Bokeh, Baby!

The large aperture of the 50mm f1.8 Sony/Zeiss lens (75mm equivalent at f1.8) creates a nice blurred backgound.
[Copyright Andy Richards 2013]
My LightCentric Photography website hosts my photographic image galleries (including a “store” for purchase of my images). From time to time, I do maintainence on the site. There are new images to be added (and occasionally images I decide on retrospect, to cull). I have a gallery called “New on LightCentric” to which I upload just some of my new images for a brief period after which they become permanent parts of one Photography Gallery or another. I also sometimes update biographical and equipment-related information. Doing this maintenance, sometimes prompts me to go searching through my archives for an image, and – invariably – I hit a detour along the way and “discover” an image or two that I somehow have missed until now.

“Bokeh” might just be one of the mosts hackneyed topics that we photographers like to talk about to impress people. But it really is a thing 🙂

That happened recently, when I realized I had left a whole group of images from 2013 unprocessed. I have been busy post-processing them and upolading them to the site. And – while not often – I occasionally decide to create a complete new subject gallery. I have one under construction (more at a later date). But as I was processing the “new” images – most of them flowers – from 2013, a couple thoughts ocurred to me. First, surprisingly to me, I have never specifically addressed the topic of bokeh, here. Second, it caused me decide to add a separate Bokeh” gallery on my photo site. I have accomplished the second, and made some additional adjustments to my site to accomodate it.

The nice background blur in these Japanese Maple leaves, taken in my front yard, reustled primarily from a very close subject distance from my lenst (Zeiss 32 f1.8 – 48mm equivalent).
[Copyright Andy Richards 2013]
Bokeh is said to emanate from the Japanese word which translates to “blur.” In the context of photography, it is more than just blur. It is the aesthetically attractive blur in the background (usually) of an image. I am certainly not going to suggest that I am the first one to write about this topic. In fact, “bokeh” might just be one of the mosts hackneyed topics that we photographers like to talk about to impress people. But it really is a thing 🙂 . And when it is right, it can be a very attractive part of an image. It can be used to set off the part of a subject we really want to highlight. Or, it can be used to obfuscate a “busy” background or background element, without eliminating it from the photo entirely. It is part of photography that really draws me in.

Purple Coneflower with Stella D’Oro Day Lillies in the background, made with Carl Zeiss f1.3 32mm (48mm equivalent) @ f4
[Copyright Andy Richards 2013]
Bokeh is produced by several different (often combined) phenomena. For much of my own imagery, the primary factor is lens design – aperture and focal length. Wider apertures, provide less depth of field and therefore result in bokeh when you focus on a foreground element. Longer focal lengths also produce shallower depth of field, with the same result. As you can see, the majority of my “bokeh” images here and on my website are closeup images where the bokeh is mostly created this way. Bokeh is a large part of what, in my mind, changes a snapshot photograph into “art.”

Fall Foliage – Thetford Hill, VT; 200mm (300mm equivalent) Nikkor. Even though shot at f11, the branch is far enough away from the backgrount that this focal length and subject and background separation results in pleasing bokeh.
[Coyright Andy Richards 2006]
Really  still just a factor of the above mechanics, bokeh can also created by placement of the photographer and subject. When the subject is very close to the lens, or the background is further away from the subject, bokeh is also created. This is especially true with longer focal length lenses. And, where the depth of field is very small, bokeh can sometimes be created both behind and in front of the subject.

Of all the wildlilfe I have tried to photograph, I have always found the Wood Duck the most skittish – and therefore elusvie and difficult to capture. I liked the out of focus reeds in this image as it seemed to me to add a bit to the “mystery” of the duck hiding back there. This image was made from a blind with a 300 (450mm equivalent) at f 2.8.
[Copyright Andy Richards 2006]
Finally, in our digital world, bokeh can be “manufactured” using various blurring filters available in post-processing software. However, this is more of a challenge than first comes to mind and it takes a bit of skill to make it look realistic. I do not do this very often, but I do occasionally use these tools to enhance existing bokeh in an image.

I wanted the repeating pattern of the background lilies to be blurred enought that they were just the suggestion of an identical blossom in the background. Even though this was made with the same Zeiss 32mm f1.8 (48mm equivalent), I wanted more blur, and “enhanced” it with photoshop. While I like the result, a careful comparison reveals that the natural bokeh of the lens is quite different from the enhanced or “created” bokeh produced in digital post-processing.
[Copyright Andy Richards 2013]
It is worth taking some time in your visualization and composition process to consider the areas in the photograph that will be rendered as if there are particularly bright objects in the background, they may result in an unpleasant look. White lights, particularly, can often show up in an image as bright circles. While you may want this a part of the image, they may also be garish and overall, a distraction from what you want the viewer to focus on. Note, for example, the series of 8 or so blue circular shapes in the top left quadrant of the fall foliage image in Vermont. While I like the overall image, I would like it better without those elements. This can be true of spots of bright contrast in an image. If the image lends itself, I often use photoshop to remove such objects if they are small enough.

This image is a sentimental favorite; one of the very first DSLR images I ever made, with my newly acquired Nikon D100 in 2002. Surprisingly, the image was made with perhaps the sharpest lens I ever owned, Nikon’s 60mm “Micro,” at a the relatively small aperture of f8. The distance between the subject and background, and the close distance from the lens to subject, created that nice blurred background in this image.
[Copyright Andy Richards 2002]
As I go through my archives, I see that most of my outdoor, landscape and street photography puts a heavy emphasis on sharpness and depth of field from foreground to background. That suggests to me as a goal, that I look for more creative opportunities to use bokeh in such imagery. A goal for my next photo outing.


Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan U.P.
[Copyright Andy Richards 2012]
On one of my many trips up to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (“The U.P.”), a mentor challenged me to look for something more close up and intimate, as opposed to the “grand landscape” we were seeking. He offhandedly suggested, for example, a birch clump.

There is actually a White Birch Forest, several miles from where we were working that day. I was constrained to the area, because I was “on call,” and was guiding a “workshop” being conducted by the mentor.

My buddy and I wandered somewhat aimlessly in an area where it seemed like something like this might be found. And find it we did. While not setting any worlds on fire artistically, this has become one of my favorite fall images.

Making it Work

Fall Scene
Saginaw, MI
[Copyright Andy Richards 2018]
During the last two years of my career, we had invested in our Florida Home and spent a lot of time there during the winter months. In fact, my wife essentially became a full time Florida resident during that period. Rambling around in a 2700 square foot, 4 bedroom, 4 bath home by myself didn’t seem right, we we got it ready and sold it, and I found myself living in a small, 2 bedroom apartment for a couple years.

The Apartment was adjacent to our Township Soccer Complex, which had a nice waking/running track around it and became a twice daily routine for me. I often visualized the part of the track adjacent to the main road, bordered by a white “picket” fence, as a possible image. One sunny fall afternoon, I took my camera out with me and made a few shots. They just weren’t what I had visualized. But the light, colors and shapes were nice.

So, I went to work post-processing, and tried my best oil painter’s version. Hope you like it.

Stay Safe

More Old Stuff – 1987

Following a rain, the raindrops on this Yellow Day Lily made the image for me.
Nikon N90s; Nikkor 60mm “micro;” Fuji Velvia (It is pretty evident that better glass makes a difference)
[Copyright Andy Richards 1997]
1987 saw me ramping up my shooting, as well as a bit of haphazard “gear acquisition.” I was on that part of the curve where acquired gear without really having much of a plan :-). I bought, traded and sold a number lenses.

This image was almost literally, a “drive-by.” We were heading up into the Jemez Pueblo, where my “guide” (my sister) promise many great views of red rock canyons, etc., one morning. I saw this out of the car window and we stopped along the roadside, where I set up my tripod and made the image. The original image was made with Kodak Lumiere Professional color transparency (slide) film.
[Copyright Andy Richards 1997]
But I also began to do some “photography-specific” travel. I went to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for the first time since my distant youth. I traveled to New Mexico to visit my sister in Albuquerque (where she acted as my “guide” for several days). I took my gear and made a couple day excursions during our regular summer visit to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. And, I continued to make flower images in our home flower beds.

This image, shot on a very windy, cloudy afternoon in early October, was borne out of my disappointing results of a shoot at an iconic location called “Lake of The Clouds.” Ironically, the very early, spotty fall color here helped turn this into my best selling and perhaps most successful image yet.
[Copyright Andy Richards 1997]
My “big” trip that year was out to Albuquerque, NM, in the spring, to visit my sister. My brother-in-law was out of town for a week-long training seminar, and she agree to take some of here vacation time to guide me around the state. They spent a lot of their time there (they now live back in Michigan), exploring the many wonderful places there. We went out there again in October, 2008 to visit them for a week in October, to see the Balloon Fiesta, and again to travel around the state. It is evident why the call it “The Land of Enchantment.” In 2008, my skills, equipment and perhaps “vision” was much matured, and my New Mexico imagery on my website is certainly dominated by 2008 photos.

This image was made with color slide film, on a sunny morning with too much contrast and brightness. The resulting slide and every print I have ever tried to make have been disappointing. I was struggling then with the use of a graduated neutral density filter. I never got satisfactory results with it. When the ability for me to use photoshop to blend images came along,, I dumped the filter in favor of what I think is a much more versatile and successful approach. Going home that year, I thought this was going to be my best image. This is a very recent processing of the scanned original, using my latest PS version.
[Copyright Andy Richards 1997]
The weather was not always cooperative, with a fair amount of rain and cloudiness – not necessarily the norm for New Mexico, but seasonal. The conditions and time of day of much of our travel, made for hard shooting conditions, too. I struggled with poor light and difficult contrast conditions. But the trip was, nonetheless wonderful – as was my introduction to the delicious New Mexican food. I would look forward to my next visit there (which it turns out was not for 11 years).

The Bobcat Pass Image is illustrative of poor lighting but perhaps the only opportunity for the shot. It has sat in my archives since 1997, until – again – very recently, using some of the tools now available in Adobe Camera Raw (and in Adobe Light Room) raw converter – notably the dehaze feature, in which I was finally able to create a final image I felt was good enough to show here
[Copyright Andy Richards 1997]
The other significant trip was a long weekend trip up to Porcupine Mountain State Park in Michigan’s “Upper Peninsula” (U.P.). Though certainly not my first trip up, this was my first dedicated photo trip there. Over the years, I would make numerous other trips to the U.P. – mostly in the fall during foliage season. My knowledge and love for that part of Michigan begat my second eBook, “Photographing The Michigan U.P.

Munising Falls
Munising, MI
[Copyright Andy Richards 1997]
This year, I would have but one afternoon of a gorgeous, if clear, sunset, at one of the iconic locations I sought – Miners Castle at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Near Munising, it was in reach of an easy afternoon drive. The next day, I struck out further west, to Porcupine Mountain and Lake of The Clouds, my ultimate destination. The day deteriorated, becoming cloudy and windy, as a low pressure front came in from the west. By the time I reached my destination with a plan to “scout” for a sunrise shot over the iconic lake, the wind was blowing perhaps 40 plus miles per hour and it was grey and overcast. The lake – really a wide spot in the river winding its way back down to Lake Superior – was rough with chop and dark. And dissappointingly, there was little to no fall foliage showing. The next morning, I awoke before sunrise, as planned, having stayed right at the base of the escarpment for the lake, to hard and steady rain. Needless to say, my trip there was close to a complete “bust.” I would have to hope for something from the night before. As noted above, it turned out better than I could have hoped for.

Canyon Falls
L’Anse, MI
[Copyright Andy Richards 1997]
Saturday was not a complete bust. I started out at Munising Falls, a small but spectacular in its own way, waterfall in Munising, where I had stayed the first night. I then headed toward the western border and Porcupine Mountains. On the way, I stopped and made the short hike into Bond Falls, near L’Anse, Michigan. The image demonstrates that conditions were not favorable. In one sense, however, the grey overcast allowed me to capture a couple shots on film that perhaps would have been impossible on a sunny day. Once again, only my most current version of Photoshop ACR has made it possible for me to make an image just barely satisfactory for internet projection.

I never got satisfactory results from the Graduated Neutral Density Filter; When the ability for me to use photoshop to blend images came along,, I dumped the filter in favor of what I think is a much more versatile and successful approach

At this point in my life, this stuff was all new to me. I had not planned photographic trips, and I was still grappling with the technical aspects of my craft. The GND filter I mentioned earlier, again played a part in early lack of successes. But the memories remained. That first afternoon, when I arrived at the western end of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, at the Miner’s Castle area, I could not have written the script for a nicer evening. It was warm and there was only a hint of the wind, making the clear water of Lake Superior nearly flat. The sun rendered the shallow water near the shore in front of the rock formation azure, while still transparent enough to see to the bottom. It was looking like a beautiful sunset to happen out on the Lake Superior horizon behind the rock formation. And, for whatever reason, the significance of the substantial difference between the partly shaded water in front of the formation, and the sky and water behind it did not occur to me.  I made a number of images, expectantly (remember: back in those days, you had to wait until the lab developed the film to see the results. Of course, a confident, skilled shooter would know she made the image correctly without having to see the result. But I wasn’t there yet). This was – of course – the ideal situation for that split GND filter. But for some unfathomable reason, it never occurred to me to use it. I did bracket. The results were predictable in 20/20 hindsight. I had images in which the sky was nicely exposed and the water was well underexposed; and I had images where the water was nicely exposed but the sky was blown out.

Miner’s Castle
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
[Copyright Andy
Richards 1997]
I traveled back there several times over the next several falls, never forgetting the missed opportunity – and never seeming to find another. It would not be until 15 years later, that I would finally have a chance to make that image that had been so long etched in my mind. I am very happy with the result, but it also illustrates that the opportunity – once missed – never fully re-appears. Look closely and you will see that nature created a very different subject 15 years later. 🙂

Miner’s Castle
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
[Copyright Andy Richards 2012]