Front bokeh

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Technically: out of focus foregrounds. Whilst much 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 plane. I think we can generally agree on a few things – ‘good’ bokeh doesn’t distract from the subject with uneven or sharp luminance transitions, double images, harsh rendering, rings or irregular textures in the ‘highlight balls’, patterns, bright edges, coloured fringing etc.; too much bokeh might be pretty but completely negates any sort of context other than what mood can be inferred by the feel of the light and some bokeh is always preferable to none because it helps with subject isolation. However, few outside cinematographic circles talks much about the way the foregrounds render. For that matter, few outside cinematography actively seek to use out of focus foregrounds as part of the underlying structure of their compositions. I think that’s a shame, and here’s why.

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For the storyline
Out of focus foregrounds not only allow you to hint at something being there without having to explicitly state it and take attention away from your subject, but also establish an order of causality to the narrative. If something comes before or outside, we take it as being there first. If it’s in focus and attracts our attention, we assume it’s meant to be the subject – even if it isn’t, and merely a frame or context for it. Out of focus foreground extending around the edge of the frame or most of it can suggest a journey or portal that the audience has to pass through to reach the subject; it adds a layer of distance between observer and observed.

Participant vs observer
If you look at something without any noticeable or significant foreground between yourself and subject, then it’s safe to interpret that you are a participant or direct first-party observer. On the other hand, if you are looking through or around or over something, then you are definitely a third party observer: you are outside the action, and have made the thrill of discovery or voyeurism – or simply observing the scene play out unnoticed. Note however that if the subject suddenly looks through the foreground at you, making eye contact – the fourth wall is broken and the audience has suddenly become noticed. The resulting image produces that slight uncomfortable and guilty feeling of being busted. It’s intense, and when used properly, can make for a very powerful image.

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To transition
The edges of any composition are determined by the somewhat arbitrary frame we impose on them – whilst some compositions fit some aspect ratios and frames better, there will always still have to be a hard transition from image to underlying background at the edges of the frame. Our eyes do not work that way; our visual field falls off slowly and gradually towards the edges. However, if we make a photograph that has a vignette or fade to black around the outside, it simply looks odd. The only way to work around this is either to have a uniformly textured buffer zone between the key compositional elements and the edges of the frame to avoid the feeling of things being cut off, or to have a smooth and non-attention-getting transition. The latter is of course where out of focus foregrounds (perhaps we should abbreviate this to OOFF) come in, since they do not attract attention in themselves – but serve as soft visual padding for the harder middle. I suppose we can think of the use of OOFF as mimicry in human vision, especially when we are fixated on a single detail or element in a scene.

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To add texture
Just as the best foods have a wonderful contrast between textures, flavours (and sometimes temperatures), an image is often made stronger by juxtaposing elements of different visual weight, ‘hardness’, and texture to create tension in the composition. The softer, lower contrast elements serve as the buffer zones between the regular, the hard, and the contrasty; it’s for this reason that hard geometrical work with human elements (e.g. Fan Ho) is so captivating: there’s a balanced conflict at work here, and one of the visual elements I find most personally pleasing is when you see a hard background or mid ground subject through the veil of an out of focus foreground – there’s texture, there’s something a bit different, the implied lens or distortion of interpretation, then the intended focus – it’s subjectivity (and photography, by extension) in a nutshell.

Dealing with ugly foregrounds
This one seems somewhat obvious, but it should be included for completeness: just as we may want to add visual texture to break up very large, bare blocks of space, or ease transitions from hard edges, we may also want to camouflage ugly or overly distracting foregrounds. If you can’t eliminate it, and have no choice but to work with it, then we need to reduce visual prominence of the bits that aren’t important so they don’t distract from our subjects.

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Reverse separation
Whilst the most commonly used method of subject isolation by focal plane is shallow depth of field with backgrounds at infinity, we should also consider the reverse – what if the subject is at infinity, but the ‘background’ is in between the camera and the subject? Once again, by selecting the appropriate aperture and degree of blur, we can use the foreground this time as context in the reverse way to using an out of focus background. The only difference is again in the implied causality of events: foreground is on top of (between camera and subject) subject, and therefore comes first.

Stylistic consistency
Look carefully at my cinematic photoessays and you’ll see both a large degree of use of OOFF and backgrounds, too – but by and large, the OOFF is almost always present even in wider angles of view simply to add more visual layers to the composition. The more layers, the more depth, and the more depth, the richer the story. One has to find a consistent degree of blur, which means not too much variation in focal length and aperture – or, alternatively, significant changes in distance between camera, foreground and subject in order to keep the degree of blurring the same. Of course, the wider and slower the lens, the closer the OOFF has to be in order to preserve the right degree of ambiguity – too much, and it becomes distractingly annoying that the audience can’t quite identify the subject instead of enjoying the veiling.

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You’ll also notice that almost all of these examples and situations have been ones that deal with people; that’s no coincidence because they tend to be the most suitable subjects for creating this kind of visual tension between hard-soft and organic-inorganic. It works equally well with animals, though usually if an animal is camouflaged by its foreground we are unlikely to be able to spot it. 🙂 I’ve experimented with this kind of thing for inorganic subjects too, to varying degrees of success. I find that most of the time there isn’t quite enough information density in the subject to attract and hold our attention beyond the first few moments of instant recognition, and then the OOFF become distracting. Perhaps there’s an OOFF-wimmelbild style waiting to be discovered.

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In general, OOFF tend to work best when there are no jarring colors, contrasts or readily identifiable objects contained therein; but they also have to be solid and distinct enough not to look like an accidental finger in front of the lens. Glass, reflections and transparent objects work well. Fences generally do not, because the pattern remains recognisable – unless you can position your subject elements within the holes and then use the fence itself as a frame. There’s no hard and fast rule as to how much contrast or definition (opposite of blurring) is too much; this depends very much on how well your main subject is isolated. So long as it remains the most prominent thing – and the OOFF falls below the secondary and tertiary contextual subjects – you’re generally okay. If you notice the OOFF< you're probably not. Would you have noticed in any of the example images if they weren't specifically posted with this article? Probably not. Confusing? Not in practice: just stick the lens really close to something, move around a bit, and see the difference. MT

Note: PDAF systems may get confused and unable to focus if there’s an object blocking half the lens (and thus half of the PDAF light path).

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Comments

  1. Nice article on something that is really overlooked. First picture is lovely. I have to say I’m quite disappointed in the Hasselblad HC lenses bokeh which is mostly featureless and somewhat reminiscent of gaussian blur in photoshop.

  2. Richard J Bach says:

    Sometimes I think that front bokeh gives MORE of a cinematic feel than a blurred background.

    The more I work with fast(er) lenses the more I feel like super blurred backgrounds can be a bit of a cheesy effect, but the real effective use of fast lenses is to give that feeling of “separation” that shallow DOF gives us. Front bokeh can give the feeling of separation without robbing us of information as poor use of blown out backgrounds often do.

    One thing I find interesting you point out is that, for some reason, the whole front bokeh effect seems to work much better with people shots than with inanimate subjects. I concur, and wonder why that is. Perhaps our brains’ skill at recognizing people/faces helps us to successfully see through the blur? Maybe this is why the sharpness/blur tension seems to be more pleasing with people than the gazilion pictures of plants/flowers/etc. with blown out backgrounds/foregrounds.

    • Agreed; I think foreground bokeh and the ability to separate at much longer subject/background distances are the strengths of very fast/ well corrected lenses. (Fast lenses that are just fast but full of smeary coma can’t do the latter because the edges of the transition zones in the focal plane are a mess.)

      As for people/inorganic subjects: my theory is that it’s a complimentary shape. People are organic and soft-edged, like front bokeh; inorganic subjects are not and project hard ‘cuts’ potentially into the OOF foreground, which can be visually jarring.

  3. Great article Mind … as per usual 😉 Off topic: I was hoping Olympus Malaysia would reach out to you for a test drive of the new EM1-II. AF tracking is said to be sick. Might be just the solution to track that little one for the family viddy’s 😉

    • I use an iPhone for that like everybody else 😉

      In all seriousness, proper testing takes time. And that isn’t in abundance at the moment…so, we’ll see, I guess.

  4. Great article about something I tend to struggle with. Some really good thoughts here. Thanks

  5. Kristian Wannebo says:

    “Fences generally do not,..”
    But occasionally when the subject (e.g. architecture) shows a pattern that harmonizes with or contrasts to the fence .. (but I’ll have to go back, not good enough).
    – – –

    Thanks for the good article!
    And the illustrations!

  6. Once again, an excellent article that points out something that’s entirely logical (and that matches quite well with my personality), but that I never thought about consciously. Thanks!

    As for OOFF wimmelbild… that would combine your 2 recent teaching articles that I liked the most… challenge accepted 🙂 I think a panoramic aspect ratio would make this somewhat easier to pull off than a more “efficient” aspect ratio, but we’ll see. I’m gonna have some fun here, thanks again!

  7. Very interesting article Ming! It’s a subject not many talk about in the first place, but to also then put it into a creative/compositional context takes it to the next level.

    • Thanks – glad it was useful. I suspect with all these things it’s a question of conscious application – and then being able to explain why you think it might help your image…

  8. Talking about front bokeh have tried for fun Nikons 135/2 DC?. Any chance Zeiss might use this technology or it`s a nonworking hype.

    • I tried the 105 many years ago, but in the pre AF fine tune days. The DC system often causes focus shifts, and I could never get it to focus consistently or properly on my camera then – so I used it very little before selling it because results were inconsistent.

  9. It seems very effective in resturant shots. I like how your eyes gets (naturally) drawn towards the subjetcts in the first image, even though 3/4 of the frame is blurred out.

  10. Love the photos! The foreground bokeh give the image a certain voyeuristic feel.

    • Thanks, though that’s not always the intention (but frequently a side effect – when peering through a hole our vision is focused on the subject and the periphery fades out).

  11. What a great, well written teaching point. One of the reasons I look forward to your posts. Now if I can just remember to actually use it in the moment…

  12. For me, foreground blur is equally as important as background blur. It was this characteristic that prompted my move in the mid-1970’s from Nikon to Leica. A work colleague was an excellent nature photographer and I saw some of his original K25 slides shot with his recently acquired Leica R4 outfit. My move was as much for how clean the images looked, as for the smooth transition from front out of focus, to in focus, to blurred background.

    This was admirably demonstrated with a low level shot, just a few inches off the grass, of a single flower. He had a number of images of this flower, some taken with a very sharp Pentax macro lens. But comparing the two, in the shot with the Pentax there was more of a sudden transition from foreground blur into an exceedingly sharp flower, and an almost equal sudden transition to background blur. But the image taken with a Leica lens showed a gradual progression from unsharpness, where the blades of grass were very blurred closeup, but progressively becoming more distinct as they approached the flower, then the reverse situation with the background, defined blades of grass going off into a blur.

    The point is, I appreciate your images actively utilising front blur, but if this isn’t rendered smoothly, the OOF elements will jar. Used creatively, the technique can be deliberately employed to create depth in an image, but you don’t want is a “nervous” OOF in the foreground to distract the viewer’s attention. The viewer may not realise this is happening, it could all be subconscious. Your final image is a good example, I feel. The diner on the right occupies a fair proportion of the image, but it doesn’t actually intrude into the picture, it does seem part of it, it doesn’t jar. In fact, it is what we could expect to see at most dining establishments, so it is quite natural to us viewing it. It simply works.

    • I think it might be more nuanced and complicated still: ideally, you have both soft/ smooth foreground and background bokeh, plus a fairly well defined transition so that the actual focal plane pops; in most situations, the Otuses do this quite well – but one has to be careful not to excite strange aretfacts if there are high frequency/ high contrast elements very close to certain parts of the transition distance. I don’t think there’s an optical formula that can give both a well defined focal plane (with ‘snap’) and smooth transitions – it seems to be one or the other. In my experience, the Sonnars come closest, but lack the ‘snap’ sometimes.

  13. Dave Fisher says:

    Thanks for this post…one of the key elements that I find appealing about your work.

  14. Alex Carnes says:

    Hmm, well it’s nice that you’ve brought it out into the open, as it were! Front bokeh can look very effective, but personally I think it works better for moving pictures: if you’re following the action and can’t set up a still, then the viewer tolerates ‘blemishes’ like objects partially obscuring the scene more readily. In your examples I find the defocused foreground objects give the images a slightly ‘overegged’ feel in 1 and 6 above, although at the same time, they ‘work’ compositionally. I certainly don’t want to be negative about it though – in moderation it’s nice and probably in my category of guilty pleasures, along with sunstars! (I know you’re probably sick of hearing me say this now, but that 50mm Hasselblad lens has gorgeous diffraction flare – image 4, why is the star so crisp at such a bright aperture?!). I suppose one technical reason why one sees less front bokeh than back is that it tends only to work if you can blur the foreground to destruction, which really makes it the province of FF and MF shooters; I’ve been shooting handheld with my APS-C cameras a lot lately, and you’d struggle to get enough blur on foreground objects to create the effect you’re describing so I’ve tended to avoid it.

    • I think of it both as a way of creating a mood, and a way to blend potentially distracting or ugly foreground intrusions (or edge intrusions in the subject plane) or even hide ugly background – sometimes, the result is worse without, but of course there’s no way to tell without A/B comparisons 🙂

      As for MF/FF/APSC etc – I tend to work mostly stopped down; it’s the tonal transitions that do it for me with MF, as well as the ability to have very subtle/slight separation in the focal plane much further away than is possible with small formats. But not so much big walls of bokeh…

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      “APS-C”
      Me too.
      But with the longer lenses I use at the moment I have the opposite problem, I often have to back off from the forground to reduce the blur (and zoom in a bit) – and then find a new way to frame with it..
      ( Subject: Small patches of backlight from low autumn sunlight among trees.)

      • Actually, I find the 50/1.8s work quite well on APSC…

        • Kristian Wannebo says:

          Yes, “long” (in the sense above) starts about there.
          Here I’ve been using the longer end of a 55-250 quite often.
          ( I found a used 90/3.5 Apo-Lanthar, will start trying it out when the sun comes back sometime.)

  15. Beautiful! I like how Lisbon is your backdrop.

  16. Interesting, very much agree in this:”On the other hand, if you are looking through or around or over something, then you are definitely a third party observer: you are outside the action, and have made the thrill of discovery or voyeurism – or simply observing the scene play out unnoticed. ”
    The Master here is the filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai (In the mood for love, 2046…) who uses foreground bokeh extensively to create this effect, to me a key element in the concept of “cinematic”

    • Absolutely. He was one of my early influences…and it’s not just his use of foreground OOF areas, but also color shifts and common hues in a set to create a certain mood.

  17. gnarlydognews says:

    You say:”.. I think we can generally agree on a few things – ‘good’ bokeh doesn’t distract from the subject with uneven or sharp luminance transitions, double images, harsh rendering, rings or irregular textures in the ‘highlight balls’, patterns, bright edges, coloured fringing etc”
    I disagree, even if I know I am probably in the minority.
    Smooth/creamy bokeh is fine for most situations but what if one wants to explore and create images that are not vanilla (for lack of better words)?
    Most modern lenses have overcome those “faulty” looking traits of “ugly bokeh” (of simple optical designs).
    However if one is interested in creating visually stimulating images through bokeh (and I don’t mean just shallow DOF, as often referred to) the “disturbing” bokeh applied with conscientious thought might create an image that is indeed outstanding.
    Of course if the goal is the record the scene with fidelity than “ugly” bokeh will indeed be ugly but if one goes beyond the thought of considering photography as a primary tool for recording and reaches more to the artistic side than that quirky bokeh might be desirable.
    Think of it as painting: realism versus expressionism: we might not like the same 🙂

    • A very fair comment. Personally…I much prefer to have flare, but that’s my own bias 🙂

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Ah,
        my old folding Voigtländer with the sharp Ultron 50/2.0 and _optical_ viewfinder.

        I once snapped a backlit portrait in a forest glade.
        A nice shot.
        But ooh, the flares!
        Obviously too little coating on the glass!

        On second thoughts these coloured rings beautifully framed the portrait …
        Just pure luck.

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