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.

A Different Approach

Japanese Maple Leaves
[Copyright Andy Richards 2003]
I  don’t want this to come out wrong. I am very fortunate. I am comfortably retired. I have a wonderful, Florida home with nice amenities, perhaps the world’s best person to “sequester with,” and my health. So the following is not a complaint, but an “excuse” for my malaise. 🙂 I have kind of hit a point of exhaustion with all that is going on. I have ploughed back over my old images, tried a redux or two on some old posts and themes, and experimented with new approaches to my post-production. I rely heavily on my travels, and my ability to get out and shoot, for materials. It may have been merely a matter of time until I hit that wall. I read a lot, and try to tuck away ideas that I could use here. The other day, I read an interesting series of articles and information on the primary manufacturers of name brand power tools. It was very enlightening for those of us who are interested. I thought maybe I could apply that toward cameras or lenses and began to do the research. First, I learned that information about who actually manufactures this stuff is held very close to the vest (except for the obvious camera manufacturer main brands). There is more about where they are made. But second: can you say boooooooooring? So no go there.

Using these times is not a complaint, but an “excuse” for my malaise.

What I have finally settled upon will be my approach, at least for the next few posts. For the foreseeable future (or until the “writers block” opens up). I will post just one image (or perhaps one image and variations), and try to say a litte about it. For those of you who know me and my long-winded style, it may be a breath of fresh air not to have to wade through all the nonsensical prose :-).

This image. I made this image one morning after a fresh rain. There was nice early light falling on it. It was made with some equipment I regret no longer owning; the Sony NEX-6. A pretty nice rig which I (sometimes regretfully) traded for the DSLR style, “full frame” mirrorless. More importantly, the lens was a Zeiss 32mm f1.8 lens that unfortunately only mounted on the NEX mount. I have not been able to duplicate the look from that lens. I suspect I might be able to do so by buying a Zeiss for my A7, but that will require a second mortgage. And, with a “crop factor” of approximately 1.5x, the 32 was really a 49mm (approximate) lens. Zeiss doesn’t make a 48 (or 50 or 55mm) for my A7, in auto focus. They do make a manual focus only 50mm f2, but for these old eyes (which have never been the greatest), I am not sure I would be satisfied with MF these days). The closest would be the 40mm f2. I am not sure about that length and I am not sure the f2 would still match up to the 1.3 bokeh of the 32, even on the larger sensor. I do have the Sony FE 50mm f1.8 lens. Again, though I haven’t been able to duplicate the look of the 32 f1.3, I will keep fiddling with it until I find (and can afford) something better :-).

What really grabs (in my opinion) – aside from the really nice background bokeh, is the water drops on the leaves. The image was made in color (actually, with 99% of digtial cameras, they are all made in color ). I post processed this as a monochomatic images. I have other “versions” in my archive. But this one jumped at me first, as I was looking for an image to start with.

Stay safe. Observe social distancing to the extent sensible. Wash you hands. And best to all who read here. Thanks for indulging me.

Stuff I didn’t even know I had

Glen Haven, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

As readers here know, lately, I have been experimenting with post-processing images. Part of that process involved searching my archives for images that might lend themselves to whatever technique I have been focusing on. And that searching process yielded another, unplanned result.

I have been finding images that I didn’t see, for whatever reason, on first and sometimes even second “takes” of choosing images to process and post on my website, or in other places. The Glenn Haven image was made one early June morning back in 2013. I am not sure what made it catch my eye, except that I was looking to curate some images for a project about “water.” But as soon as I saw it, I remembered the morning, and was frankly surprised I had never flagged it for processing. In this case, I am not disappointed that I didn’t “discover” it until recently.

Tarpon Springs, FL
Copyright Andy Richards 2014

Taking a small detour, there are a couple of technological reasons for this. First, the Adobe Camera Raw, raw conversion engine has improved and become much more versatile over that 6-year span. It now incorporates the “dehaze” feature, which I have found very useful, particularly on water images, and certain skies. The ACR implemation of the “local” adjustment brush is very useful for this tool. Second, as I briefly noted in a recent post, I have been re-thinking my sharpening procedure. I had gotten to the point where I was (perhaps lazily) relying on the NIK software for both raw pre-sharpening and output sharpening. More recently I spent a fair amount of time with the Photokit sharpening software (previously from Pixel Genius, and now free for anyone to download). In the end, I stayed with NIK raw pre-sharpener, as I couldn’t discern much difference and it was more convenient (there’s that lazy thing again 🙂 ) for my workflow. But after some testing, I find that the output sharpening features offered by the Photokit not only appear to do a better job, but it is also more versatile. So lately I do my output sharpeing with Photokit. This image incorporated “all of the above.”

The Tarpon Springs image was another image that I had never post processed. But looking at it, it occurred to me that the “dehaze” tool in ACR might make this image “workable.” I think it did, and it has now been added to my Florida gallery in my LightCentricphotography Website.

As I have become more facile with any tool over the years, that facility has caused me to reflect back on the way I did things before. In the case of the perspective tool in Photoshop, I spent a fair amount of time with it in 2019, and ultimately went back and replaced a substantial number of images on my website after doing perspective correction. Again, while perusing my archives, I found some images that I hadn’t considered previously. But know I know I can work with the perspective correction tools in Photoshop and make the images more palatable to me. I noted that although I have been there a couple times (including some cruises out of the Port of Miami), I did not have any images of Miami’s South Beach on my site. Yet I knew I had take some. I went back and found the South Beach shot here, and was able to do a decent job of eliminating tilting tall buildings and maintaining a level horizon.

South Beach
Miami, FL
Copright Andy Richards 2013

Sunsets are what are perhaps the subjects the Florida Gulf Coast is best known for. So, I have spent a fair amount of my time seeking good sunset image locations. I am fortunate to have a good one just a couple miles away from home. The Crystal Beach Fishing Pier has been prominently displayed on my Website (and here as well) over the past couple years. The version here is an image that I somehow missed on first take curation. The variety of clouds and light at sunset along the coast seems to have infinite variation.

Crystal Beach Fishing Pier At Sunset
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Why I Post-Process My Images

My LightCentric Logo open in Adobe Camera Raw Converter (ACR)
[Copyright Andy Richards 2020]
For the most part, as a photographer for some 45 years I have made images with a “photorealistic” look. I freely and unabashedly admit that I “enhance” my shots using post-processing software. Lately, as I have gotten older (or perhaps bored?), I have begun doing more alternative presentation with my photography. That is certainly a reason to use digital software on my images. But it is not the reason. I am a firm believer that no matter how “natural” one thinks an image should look, nearly all digital images need to be “worked” with in post-processing, including the “photorealistic” ones.

I know photographers, at all different skill ranges who are very content with shooting images and presenting them, as-shot. Many shoot in JPEG mode in the camera and never really give a lot of thought about post-processing their images. This was even more common before programs like Adobe Lightroom, OnOne, Topaz, DxO, and others began offering”user-friendly” software interfaces, with “preset” post-processing. Today there are hundreds of “presets” available, many of them free, and many more at a relatively low cost, all designed to create a “look” (or occasionally, to correct problems). I will take a whimsical look at some of these presets in a blog post coming soon. There may come a day (indeed some may say it has already arrived) when these presets will essentially eliminate the need for manual post-processing entirely. Given this, there is really no reason today not to do some post-work, even if it is entirely confined to these presets.

there is really no reason today not to do some post-work, even if it is entirely confined to presets

Some of us; largely because it is what we learned and are comfortable with, will no doubt remain “old school.” I am always looking at new software and have embraced some of it. But mostly, I still post-process in Adobe Photoshop. Adobe has a lot of competition these days, but when I jumped in, Photoshop was really the only option. I learned it and have stayed with it. If I were starting new, I probably wouldn’t, as the learning curve is steep and there are programs which may be more photographer specific out there.

“Arty” effects and alternative presentation is certainly a reason to use digital software on my images. But it is not the reason

While you might be content with your photos right out of the camera, I hope as your skills and interests develop, you will consider the significant advantages of raw capture, and the ability to make your presentation better even with just some simple post-processing. As I wrote this, it got long (well, longer than usual 🙂 ) and I realized that perhaps it would be more palatable as a 3-part series. I hope you will read on, as the additional “parts” contain some good information. For starters, though, I will begin with general image appearance and – perhaps most importantly – color.

Glade Creek Gristmill on a cloudy, dreary day; unprocessed; straight out of camera
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

Digital photography is kind of like cooking (an analogy I am sure I “borrowed” from someone else years back, and continue to use, because I think it is apt). Many foods must be cooked to enjoy them at their best, and this means combining ingredients. It also means knowing how to cook things. A lot of the raw materials used in cooking just aren’t very appealing in their raw stage. In fact, some of them are just downright un-palatable.

“Raw is not an acronym

Perhaps appropriately, the format of images digitally captured, are referred to in their native format, as “raw.” I have pointed out previously, that “raw” means just that: raw; as in “uncooked.” Raw (unlike most other formats, such as JPEG, TIFF, etc.) is not an acronym. It is possible to cook anything from “scratch,” using only raw ingredients. It is also possible to purchase food in a pre-cooked, or partially prepared, stage. I am not suggesting that this cannot be done very well. Stauffer makes a pretty good Lasagna, pre-done with only baking required. 🙂 But most will appreciate a meal fully cooked from scratch, by a skilled chef. In most cases, I suspect, there is a combination of ingredients, some of them acquired in various stages of pre-preparation (perhaps analagous to the “presets” mentioned earlier).

Most of the “new” photographers I have the occasion to counsel shoot the same general subjects that I do. I do very little sports photography, and no photo-journalism. I strongly (and perhaps pedantically) recommend to these new photographers that they shoot in raw format (assuming their gear supports it). There are certainly those who are happy to accept “fast food” cooking (the camera’s built in conversion to jpeg or tiff), and to know enough about the cook and how to direct the cook, to obtain the result they are satisfied with. And there are certainly some cases where that is just expedient. Sports and photojournalists, more often than not, just don’t have time for a “gourmet” meal. But I believe most of us would benefit from getting our ingredients “raw,” and then take some time to appreciate the aromas of fine cooking. In order to obtain a palatable final image from a raw file, it is going to have to be “cooked.”

Glade Creek Gristmill; warming filter applied
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

Here, then, are some of the most important reasons I do my own “cooking:”

Two different photographers can stand side by side and see the scene very differently


Color:

One of the primary results that is largely effected by the “cooking” process is color. There are many things that effect color, including the medium of capture (whether digital or film), lighting conditions, and the perception of the viewer. It is common for certain colors to be rendered by the default raw converter as the “average viewer” perceives that color. The complication, of course, is how we define “average viewer.” Two different photographers can stand side by side in front of an image and see the scene very differently – including the perception of color. And, while there are certainly colorimetric “standards” for measurement of color, those same two photographers will still perceive those colors differently.

More importantly, it is common that the color displayed is not what the photographer wants to portray. Staying with the cooking analogy, some people like a little more spice, sweeter, etc. And that is the benefit of post-processing a raw image file.

Burton Hill Road Farm Scene
Barton, Vermont 2010

As I have learned more and more about digital post-processing, I have discovered some primary areas where this happens. Things that are “supposed” to be white are a great example of this phenomena. In 2010, I made what may be my favorite Vermont fall foliage landscape image ever. Conditions were right. There was a “thread” on the “Scenes of Vermont” foliage board where I posted the image, which remains today. I probably should go back and replace it with my “corrected” images. A couple years later, while working on my LightCentricPhotograph website, it jumped out at me. Clouds, fog, and frothy water, in most cases, are perceived as white. My fog in this image had a very distinct purple/blue/grey hue. While I think the color is “possible,” it is not the image I saw that clear, cold, fall morning. I think the color-corrected image is much more realistic and much more pleasing. In another example, I had the perhaps misfortune of coming to Babcock State Park on a particularly rainy, cloudy weekend. Grey clouds always introduce a color cast and you can see the gray cast in the original image. What is harder to see is the gray-blue cast in the water. The second image incorporates a warming filter (in Photoshop). As you can see, while it improves the appearance of the rest of the scene a bit, the water still has a cast. Water–to our eye–should be “white.” The third image is corrected using NIK Viveza2, by reducing saturation of color in the water, with a bit of added contrast and brightness. I think the water looks more like it is “supposed” to look.

Glade Creek Gristmill
Color Corrected
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

I put quotation marks around “supposed” on purpose. In art photography, there is no “correct” color. But there are certainly colors that are generally perceived by most of us within a range under the particular conditions. The Vermont image was made in the early morning sun, on what turned out to be a perfectly cloudless, sunny day. The original image from the camera might lead the viewer to think the opposite – that this was a cloudy, dark day. Color correction changes this perception entirely, in my opinion.

It is often the case that the color displayed is not what the photographer wants to portray

 

Exposure and Appearance:

Because I record images as raw files, there are usually some “darkroom” type adjustments that need to be made. Understand that post-processing software is not designed to “fix” your mistakes. Getting things like sharp focus, exposure and composition right in the camera is still required.  But we have always found ways to improve aspects of our photographs, beginning in the darkroom. Today, digital processing software perhaps gives us more ability to be creative and improve images than ever before. Beginning in my raw conversion program, I first look at the image “globally,” checking for things like color, exposure and contrast. If any adjustment needs to be done, I do that first. But remember Newton’s Law, here (or at least a modified version of it). When you move a slider, it will effect the adjustments other sliders make.

One of the things I love about my current setup is the ability to make more targeted adjustments. Most software today has powerful masking tools, both incorporated and with the ability to more or less manually mask. This means adjusting can be done with an adustment (like Photoshop’s “clarity” slider) that is discriminate in its action, adjusting, for example, just certain tones in an image. It also means a more specifically target area can be masked individually and adjusted. Some of this has been available in software for some years now. Others are constantly newly developing.

Above, I noted that sometimes a photographer wants an image to look a certain way. The beauty of non-reportage or scientific photography is there is no one correct presentation of an image. Note the substantial difference in tone and color in the lily image above, from the sharpen example images earlier. Post processing gives you the ability to creatively work with images – and to experiment – especially with color.

Next up, Image Sharpness