, a certain percentage of the focus distance will be in acceptable focus. This percentage doesn’t change with the focus distance; the difference is the longer the focus distance, the wider the actual, physical range that comes into focus.

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The rules of optics also play a big part. The degree of blur is related to:
1. Real focal length (not effective 35mm focal length; longer focal lengths have shallower depths of field and thus more pronounced blur)
2. Aperture (wider apertures have shallower depths of field and thus more pronounced blur)
3. Distance between camera and subject (shorter subject distance means shallower depth of field – remember the percentage explained above).
4. Distance between subject and background (the further away your background from your subject, the more the blur).

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With that, let’s look at two examples.

A. Worst case: subject is far away from the camera and close to the background; very short real focal length and moderate aperture. What will happen? Everything will be in focus. This scenario is precisely why compact cameras are incapable of delivering any noticeable blur under most conditions.

B. Best case: subject is close to the camera, with a distant background; long real focal length and fast aperture. This is your typical telephoto shot: beautiful isolation and no hint of foreground or background. It’s why you can shoot through light foliage or fences with a telephoto and not even notice their presence in the final image.

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Good and bad bokeh, generally?

Remembering that it’s down to personal preferences, most individuals prefer:
1. Good gaussian defocus in background areas: uniform blur all over, with no double imaging
2. No color fringing on highlights, either left-right (lateral) or background-foreground (longitudinal).
3. Round highlights with uniform luminance, smooth edges and no internal pattern (those circles you sometimes see in out of focus areas are interference patterns caused by imperfect lens grinding or minute surface imperfections in moulded plastic elements)
4. Similarly smooth uniform blur in foreground out of focus areas. The foreground is something that few people look at or consider when addressing bokeh; it’s important because distracting foreground bokeh means that you can’t shoot through or around things. Nice foreground bokeh dramatically increases your composition options.

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Which lenses do I think deliver good bokeh?  (see the end of the post for direct links and approximate ratings)

There may be some surprises in this list.
1. Any of the fast-aperture super telephotos.
2. The new Nikon f1.4 AFS and f1.8 AFS lenses; 24, 28, 35, 50, 85.
3. The Nikon 105/2 DC and 135/2 DC.
4. Most of the Leica M ASPH lenses; specifically the 35/1.4 ASPH FLE, 50/1.4 ASPH, 50/0.95 ASPH, 90/2 APO ASPH. I don’t personally like the swirly bokeh of the older f1.0 Noctiluxes – caused by uncorrected spherical aberration.
5. The Zeiss ZF 85/1.4 Planar, ZF 35/2 Distagon.
6. Special mention to the Zeiss ZF 2/28 ‘hollywood’ Distagon – its curved plane of focus increases the apparent bokeh at the border and edge zones because the plane of focus is brought even closer to the camera than the central zone. It’s a pretty unique optical formula, and delivers spectacular results.
7. The Ricoh GR-Digital III – what, a compact? Yes. Used close up and wide open, the bokeh is up there with the best of them.
8. The Canon 85/1.2 L II
9. The Olympus ZD 45/1.8, ZD 60/2.8 Macro and ZD 75/1.8.
10. The Nikon Coolpix A.
11. Any of the Zeiss CF/CFE/CFi lenses for Hasselblad V mount.

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I want to leave you with two thoughts: firstly, quality of light is always going to be much more important and visually prominent than bokeh. You can always isolate a subject by the way it’s lit regardless of your lens and camera; you can’t do it if you’re using a telephoto lens as a crutch. What happens when you can’t get far away enough to get the whole subject in the frame? Secondly, there is such a thing as too much bokeh. This is the point at which the abstraction/ blurring of the background or foreground is so complete that no matter how much you squint, it’s impossible to tell what the secondary subjects in an image are; they’re completely defocused to the point of denaturing.

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Whilst some photographers – usually pure portraitists and rank amateurs – go for this look, the problem is that you’re throwing away one very important tool in your photographic arsenal, and severely compromising another. Without secondary subjects and background, there’s no context to your image – the background could be a roll of fencing wire, or the Eiffel Tower. (I suppose this works if you’re trying to do foreign location photography without any sort of budget whatsoever.) Moreover, though you will have some aspects of perspective rendering still visible in your primary subject alone (assuming enough of it is in focus), excessively shallow depth of field masks perspective to some extent: the 21/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH I used on the M8 as a 28mm (due to the sensor’s extremely poor low light performance) renders much like a 35 or moderate-speed 50 wide open – you really don’t have the perspective benefits of a wide. That said, we’re going to take a look at how shallow depth of field – amongst other things – fits in to create an overall look I like to think of as “cinematic”. MT

And as promised, those recommended lenses:

Mirrorless system/ Rangefinder
Olympus ZD 45/1.8** 8/10 – review B&H Amazon
Olympus ZD 60/2.8 macro** 7/10 – review B&H Amazon
Olympus ZD 75/1.8** 9/10 – review B&H Amazon
Panasonic Leica 25/1.4 8/10 – B&H Amazon
Leica 21/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH* 7/10- B&H Amazon
Leica 28/2 Summicron-M ASPH* 6/10 – B&H Amazon
Leica 35/2 Summicron-M ASPH* 7/10 – B&H Amazon
Leica 35/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE* 9/10 – review B&H Amazon
Leica 50/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH 8/10 – review B&H Amazon
Leica 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH** 9/10 – B&H Amazon
Leica 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH 10/10 – review B&H Amazon
Zeiss ZM 2/50 Planar** 7/10 – B&H Amazon
Voigtlaner 50/1.1 Nokton* 7/10 – B&H Amazon

DSLR system
Nikon AFS 70-200/2.8 VR II 8/10 – B&H Amazon
Nikon AFS 70-200/4 VR 7/10 – B&H Amazon
Nikon AF-S 80-400/4.5-5.6 G ED VR II N 7/10 – review B&H Amazon
Nikon AFS 24/1.4 G* 7/10 – B&H Amazon
Nikon AFS 28/1.8 G** 6/10 – review B&H Amazon
Nikon AFS 50/1.8 G 7/10 – B&H Amazon
Nikon AFS 85/1.4 G* 9/10 – review B&H Amazon
Nikon AFS 85/1.8 G** 8/10 – review B&H Amazon
Nikon PCE 85/2.8 Micro** 8/10- B&H Amazon
Nikon AFS 200/2 VR II N – B&H Amazon
Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon** 9/10 – review B&H Amazon
Zeiss ZF.2 2/35 Distagon** 8/10 – B&H Amazon
Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro Planar** 7/10 – B&H Amazon
Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro Planar** 9/10 – review B&H Amazon

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  1. Love your blog, photos, and explanations! Beautiful!

  2. Aanand Saha says:

    Hello Ming. I was reading up on Bokeh and came upon your site. I am glad I came. Love all your pictures, especially the lighted cigar photo.
    I am graduating from a point-and-shoot. I am Interested in buying the Nikon D5200 body and the Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G as my first lens. I am not buying the 18-55mm kit lens. This combination is a bit above my budget so am forced to think about a D3200 + AF-S 50mm f/1.8G instead. The difference in the price of the two combinations is almost US$180 as the D5200 body costs almost 60% more than the D3200 body.
    Would appreciate if you can clarify a few things for me.
    1. Will picture quality differ a lot between the D5200 and the D3200 for the same lens? for example the bokeh effect, if I am using the 50mm f/1.8g.
    2. Although I am really interested in photography, I will not be upgrading my camera or investing in really expensive lenses on a regular basis. The thing is I like clicking pictures. Thats all there is to it. So I want to ‘invest’ in a camera which will help me keep on learning for a long time and will also not become obsolete at the drop of a hat. That is why I am confused between the D5200 and the D3200.

    I know these are silly queries but would appreciate your suggestions.
    Thanks in advance.

  3. Great information Ming!
    My question is what do you think about the bokeh of the new Ricoh GR5 given it is only f2.8?

    • It’ll produce more bokeh than the f1.9 lens on a 1/1.7″ sensor because the real focal length is much longer – 18mm vs about 6mm, if I’m not mistaken – but don’t expect much at all. For more thoughts, there’s my complete review here

  4. Hi Ming! Amazing article!
    In the seventies, Yasushi (Sei) Matsui san, one of Nikon most respected senior designers, spent almost seven years of his life perfectioning the out of focus rendition of his masterpiece, the 135 f2 AI/S with a devotion only a japanese engineer could put into work. Though not perfect optically ( he left in some spherical aberration and coma flare at close distances/wide apertures) the amazing bokeh of this lens leaves me with my jaw dropped every time.
    Nikon had to build up a new project for his AF 135 f2 DC because the glass elements of the old design were too heavy (almost 1 Kg) to be moved in a fast and effective way to autofocus.
    I can only imagine what results this lens could produce in your hands!
    Best regards

    • Thanks Daniele. I’d heard very good things about this lens too – will have to check one out next time I have a chance. Admittedly 135 is a bit of no-mans’ land for me though – I have no idea what I’d use it for other than portraiture; it’s a bit too long for street, too long even for cinematics as the background becomes too obscured…but hey, it might just be a nice piece of glass to have 🙂

  5. In order to compare different lenses, it is really useful to look at:

    On this website you can compare the background blur capabilities of different lenses. This is a function of three parameters. The aperture, the focal length, and the distance between the camera and the subject. When you compare different lenses you can indeed see that sometimes a longer slower lens can achieve more background blur than a shorter faster lens.

    • Useful tool, but these are under ideal and equal circumstances only – frequently something in a lens’ optical formula or the placement and shape of the aperture blades can drastically skew the equation…I can say for sure that a Leica 50/1.4 ASPH has much smoother bokeh than a Nikon 50/1.4 D…

  6. I’m happy to leave this topic subject to the reader. Arguing about ‘bokeh’ really has little to no purpose. It often sounds like how Canon and Nikon fans argue about their cameras. I had the same reaction when reading in the comments about how ‘Japanese’ people try to reserve the ‘term’ for themselves and how foreigners don’t really understand the semantics of the word, ‘bokeh.’
    I’m perfectly content leaving ‘bokeh’ as a tool to be utilized for an aesthetic effect – which Ming has much more passionately, elegantly and non-confrontally put in this article. Whether a photo calls for a deep depth of field, or none where the background is indisguinshable; or perahps somewhere inbetween where the background is still informative yet, less distracting (like many of Ming’s photos here), there is a time and place to utilize the tool that is ‘bokeh.’

    • Tom Liles says:

      Sorry Jason, but why put Japanese and term in inverted commas?

      For fun?

      [I hope you weren’t trying to insinuate the Japanese people I spoke about were all imaginary and I’m a fake… 😦 ]

      • For fun. I was far too liberal with the ‘inverted commas’, think of me as one of those annoying people using air quotes every other sentence. *air quote fingers*…

        • Tom Liles says:

          Haha 😀

          Thanks and sorry for the insecurity Jason m(. .)m

          [It’s really hard to gauge on the internetz!!]

  7. Viktor Suhov says:

    Where is Nikon d7100 review?=)) Already bought it but waiting for your review!

    • Yes, because I have nothing to do but review cameras all day, for free! No intention of reviewing it, no time, either! I still have a day job in the form of commercial work that’s required to buy time to keep the site going.

      Besides, if you’ve already bought it, why do you need a review from me to affirm your purchase decision?

  8. I bought a dirt cheap 135mm f2.8 in the 60s for my Nikon F and quickly appreciated the blurred backgrounds it gave me for portraits. It had creamy bokeh that aways gave me an attractive background and I used it in park settings to do head and shoulders shots. The lens wide open was just soft enough to subdue facial flaws, but sharp enough to yield a good looking 8 by 10. Last week, I notice my 40 to 150 Olympus f4-5.6 gave me some nicely blurred background standing off @150mm and focusing on student’s hands doing mosaics. Enough to isolate the subject and subdue distracting background detail.

  9. Excellent article, Ming. BTW, am still looking for timeless photography, I mean photos that made history, with substantial bokeh applied. Photography that’s able to tell stories seems to be resilient to that urge to “cream”…

    • Thanks Dan – I think you’ll find few of this nature, partially because most of the history-making images are journalistic, and PJs have fought shallow depth of field as long as I can remember: you simply can’t tell a visual story if you can’t identify the players 😛

  10. I asked a Japanese friend who was over last night about the word and she related it to the charcoal sketches (Chinese) where the artist applies water to the drawing to dilute the line and create a blurry area, of greater or lesser density. In an European context I suppose it like the technique of diluting water colours to get a smooth, lighter shaded area that wouldn’t be easily achievable with conventional brush strokes.

  11. Carlo Santin says:

    Bokeh serves only one purpose…to bring attention to the subject(s) in the photo, that’s it. It is silly to discuss the quality of bokeh, or good vs bad bokeh. Think about it: if you are paying that much attention to the bokeh within a photo, then it mustn’t be a very good photo to begin with. That said, thanks Ming for the very detailed exploration and analysis of bokeh. I really like the examples you included, which show the proper place for bokeh within a photograph-to draw the eye to the subject matter. Arguing about the “creaminess” of one lense’s bokeh over another’s is mind-numbingly silly. Just my opinion of course, but I cannot think of another topic in photography that I care less about, except perhaps UV filters.

    • I think it’s silly to take it too far, but there’s distracting and not distracting. So long as it falls in the latter category, you’re fine.

    • David Babsky says:


      “..if you are paying that much attention to the bokeh within a photo, then it mustn’t be a very good photo to begin with..” ..don’t you pay attention to the pauses and silences in music? Is music just the loudness, sharpness, timbre of the notes ..or do the pauses, the gaps and spacing between the notes, not also play a part?

      Is it just the rattling-off of words in a stage play which constitute “the play” ..or do the pauses, the silences, also have some part to play?

      Are only the sharp and clear regions of a picture the only important parts of “..a very good photo”? Or can regions of empty space, blur or mistiness also contribute to the overall picture? And if they can, cannot the qualities of those regions of empty space, blur or mistiness be considered ..such as just how blurry they are; whether they blur away to nothingness with smooth gradation (as with recent Leica 50mm lenses), or if they have sharp circles of indistinct highlights and swirls (as given by older lenses)..?

      We look at colours, contours, contrast in a picture – beside the content of the picture, or whatever the photographer or painter is representing – so why not the out-of-focus, or unsharp, areas, too? ..Like the unspoken words in a conversation, or what’s outside the frame full of action in a movie: the suggestion of a stranger just offscreen who’s going to appear at a door or window..

      What’s unclear can be as intriguing as what is clear, so can’t we analyse what exactly it is about what’s unclear which is either holding our attention, or is completely missed by our attention?

      • Carlo Santin says:

        I understand what you are saying David, and I appreciate your view on bokeh, but I can’t say I agree, not entirely anyway. Bokeh serves a purpose at times. There are many instances where it is rather unnecessary. What’s more important to me is knowing when it is called for and when it is not. The quality of it, whatever that means to you or to me, is of little consequence.

  12. I missed the rating at the bottom of the only Canon lens, the 85 1.2 L II. Do you have one? 🙂

  13. Yorkshire Mike says:

    f2 really is as wide as you’ll ever need to go, and I say that as someone who holds on to a 50mm f1.4 jut in case. It gets used two or maybe three times a year but I can’t let it go for some reason. The vast majority of world famous shots have been taken at f5.6 or f8 for good reason and in really really good light.

    Bokeh is so overrated.

    • It depends on how far away your subject is. You might need faster for a distant subject and distant background, but yes, for normal distances, focal lengths and a decent-sized sensor, even f5.6 will work.

  14. A couple of lenses worth mentioning here are the canon 200mm f2 and the hasselblad hc100mm 2.2.. both render fabulous Bokeh..

  15. Tom Liles says:

    OK, PS in Japanese lists “Gaussian Blur” as ぼかしガウス [bokashi-gauss]… All of the blurring options are denominated ぼかし [bokashi]…

    “Bokashi” is a conjugation [in Japanese terms a conjugation] of “bokasu” which is the intransitive verb. The transitive version is “bokeru,” from which we get the noun conjugation “bokeh.”

    On “暈”

    I think the thought it expresses is “dizzy” in English. In Japanese this character can be called “boka” or “boke” for the roots of the verb discussed above; but, rather than a root for a verb, the character can also be pronounced on its own as めまい [memai]. Memai is, simply, “dizzy.” That’s what my paper dictionary says; a quick confirmation for you

    • Thanks for that, Tom – very informative!

      • Informative and baffling in equal measure 🙂

      • Tom Liles says:

        Thanks Ming. Thanks Todd. Just out of interest, were the characters showing up?

        [I wrote those on the fly, late and past my bad time and wasn’t especially precise with my grammar explanations by the way. I could sit here and explain it, purposefully and precisely, but it’d take tons of space, no-one cares, and I’d like to go and make myself a cup of tea now, so, I’ll leave it eh… 🙂 ]

        Mark’s Japanese friend gave us a good explanation too. I think she’s picked up the more ぼんやり [bonyari] or ぼやける [boyakeru] aspect of “bokeh.” Which, yes, we’d call “blurring.” The sharpest translation I can make [from the Japanese dictionary definition] is a loss of definition of an outline or color, from the the best dictionary I have, the “Daijisen” [大辞泉], abridged here:





        “Bokeru” [verb…]

        1) One’s head or movements become dull [blunt, slow, dim]

        2) Things, colors, outlines, or, the content of things in a state of undecidedness [loss of definition]

        So there you have it.
        Note the order of meanings. Also add in the “fuzzy” connotation which it has in the living language [which comes from (1)].

        I think the main disconnect is nothing here, really, but the fact that WE use “blur” for all sorts of things that the Japanese don’t. And, in fact, where we’d use a soft word like blur to express what we think is a soft concept, in a phrase — “a blurring of lines” etc — the Japanese use a completely different verb and the connotation as well as the denotation is different. Sometimes opposite, i.e., a hard word [to us?]. The above phrase has a Japanese analog, but if you directly translate it’s more like a “smashing of the lines,” “a chaos of the lines,” etc. I think we’re all on the same page when it comes to photos though –> soft, creamy, yada yada yada. Everyone, East to West, is subscribed to that. So, much ado about nothing perhaps => all my fault AGAIN!

        • All characters present and correct on my Macbook!

          • The last paragraph explains it well. But I think the real issue here is that cup of tea you mentioned at the outset: have your aromatic beverage preferences changed since moving from the land of milk ‘n’ one sugar to Japan? 🙂

            • Tom Liles says:

              No 🙂 I’m on PG Tips, bought at 100% markup in a ridiculously pretentious supermarket. All ex-pats know what I’m talking about!

              Spoilt for choice when it comes to the domestic and Chinese teas here though [Indian teas not so much]. I’m partial to a Jasmin tea, every now and then; and the hot green tea [Shizuoka province Green Tea is best] after Sushi is a MUST [and it must be FREE—this is the biggest turn off for Japanese people when they see sushi restaurants overseas: if they see the place charging extra for tea, which they invariably do = SACRILEGE]. I like a “soft drink” tea [they really treat tea like that over here, like we think of Ribena, etc] they sell here called “Java Tea.” And, yes, an American tea—Tropical Ice Tea. Shoot me.

              Ming takes the biscuit for finding a tea called “The Pungency” over here. That is the grand-champion of bonkers Japanese genius, right there.

              All this said, these are minor likes. I’d rather have a cup of PG, with milk in it, poured from a tea-pot, into a tall China cup with an illustration of a dog or a map of somewhere on it, than any of those teas. Any day.


              • Fantastic 😀 Well, except the 100% markup bit…

                • Tom Liles says:

                  Haha. Replied to your 48P comments above, by the by, Todd—but I stupidly put a ton of links in it and it’ll require Ming to free it from moderation limbo before you can read. Sorry.

                  OK, I’m off to bed now. Else I’ll have a head full of “bokeh,” i.e., meaning #1, all day 🙂
                  [my default setting, actually, now I think about it! 😮 ]


              • But The Pungency actually tastes good! Or maybe it’s for an Asian palette.

                I go with hojicha or genmaicha when in Japan. Do as the locals do, as they say.

                • Tom Liles says:

                  Yep, that’s as native as it gets. Starting to see why you get mistaken for one of the locals now 🙂

                  There’s also “mugi-cha” which is made from barley. My wife only drinks that [has no caffeine in it].

        • Tom Liles says:

          Sleepy posts again… The translation for (1), of course, was:

          ones intellect or perception becoming dull [blunt, slow, dim]

          Quite a bit of “bokeh” myself at one in the morning 😦

        • The characters are showing up just fine.

          One thing I found odd was that in Japan there does seem to be some appreciation for what would be thought of as ‘distracting’ blur in the west – double lines, high contrast OOF areas etc. Wonder why that is…

          • Tom Liles says:

            Good question. I’m going out for dinner with that guy sometime next week—I’ll make sure to ask. Let’s hope I can understand the answer 😮

  16. A couple months ago I asked a friend who speaks Japanese about the pronunciation of bokeh (it bothered me not to know). After explaining why she laughed. Her rough translation of the Japanese was “fuzzy”. She would use the term to describe her feelings after a night of drinking for example.

    • That sounds about right by my limited Japanese skills. I read somewhere – might have been Mike Johnston on TOP – that it was supposed to be ‘the character of blur’…

    • Tom Liles says:

      “Fuzzy” [in the context of a hangover] is a good translation. I don’t know if the Japanese characters will show here, but the phrase 天然ぼけ [ten-nen bokeh] for example is something like “simpleton” in English. Fuzzy minded, if you like. As I mentioned above, “bokeh” on its own but with heavy intonation on the “b” is quite rude and something like calling someone a dumb f—.

      I think what Mike Johnston may have meant [or meant to mean] was 暈け味/ぼけ味 [bokeh-aji]. I think that translates a bit closer to his “the character of blur.” Though the literal translation is “the flavor of blur.”
      [the first rendering of the characters there I’ve included the rather difficult chinese character for “bokeh.” All Chinese characters — the “kanji,” in Japanese — express a thought, sometimes more than one, so perhaps readers from Taiwan or Japan can confirm the thought expressed in this character. I don’t include the Chines as the Chinese changed their kanji alphabet some centuries ago and the meanings, and penning, of the characters changed along with that. Taiwan and Japan remain on an almost 1:1 footing in this respect.]

      It’s worth noting that the Japanese define 後ぼけ [ato-bokeh] and 前ぼけ [mae-bokeh] depending on whether its predominantly back or foreground blurring.

      I’d also like to say that I hear a lot about we can’t really translate the Japanese word for blur into English, i.e., can’t translate “bokeh” into English. I’ve been suspicious of this; I haven’t heard a Japanese person ever say it. So, I’ve just double checked in my Japanese and Japanese-English dictionary, and I think it’s really the other way around—the Japanese do not have a general purpose verb like “blur” in their language; phrases like “blur the lines” or “it was all a blur” have distinct, disparate verbs in Japanese and the nuance of the resulting phrase is often completely different. For example our “blur the lines” becomes more like “break the lines” in its Japanese incarnation [which shows a conceptual difference between the Japanese and us—cultural relativism really does only go so far].

      “Bokeh” only crops up in connection with slow wits and photographs.

      P/S My copy of PS3 is a Japanese one, so I’m off to check what they’ve called “Gaussian Blur” in there…

      • Tom Liles says:

        [Sorry Ming, this is a repost. Feel free to delete the other one floating in the wrong place. Apologies.]

        OK, PS in Japanese lists “Gaussian Blur” as ぼかしガウス [bokashi-gauss]…
        All of the blurring options are denominated ぼかし [bokashi].

        “Bokashi” is a conjugation [in Japanese terms a conjugation] of “bokasu” which is the intransitive verb. The transitive version is “bokeru,” from which we get the noun conjugation “bokeh.”

        I think the thought it expresses is “dizzy” in English. In Japanese this character can be annunciated “boka” or “boke” for the roots of the verb discussed above; but, rather than a root for a verb, the character can also be pronounced on its own as めまい [memai]. Memai is, simply, “dizzy.” That’s what my paper dictionary says; and a quick confirmation for you

      • There’s an important difference between foreground and background bokeh character. I think the west does not differentiate it because very seldom is the foreground deliberately out of focus; it’s used heavily in cinema and little else, it seems.

  17. Hi Ming, would you advise sigma 30/2.8 for NEX for nice portrait bokeh, or in practise it is almost impossible to create oof blur with f/2.8 ?

  18. The LX5 merits a place on the bokeh list.

    • Nope, you’re not going to get any meaningful separation because of the small sensor unless you’re very close, and the LX7 has a faster lens. Poor choice.

  19. Reblogged this on johnpapagia and commented:
    So expressive!

  20. Don’t forget the superlative Zeiss Sonnar T* 35mm f2 on the RX1! 🙂

    • Can’t comment as I haven’t used one…

      • Iskabibble says:

        You dont have to use a camera to judget its IQ (in this case bokeh). You just need to look at some images.

        • Not true. Looking at a few small images tells you far less than shooting it under a variety of circumstances and under your control. The problem with the Internet is people tend to see one or two images then suddenly become capable of making expert judgements when no controlled testing of any sort has taken place. I don’t pass judgement unless I’ve had a chance to properly evaluate it to my satisfaction, anything else would be unfair.

  21. Tom Liles says:

    Quite serendipitous this—a fashion and documentary photographer that I first met when we used him on a advertising job about 6 years ago rolled through our office last Thursday. He’s quite famous now; but fame or no, he’s definitely a capable photographer—he chooses the clients, not the other way around. And it was like that 6 years back. We hit if off in that first meet and have been friendly since, though not friends. We are “friends” on facebook, though, and so he’s noticed that I’ve picked up the hobby recently [and has “liked” one, repeat only one, of my photos on there: I have uploaded something like a thousand now! Gives me a laugh (at myself) when I think about it] so, anyway, though he was in a meeting with some guys in another department on another job, he made a point of dropping by my little island and saying hello, asking me why I’m taking pictures… we talked photos, cameras, lenses, etc [though he’s a bit of an anti-gear type] for 10 minutes.

    The conversation rolls around to, you guessed it, bokeh [which, pronounced ever so slightly different — intonation on the “B” — also means something like “dumb f—” in Japanese. Be careful!]. We weren’t 10 seconds into it, and he goes: foreigners just don’t get bokeh do they!? The “get” there means everything from; artistically through to technically, and it was spoken from a basic viewpoint of “bokeh is good.” Trust me on the translation, this was exactly his gist.

    I laughed, and said “oh really, why?” He didn’t answer though…

    Does anyone know what he’s on about? Are Japanese photographers better at this than anyone else? Do they understand something that no-one is the West [he may have meant Chinese or Arabic photogs, etc., but I severely doubt it!] is capable of?

    [Just going off what I know, which is next to nothing, I would’ve thought the opposite is the case. The ink — physical and digital — that gets spilt over this in forums and so on in the English speaking, non-Japanese photography scene is tremendous. And vice-versa most Japanese photography, by Japanese people, that I’ve seen tends to be grainy B&W film (rules out adjectives like “creamy” off the bat) art-of-the-mundane melancholy shots of old people and children shot at f8 without much attention to aiming in any deliberate way. That or Terry Richardson style flash against white background, dressed up “aren’t we bright young things!” stuff… Not really bokeh central… curious.]

    • Most of my compositions these days have very little out of focus, if anything; I use geometry, light, color, texture etc. to isolate my subjects. If I do have some out of focus areas, it’s probably because I’m shooting ISO 100 film and ran out of light 😛 That said, if I do have any out of focus areas…I want them to be pleasingly smooth and non-distracting…

    • Hi Tom,

      A few years back when I used to teach English in middle high school in Japan, two of the most common words the boys in my classes would say to each other were “baka” and “boke”. In Japanese, the stress and intonation and context in which you say particular words would be the functional equivalent to swearing in English, since Japanese doesn’t really have an extensive amount of swear words. So “baka” itself while it means “fool/foolish” in the dictionary sense and during regular conversation, if my students were really giving crap to each other or wanting to insult, “baka” would come out sounding more like “baaaaka” and said in a really arrogant tone – this would be the functional equivalent of “dumb f**k / f**kwit”, rather than just “idiot”. When “baka” is used in serious insults (like in yakuza Japanese) it really does sound unpleasant! If I was joking around with the boys and noticed them doing stupid things and misbehaving like teenage boys do, I would start calling them “saru” (monkey) or “saru yama” (monkey mountain).

      Anyway, I’m going well off track here, you just sparked some fond memories I have of the differences in how people express themselves in Japanese compared to English. This applies not just in language but also the visual arts.

      In photography, I think Japanese photographers use bokeh in a different way compared to Western photographers and this might be due to what we are taught or how we learn about different photography and art concepts. For example, there’s a strong focus (no pun intended) on the the foreground subject (positive space) in Western photography and art whereas on the Japanese side, negative space is just as important and much more widely used (this is what is known as “ma” in Japanese”).

      When you start looking at the negative space in an image and seeing it as being just as important and even more important than the positive space, then this is where bokeh becomes so important. When you are Japanese and live in a culture where “ma” is a really important concept in so many fields (art, photography, film, animation, design, architecture, gardening), you see things differently and I think this might be what your friend was trying to get at with his remark that foreigners don’t get bokeh.

      Anyway, those are just my thoughts on this and that’s my first comment completed on this site after being a long-time lurker! Thanks for sparking some discussion.


      PS – to Ming, love the work you do and the high quality content of your site. Keep up the good work mate!

      • Thanks for your thoughts – and welcome.

        Negative space is very, very underrated, I think: most photographers don’t consciously think about it. Here’s a thought: if the negative space ‘says’ something, is it still negative?

  22. Also this brings to mind back in the 80’s ,when I first got into photography, the the controversy that arose over the out of focus effects (silver doughnuts) of catadioptric lenses was my first introduction to the issue of “bokeh”. Must admit I have always find them rather distracting and has put me off ever using one.

    • That’s because they ARE distracting – they’re high contrast and very bright because the mirror concentrates the light, unlike good bokeh, which is neither.

  23. Looking forward to the cinematic series, for me this is a bit of a weak point in my photography – as you point out correctly bokeh alone is not enough to create a real cinematic picture.

  24. Subject isolation is the catch cry of the bokeh-crowd – but as you rightly point out there is more than out-of-focus blur to achieve this. The usual context is human portraiture but it is very common with wildlife photography – especially of birds – where I find it almost physically tiring looking at dozens of technically perfectly focused and exposed, highly detailed images of a single subject with the entire non-subject area is absolutely bokh-ed out. There is no context or environment to tell a story. The subject is indeed “isolated” and unless there is some sort of emotion on a face then there can be no story because the subject is related to nothing.
    I think the problem either is laziness of the viewing public l- you have to make it obvious what the subject is by getting rid of anything else that could distract, or (more likely) a lot of photographers have become less creative and bought into the myth that bokeh is the sign of a serious/professional photographer.
    To me the real challenge is getting the right balance of DOF between the subject and their context – much harder than thoughtlessly shooting every frame at full aperture.

    • I never thought of it as laziness of the public, but I suppose that might well be the case. There’s also the odd cultural preference for images with lots of bokeh – as though that’s the mark of a ‘professional’…I suppose it’s because everybody these days is too used to the infinite depth of field afforded by compacts and small sensors.

  25. Timely subject. I have been trying to reduce the number of shots with bokeh. For an 85mm prime how far do you need to stop down to avoid bokeh?

    • Depends on subject and background distance – this is once upon a time, lenses had proper depth of field scales that would show you how much was in focus for any given aperture…now we’re lucky even to get a distance scale.

      • darrell says:

        why have manufacturers removed this information from lenses ?

        • Everything always boils down to cost…or rather, cost cutting. Do it cheaply now to make an extra buck, sell them another version later – this seems to be the modern attitude.

      • Tom Liles says:

        They’d even put a little red dot on the focus scale on my Nikkor from 1977—the dot shows where you should shift focus to if shooting (near) IR. I don’t think this was an exceptional addition for lenses at the time…

        Darrell –> if you’re interested to try, a few modern lens makers still include this level of detail: Leica, Zeiss and Voigtlander (Cosina). The first two are expensive, but Voigtlanders are within reach to the rest of us: they produce lenses in the ‘m’ mount (mostly rangefinder cameras, but you can buy adapters to mount on m4/3 cameras and the lenses work quite well) and they also make ‘f’ mount (Nikon) lenses, too. Manual focus though!
        There are tons of well screwed together and well detailed lenses if you look on the second hand market and stick to things made 1990s and back. And they’re often WAY more reasonably priced than modern stuff which has LESS features. So really a lot of slept on butter about. With one caveat: if you’re on digital and packing anything more than about 12Mpx, you’re probably not going to get stellar — and by this I mean drop dead amazing — results with the older lenses [that’s what the extra cost of the moderns is, I think: the optimization for digital]. Ming’s mentioned in the other travel photography thread about resolution differences between digital and film, so it stands to reason: the older lenses just don’t put enough line pairs per millimeter down to keep the digital sensors satisfied. Coatings etc have moved on so contrast, color etc is not state of the art, but if you’re not producing paid images for commercial clients, these are limitations that can be lived with.

        And they look nice.

        • What about second hand AI Nikons? Even cheaper…mostly.

          • Tom Liles says:

            Yep. That’s what I intended with the “There are tons of…” passage. You don’t even have to suffer manual focus if that counts as suffering; the Nikkor AF-Ds are well useable, I think, and will focus (screw focus) on the more serious (but not only “pro”) bodies.
            [that’s for Darrel, not you Ming; I know you know!]

            I’m half considering a 50mm 1.4D at the moment: ~150USD. If you know what you’re getting going in, not much to loose on having a punt.

            Different mount but some of the Minolta Rokkors look nice too. And for m-mount, I found (and missed the boat on) a Hexanon 50mm (that came with the Konica Hexar RF). We’re getting into 400 USD+ territory there though…

          • Tom Liles says:

            Forgot to mention your Ai 48mm 2.8P…

            That wasn’t a well rated Ai; but pretty rare and, as you showed us all, doing quite well thank you very much with the more viscous Nikon sensors [we’re talking center performance].

            I haven’t seen one on the used market here for ages 😦

            • Tom Liles says:

              Agh! I typed “vicious” as “viscous” again!! 😮
              Someone shoot me

            • Ah yes. Not well rated due to field curvature; it’s a 7-element tessar design that’s capable of some stunning results if used carefully, and has a very 3D rendering precisely because of that curvature. Edge performance is actually fine too if your center focus and shift rather than focus at the edges.

              • “Vicious” is equally applicable to what 36MP does to unprepared lenses 😉 I have the 45mm f/2.8P too; it’s great quality and properly portable, a particularly excellent companion to the FM-series cameras. Rare and frequently overpriced, though; I had to settle for a silver one that doesn’t match the FM3a that it sits on, a fact that rankles more than it probably should 😉 The f/1.8G that Ming mentioned is definitely the pick of the current crop of 50s, it’s surprisingly great.

                • Tom Liles says:

                  Thanks Todd! Yeah, I’m spoiling myself a little really as I already have a 1977 Ai 50mm f/2—got it 60 quid (equiv.) in a used store here in Tokyo. It’s not the s, i.e., Ai-s, not the 1.8 or the 1.4 that everyone goes for (here). So that’s why so cheap. I love it. It’s a work of art. The MF action — God, I’ve turned into Alan Partridge opening cassette decks and going “yeah, nice action..” — but the manual focus action is BUTTER. And this after who knows how many people have had it! The lens hood is built into the design of the lens itself, have a look. Has an even number of aperture blades. And even on the d7000 it’s pretty pretty good [still way better than the more modern, maybe a 2000s one, 24mm Ai-s f/2.8 I got for like three times the money]. I actually like the soft f2 and fully stopped down diffraction at f/16 for portraiture with it. You get a kind of haze around the subject. I’ve been trying to recreate the atmosphere I saw in a portrait for months now. Still unsuccessful, but I think if I ever get it, this is the lens I’ll get it with!

                  But if I’m honest, it’s just the font on the front of the lens that does it for me. As callow as that.

                  Anyway, I was always curious about the AF-Ds, and noticed Ming had one on the front of his d700 in the long term review; and I’ve been salivating over a d700 [or even a d3!] The last week or so. It’s just GAS. Jeff [Jeff C] has been calming me down on that via the email last week 🙂 Yes, I’m sticking with the d7000 — which I love love love — but it’s nice to have these little fictions, isn’t it.

                  Yeah, you know, I was really interested in the 48P, just interested to see one in the flesh I mean [steady 🙂 ], and the result: here, in Tokyo, Japan, the Mecca, Mt. Everest and main place to be for everything photography—you just can’t find one! Or I can’t anyway! OK, I can’t find one within walking distance of my office, after not much more than casual tea break internet inquiry. But still…

                  Can believe the 1.8G performance. I have the 35 1.8G and it’s, sadly, the best of what I’ve got in f-mount [the 24 Ai-s, the 50 Ai, the 35G]. Light as a feather, sharp. Fair bit of CA in noon-day sun; CA still crops up in corners at other times—but it doesn’t block up as bad as the other two, which are a NIGHTMARE when the sun’s at the top of the shop.

                  Still love the manual focus lenses, but Ming put me onto mirror zero position the other day [I’m having MF problems: getting a green dot but erratically soft output => consistent would have suggested it was just the lens] and I had Nikon check it when they did a sensor clean [that additional check was free and part of the service over here, if you ask. Good thing about Japan, customer = God]. And they confirmed the mirror alignment wasn’t perfect—as much as 21,000 JPY to put it right, that’s about 140 quid at the going exchange rate… I think I can live with it and have 140 pounds in the bank instead.

                  Sorry, I’m rambling again 😮

                  Cheers! 🙂

                  • The other one you might want to try is any 55/2.8 Micro-Nikkor – those things are incredible.

                    The haze you see in that portrait is uncorrected coma wide open. It’s…not always desireable. My Noct-Nikkor has a bit of that wide open at 1.2 if you don’t correct for the focus shift.

                    I’ve owned and used extensively a lot of ~50mms (45/2.8P, 50/1.8D, 50/1.4D, 50/1.4G x2, 55/1.2 SC pre-AI, 55/2.8 Micro, 58/1.2 Noct, 2/50 Makro-Planar, 2/50 ZM Planar, 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH, 50/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH, 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH) despite not liking the FOV very much – I even bought a couple of them twice, thinking that the second time around might be better. It wasn’t. I find I much prefer 45 or 55/58 – no idea why. My favorite is a tossup between the 58/1.2 Noct-Nikkor (wide open it renders beautifully for portraits, by f2.8 is blisteringly sharp everywhere – but always very natural and organic) and the 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH, which is just clinically sharp everywhere, at every aperture, and splits the image into planes.

                    Mirror alignment is easy to fix with nerve, and a couple of small screwdrivers/ hex keys. I do all of mine myself – it’s faster and Nikon can’t optimize for specific lenses at specific apertures, I can and frequently do change the zero depending on what I’m using (Noct wide open has focus shift, for example). I can take a look at your D7000 if I ever make it to Tokyo.

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      WOW! Thanks Ming: building up the sushi points here by the dozen 🙂

                      Yes, please please please take a look when you’re over—and show me what you do m(. .)m

                      I recall you mentioning the hex keys, etc., procedure in a another one of your articles somewhere. I’ve read so much of you now it’s all a blur [boom boom!]; I can imagine what it’s like for you! But, I do recall you mentioning that alignment procedure, and after picking the camera up from Nikon last Friday, I had a sit and concentrated look inside the mirror box with the lens off. Just to see what I could see. From my perspective, looking into the mirror box, I was expecting to see the relevant screw system at 10 or 11 o’clock, and on the inside wall of the chamber, but couldn’t get an eyeball on it. No big deal to me though. I’m leaving it exactly as it is, I’m not pin sharp all the time every time on the MF — and I think for about half of the misses, this is just me; especially with moving targets — the other half, well, it all should have gone right as the green dot was up, but I get it home and the person behind the person was in focus [this is for stationary targets]. You’ll set me straight when you’re over; and I’ll set a plate or two of the finest sushi followed by the finest green tea, before you. Quid pro quo. Now, onto more important matters!

                      Quite a list! Crikey Ming—what happens when it’s a focal length you like! Joking aside: you had [still have?] a nice collection of 28mm EFOV at one point I remember. The Zeiss 21mm 2.8 on an M8 was my favorite of them [said like I know what I’m on about! Ha]. But since we’re on bokeh and legendary Nikkors I can’t not pick up on the 58. I’ve seen one once, back when I was beginning in January and had started to research a cheap but interesting interchangeable lens for my wife’s D60 [“cheap” is definitely not the Noct!!]. That’s what led me down the MF Nikkor route in the first place. There’s that 50mm f1.2 Ai-s which is initially similar at a [beginner’s] glance, and I once thought I’d found deal of the century when I saw a used one of those and thought it was a used 58 Noct! Imagine the poor camera shop attendant who had to deal with me banging on [with my best I know of what I speak acting face on] about Noct Nikkors, when we were talking about a regular production Ai-s… He was a kindly guy and smiled his way through it.

                      Did you keep the 58? It’s just I’ve heard so much lore about this lens. When the store attendant previous eventually put me out of my misery he went on to explain a bit about the Noct. Said it was a real legend; if you get one, HOLD ON TO IT. He said they’ll be like fine wine or classic cars—which spoils it in a way because only the bravest — and richest — will dare use them from herein. So mostly Nocts just get mothballed, put in safes, etc.

                      Ah, maybe the guys will chip in, but the M 50 1.4 ASPH is clinical isn’t it [he says never having even seen one in the flash never mind take a picture with; I’m only going from looking at pictures, on the internetz at that!]. I remember you using the “slicing” metaphor in your write up [you did a write up didn’t you? As I say, all a blur to me] and whichever article it was, the proof looked like it very much was in the pudding. I was wondering, just on the “bokeh” alone—that over the 0.95? [If anyone is racking the memory banks—here. Just on sharpness, though, the f/2 — is ” 50 AA” the right way to refer to it? — sounded pretty good, too.

                      I guess I’d rather have sharpness I’m free not to use at the cost of “bokeh” than gorgeous “bokeh” at the price of everything else—or plainly, at a price. WHO has the money to buy a 0.95 Noctilux!? I’d be putting a down payment on an Alfa Romeo 259, or something, instead… Christ, you could probably have a swanky weekend — like, everything 007 level lux — in St. Moritz or something for the same money…

                      OK, listen, I’m sure you get private complaints about me, so from hereon I’ll keep any comments to ~10 lines max. Preferably shorter. All other supplemental info and conversation to go to you behind the scenes [though I always feel like I’m imposing on you when I do that—the public way you have the option of ignoring and having 10 minutes of your life back, or leaving it for others to chip in, if the mood takes them, and having 10 minutes of your life back again].

                      Mea Culpa

                      [throw another “jyo-toro”* on the sushi pile!]

                      *jyo-toro is is the fatty cut of tuna; simply, the best there is [this side of fugu = blower fish]. It basically melts in your mouth—so so good. What everyone wants but is afraid to ask for when they go out with the Boss. Perhaps we’ll see a few of them when we go—bring the ‘Blad, bring the GR, bring the OMD [which still just rings “Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark” to me. Maybe you have to had grown up in the UK in the 90s, to get that one] it might be nice for your readers to see salarymen doing what they do best, i.e., drink, eat, generate tax-deductible receipts for their company! Captured MT style 🙂

                    • Mirror calibration
                      That’s good, I eat a lot of sushi 😛 It’s actually a relatively simple fix if you know how and don’t mind poking your fingers inside the mirror box. The hex keys were in reference to Leica M rangefinder alignment, which is rather different – and significantly more complicated. Fortunately Nikon have made the adjustment quite simple. For now, if you remember which direction to tweak the lens in after you hit green dot, that should be enough.

                      I have fewer 28mm EFOVs than I once did – now it’s down to the GR (incoming), Nikon 28/1.8 AFS, Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon and Zeiss-Hasselblad 50/4 FLE – nice and streamlined. The 50/1.2 AIS lacks the aspherical element of the Noct, which means it isn’t that good wide open, and certainly not off-center. I still have the 58, it’s an incredibly good lens on the F2/ F6; due to the magnification of both cameras, you can actually shoot with both eyes open.

                      I haven’t reviewed the 50/1.4 M ASPH (actually, I wonder why) but yes, it slices the image into planes in the rendering style of a telephoto rather than the gentle DOF falloff of say, the 58 Noct. It does this even at 1.4; very different characters indeed. The 0.95 has better bokeh obviously – similar ASPH construction, similar slicing, just faster aperture; the 50 AA wins on resolution because it has zero chromatic aberration, which is the cause of reduction in resolution of fine detail structures. I didn’t buy either – they were on loan. I got an entire Hasselblad V system instead with four lenses, two bodies, a prism finder, several spare film backs and a digital CFV-39 film back for the same price.

                      I always thought fugu was overrated, which was confirmed when I tried it on my last trip. My preferences actually run to the fish with a bit more ‘bite’ – your typical white fish like buri, hirame, kampachi etc.

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      Crikey, I can see I’m dealing with a connoisseur here 😮

                      I quite like soft and sweet, your typical ebi [not boiled], ikura, hotate, and yes, toro. Never really got the fuss about salmon—I’d rather have my Salmon pan fried in butter or something by a French chef, ANYDAY. There you go, it seems lots of people rate it raw. So what’s your position on squid [ika], Ming? Cod Roe [kazunoko] has plenty of bite but is quite bitter I suppose and only really a New Year’s food [but like all day breakfasts in Denny’s, they sell it year round now]. I’ll have to go on a reccy to a Taisho place this week—I’m at a loss for something good but relatively virgin territory for non-Japanese [and seeing as I’m one of the non-Japanese myself!] to name drop here.

                      Fugu overrated? DId you get sashimi? A plate full of paper thin slices of it, a dab of wasabi… when the bill rolls around you know if you’ve eaten that one or not—but it is worth it, in my opinion. Let’s see if I can convert you when you come 😀

                      Will do. Many thanks!


                      I didn’t buy either – they were on loan. I got an entire Hasselblad V system instead with four lenses, two bodies, a prism finder, several spare film backs and a digital CFV-39 film back for the same price

                      [The crowd roars! / applause]


                    • Not really, just somebody who’s eaten a lot of sushi. Soft and sweet – hotate definitely; ebi less so; unagi and anagao for sure; uni most definitely; and that sweet omelette at the end to finish. I do like salmon and ika, though – but the ika has to be fresh else it loses its bite and starts being gooey. Not such a huge fan of the other fish eggs like salmon roe etc. I did get fugu sashimi – and several other ways, it was a speciality restaurant – but somehow it just tasted…bland, compared to say a really good long cut of bonito/ katsuo that transitions from akami on one side to o-toro on the other…

                      The crowd thinks I’m bloody insane, I suspect.

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      Hearing you on the squid. I don’t mind the taste and texture, but it’s rare that I’ve had one that made me sit back and go “now I get it.” I’ll grant you that blow-fish can be “meh.” Doing the kuchi-naoshi [“palette zeroing”?] between servings is important there I suppose: the sour preserves [tsukemono] or a slice of ginger and gulp of neutral drink, etc. But, yes, a subtle taste for sure. Well, I’m coming off like Mr Fugu here but it’s not even one of my must have favorites—so I think I want to back away and say: you’re right and you’re spot on!
                      You caught me mixing words again: jyo-toro for o-toro—getting mixed up with yakiniku beef cuts there [which use “up,” i.e., jyo (上) rather than the sushi “mid” [中] and “great” [大] to denominate the damage to your wallet!]

                      I have to put a disclaimer in here and say my favorite Japanese food is not the righteous traditional stuff, which is all beyond reproach. My tastes are a little more quotidian and contemporary: I like cutlets, I like family restaurant [diner] “hamburg,” I like curry-rice, shogayaki [ginger fried pork], chicken “tatsuta” [that’s fried chicken, with better than normal batter], and a host of stuff like this. Yes, Soba, yes udon, yes sushi, yes sashimi and yes intricate little thingies that you’re scared to lay into especially with a kimono’ed matron over your shoulder… yes to all that—but I like to eat with the plebs, like the plebs. Being a pleb myself! 🙂

                      P/S Always loved an Al Pacino line in DEVIL’S ADVOCATE: ride the train, be the little guy: they never see you coming

                      [3 lines over budget! 😦 ]

                    • I don’t think it was so much the taste as perhaps the whole anticipation before the experience; I suppose it’s like going on a date with [insert current Hollywood crush of choice here] and then finding that they were just a little dull in person, or had bad breath, or was just, well, boring.

                      Don’t get me wrong: as much as I can appreciate the artistry in Kaiseki, I love a good bowl of udon too, and have developed a strange taste for Japanese curry…sometimes you need to have those ‘comfort foods’ that just hit the spot.

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      /Cold shudder goes down his spine…

                      I said kaizen for kaiseki the other day, didn’t I.

                      I feel like HAL 9000 when Dave was pulling all his memory out. Give me a few more comments, I’ll start singing “Daisy”…

                    • Yes, I believe you did 😛

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      “kaizen” [改善] was on my mind all that week, hence the slip [Freudian?]. Kaizen, roughly translated is “betterment,” I suppose “improvement”; though to my mind an improvement is taking something which was so-so or just OK and, well, improving it. “Kaizen” is more akin to a turning around—the starting condition is firmly bad.
                      So, that week, I had a job of writing a presentation and some branding key words for someone’s pitch on refreshing a certain brand for the marketplace [and they get all the credit when the client says “yes.” The joys of sub-contracting!]. I’d decided that “改善” was going to be the motto, the takeaway, the one word his audience should walk away with—kaizen.

                      It’s a compound noun. Most of the classical Japanese nouns are—and they’re mostly inherited from the Chinese, whose language and culture is to the Japanese what the Greeks were to the Romans. These compounds are called jyukugo [熟語]. It’s a very powerful lexical system, actually, that we in the West should be envious of. But we take one look at the glyphs and ughh. Any thought, new or old you’d like to express: you find two kanji that fit your purpose — and remember we mentioned yesterday that each one expresses a thought — combine them into the new synthetic noun, the jyukugo. And there is your new noun with a meaning a little more than the sum of its parts, but can be derived from them a-priori [if you just know the components]. I like it because it reminds us, with more surface than our western words — no-one knows all these greek and latin and saxon, etc roots of our words and the letters themselves don’t deliver the thought — that language and meaning is a philosophical enterprise, not a rank documentary one. So 改善:

                      改:renew, come around, get better, reform, change


                      善:good [as opposite of evil], right


                      改善:betterment, improvement, a turn for the better, a turn around

                      Nothing to do with 会席 [kaiseki]. But I hope my mistakes are at least a little entertaining 🙂

                    • For some odd reason, Kaizen brings to mind Toyota. I suppose it’s something to do with their continuous improvement management cycle that depending on how you look at it, either makes QC everybody’s responsibility and pride, or makes errors everybody’s fault.

                      Hey, I’m learning something from this…

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      Oh yes, that’s a Toyota catchphrase—“kaizen shuhou”[改善手法]. There’s also “Toyota seisan houshiki” [トヨタ生産方式], of which “kaizen” is the integral part, if I remember correctly. They label it “TPS” [for Toyota Production System] in corporate literature.

                      Shuhou is like “technique” in English, so kaizen shuhou is like “Betterment Methodology” [for a more natural translation than “betterment technique”]. It’s funny, rather than Toyota’s QC practices — and the Japanese in general are AWESOME on QA and QC aren’t they? Let’s leave Sigma lenses out of it for now Ming, steady 🙂 — yes, as an engineer when I think Toyota business models and practice, “just in time” supply to production lines comes to mind first.

                      EDF who I used to work for, in my former life as a nuclear engineer, had a great corporate policy: no blame culture. If you make a mistake, but own up to it yourself, i.e., bring it to your line manager’s attention yourself nothing can happen to you. No repercussions whatsoever. In fact, if you bring it to your line manager and he tries to blame you or get Old Testament about it, he’s the one that’s in line for the chop. However, if you make a mistake and keep it under your hat, and are found out, that’s you done. One strike, you’re out. “No blame culture” was great, people just felt free to admit mistakes and we fixed them quick before any real damage could be done. The tricky part was the guys who didn’t say anything. Implicit in the rule above is them knowing they made a mistake—we’d get guys making a balls up, knowingly, I bet you, then pleading ignorance like their life depended on it [it did] when they were collared…

                      They’d get away with it, and once that happens a few times—it’s the ball game.

                      Toyota don’t have this problem with their technicians, I bet you.

                    • No system can fully eradicate a) stupidity b) ignorance c) people trying to cheat the system. The only way to get rid of those three and permit only genuine mistakes is to ensure everybody has some skin in the game…blaming everybody for everything is just unfair, though.

  26. Bokeh, in my humble opinion, seems to be the most divisive concept in photography. It seems to be, besides sharpness, the most debated and emotional subject found in the forums. Unlike sharpness, it’s largely subjective. Some people swear by one lens and others swear by another. The arguments are endless. For me, it makes the subject interesting. I’m glad to hear your thoughts.

    My favourite lens for bokeh? (as if you’d asked!) My choice is completely unconventional: my EF 300mm f/4L IS mounted to my trusty 5D. It’s not a fast lens, but it’s long. Outside, it’s pretty easy to make the background disappear into a lovely, uniform haze. I don’t need no stinking f/1.2! I can use f/5.6 and take it easy!

    • Yes it is – because there’s the amount, the quality, and the ‘look’ – all of which are pretty darn subjective…

      Long is one of the things you need for a good level of abstraction – aperture matters less, because you’re never going to get everything in focus from foreground to background at f16 anyway.

    • “Bokeh” is one of the silliest terms to be used in photography ever. When I attended photography school years ago at RIT, we studied the materials, processes, chemistry, and optics of photography in great depth (and never once was there a mention of “bokah”). What’s wrong with using terms such as varying degrees of “background blur”, the effects of varying depths of field, circles of confusion, etc. as originally termed by the original photographic and optical scientists?

      • It’s a term of Japanese origin, and a conveniently short but frequently misused one – the direct translation is ‘the nature or characteristics of the out of focus area’.


  1. […] emphasis is placed on the way a lens renders out of focus areas – the oft-overused ‘bokeh‘ – it’s almost always used to describe the areas that fall behind the focal […]

  2. […] category because either the interpretation is too complex and impossible to fathom. An image with too much bokeh is the same: the background is so undefined that it is impossible to determine exactly what we are […]

  3. […] perhaps because it’s simply easier to paint everything in focus than convincingly replicate bokeh. Or perhaps it’s because it’s a more accurate representation of the way our eyes see […]

  4. […] Bokeh Today, we start with what is probably the most subjective of all of the pictorial qualities of a lens. Generally speaking, ‘good’ bokeh isn’t distracting. Distractions are caused by areas of an image that unintentionally stand out; in the case of bokeh it takes the form of double images, hard edges to highlights, geometric shapes of highlights, and color fringing. Few lenses are optimized to also deliver neutrality in the out of focus ares – this requires correction for spherochromatism and longitudinal chromatic aberration. The very best lenses have a smooth transition from in-focus to out-of-focus areas with no odd artefacts in the intermediate zone; subjects should be recognizable but not distracting. […]

  5. […] the last couple of posts, we’ve looked at the qualities of bokeh, and some examples of cinematic photography in New York; although one of the most obvious hallmarks […]

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