Monday, December 30, 2019

More about Sharpness, Bokeh, and Cheap Lenses

Pileated Woodpecker pair. Fuji X-T20, Fujinon XC 50-230 f4.5-6.7 OIS lens,
310mm equivalent, 1/60th second, f6.7, ISO 800.

If I could be forgiven a bit of heresy. . .I believe that Mike Johnston (The Online Photographer) unleashed a monster upon the photo world back in the '90s when, as editor of the magazine Photo Technique, he published the article which introduced the concept of bokeh to the western world.

Bokeh, which has to do with the character of the out-of-focus areas in a photograph, began immediately to be conflated and confused with shallow depth-of-field

Shallow depth-of-field, which used to be just one of the tools in a competent photographer's toolbox; now has become a religious cult. Heaven help anyone who doesn't bow obeisance to it.

Although I know how to use shallow depth-of-field when the situation calls for it, I'm from another generation and usually prefer photographs that are relatively sharp from front to back.

Speaking of sharpness, I don't usually care for ultimate sharpness either. Heresy again, I know, but ultimate sharpness isn't very kind to faces. And even in other areas it isn't always desirable. When I made the photographs for my book Rock City Barns: A Passing Era in the mid '90s, I chose to use 35mm film, even though the conventional wisdom would have been to use 4x5, or at least medium format. But these were old barns, and I wanted them to have a little atmosphere, not super-crispness in every detail. Even at that, the published photos were often mistaken for 4x5, or even, in one case, for 5x7 by a fellow professional.

In digital photography, the Canon original 5D provided more than enough image quality for my needs, even for landscapes and architecture. I later moved to a 6D, but that was mostly because it was smaller and lighter, and most especially because I no longer had to keep cleaning the sensor or zapping dust spots out of skies! (That was the bane of my existence when I was doing a substantial amount of architectural photography.) I guess I should also mention that by the time I made the switch, the 5D was eight years old. A true fossil in the digital age.

I'm sure some people may actually need the sharpest and fastest lenses available for the work they do, and I don't mean this unkindly; but I think that in many cases the striving for bigger, faster, and more expensive is a sidetrack; a diversion from what photography is all about: making pictures.

Around 2000, as I was closing out my downtown studio, another local commercial photographer came to look at my space with a view to renting it. He was a dedicated user of medium format and 4x5, and held 35mm in low regard. Looking at the framed 16x 20 and 20x24 photographs hanging on my studio walls, he would point at one and then another, asking on what format they were shot. He was somewhat scandalized and almost unable to believe that most of them had been shot on 35mm film. Finally, as he was about to leave, he pointed at one 20x24 portrait and said, "Now you can't tell me that was shot on 35mm!"

"Yes, Doug," I said, as he threw up his hands and left.

So what's my point? My point is that you don't always have to have the latest and the greatest. Reasonably good equipment, reasonably good technique, and a reasonably good idea of what you're trying to accomplish can add up to some pretty good photographs.

More-than-100% crop.

A note about the photograph(s). One day two years ago, my wife called me to look out the kitchen window. There, on a dying tree in the woods just across our driveway were a pair of rare pileated woodpeckers! I grabbed my Fuji X-T-20 and the longest lens I own, the 50-230 (75-345 in full-frame terms) and banged off a few shots. The 50-230 is definitely not one of Fuji's premium lenses, but it's small, light, sharp, and has good image stabilization.


  1. I remember "Rock City Barns"! Thanks for mentioning me. And nice woodpeckers!


  2. Thanks for visiting my blog, Mike. It was really a kick to see those woodpeckers. We had not seen them in years.