Beaucoup Bokeh: Beauteous Background Blur With the Fuji 50mm f/1.0

  • Post category:Photo Gear

(Note: This is part three of an ongoing review. Part one (exterior and controls) appears here and part two (f/1 vs. f/4 comparisons) appears here, and part four (comparison with 56mm) appears here.)

Bokeh is a word for the background (or foreground, I suppose) blur characteristics of an image. It differs from lens to lens (sometimes by a lot) and sometimes it differs a lot with the same lens.

The word and the idea behind the word refers to all of the background blur characteristics but it is often thought of as only referring to blurred-out specular highlights, like the scintillations of the sun on waves, or referring to light sources within the scene. The specular light sources and light bulbs are just an easy way to see bokeh, and an easy way to demonstrate some of the kinds of things you notice if you study background blur.

Which needs to be underlined—there is no such thing as “good” bokeh or “bad” bokeh. It’s just one characteristic of an image (and a lens) out of a multitude.

The old story, which applies to a surprising number of real-life situations, is of the drunk man, on his knees in front of a bar. It is a dark, dark night and the only streetlight is positioned just outside the bar’s door, the drunk pawing at the thick grass next to the curb there. His buddy comes out of the bar, sees the drunk searching through the grass, and asks what he is doing. “I’m looking for my car keys!,” says the drunk. Where did you lose them his friend asks? “Over there,” says the drunk, gesturing out into the darkness. But why are you searching here then, asks the friend, if your keys are over there?.

You know the punch line, the drunk’s response: Because this is where the light is.

There are many interesting characteristics exhibited by lenses, far beyond bokeh, but bokeh has a name, and a cool name at that.

The obsession, at least in the United States, started in 1997 with the publication of a trio of articles in Photo Techniques magazine. The anecdote that Mike Johnson tells (who was editor of the magazine at the time) is that Zeiss, the premier lens maker in the world, had never heard of the term and hadn’t given much thought to the character of the background blur when designing lenses.

But they do now. All of the manufacturers do. There are few things to equal the online excitement of reading that a lens is—say it with me with drama in your voice—a bokeh monster!

Is your bokeh smooth, oh so buttery smooth…yes! Or does it have a bright ring along its edges, is it—we speak the word with pity in our voice—is your bokeh busy or, my god, misshapen?

The funny thing is to really think about the bokeh of a lens you need to look at lots of images in lots of different kinds of light. The bokeh thing is a little unpredictable and might change with different distances, different focus settings, different colors of lights. Even the type of shutter you have selected may make a difference. Sometimes you have to feel a thing more than measure it, and that feeling takes time to come. You have to just look at pictures.

Bokeh, though, is a word and now we can all obsess about it though, as I said, it’s not really all about super-blurred sparkling waves or night portraits with a background of glowing blobs.

And so here we are: pictures of light bulbs, lots of light bulbs, all kinds of light bulbs, all blurry and bokeh-ized to the extreme (the extreme being f/1.0 on the new Fuji 50mm lens).

I went shopping and I found the lighting section at my local Home Depot and then I went to Costco to check out the display of Christmas lights for sale. I pointed the camera and shot sort of willy nilly, making images not so much to please the eye or the intellect but to just get blurry stuff in the frame.

Everything here shot at f/1.0, a mix of mechanical and electronic shutter, ISO mostly at 160, and everything else on auto. Fuji raws were sharpened in Capture One 20 with “Pre sharpening 2” and then exported to JPEG.

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