Hi everyone, it’s good to be back with all of you! In browsing here daily, I see that many of you are new to photography or the rangefinder experience. I love how Steve’s reviews and articles have attracted many new photographers and old photographers alike into a lively discussion where everything is fresh and valid. Steve has a real talent for this type of discourse, and his excitement and enthusiasm are infectious.
Given that some of you are relatively new to photography, there are many topics that are novel, and some concepts may be misunderstood. We all want to learn as much as possible, as fast as possible, to become the best possible photographers, right?!? Yeah! But there is so much to learn, so why not start here. Today, I will delve a discussion of bokeh, the often discussed and often misunderstood topic of photography that generates so much heated debate and so much buzz. What is it? Where did the term come from? How should I evaluate bokeh? Does it matter? Are Leica lenses any good in the bokeh department? Rest assured, all questions will be answered.
The Leica 75 Summilux 1.4
Simply stated, bokeh is defined as the quality of the out-of-focus parts of a photograph. In fact, Wikipedia, the internet’s answer to The Encyclopedia Brittanica, defines Bokeh as follows:
“In photographic terms, bokeh is the blur, or aesthetic quality of the blur, in out-of-focus areas of an image, or he way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light”
But there is so much more to it, and this is why I want to speak about it a bit more.
Different lenses render bokeh in different ways, and there are many ongoing debates about which lenses produce the best bokeh. Much of how a lens renders its out-of-focus elements has to do with its inherent aberrations. Some of these aberrations may allow a lens to produce aesthetically pleasing bokeh, while others may cause a lens to render harshly. Furthermore, some individuals may consider a particular lens’ bokeh to be desirable, while others may consider the same lens’ bokeh to be harsh. Beauty, in fact, may be in the eye of the beholder when it comes to interpreting bokeh. We’ll get into some of that controversy soon, and I’ll even provide a list of some lenses that are considered to have the best bokeh across camera systems.
I suspect that this article may generate a bit of discussion, and that’s what I want, because there are so many misrepresentations and misunderstandings of this topic. Hopefully, we can all find some clarity within the discussion and further our understanding of this topic.
Leica 50 Summilux 1.4 Pre-Asph
History of the Term “Bokeh”
So you may ask: How did such an unusual word, “Bokeh” come to describe the quality of an image’s out of focus area. Well, good question! It turns out that bokeh is coined from the Japanese word “boke” and “boke-aji”, which roughly translate to “fuzzy” and “flavor of blur”, respectively. The term was adopted into the English photographic lexicon by Mike Johnston, who currently runs the Online Photographer blog and was previously editor-in-chief for “Photo Techniques” Magazine in the late 1990’s. To give credit where credit is due, Johnston first learned of the term “bo-ke” from Oren Grad, a guy who has multiple graduate degrees (MD’s, PhD’s, and several masters degrees…a genius of sorts) and purportedly learned Japanese just to be able to read Japanese photo magazines! Awesome! The term boke-aji had already been used for some time in Japanese magazines in describing an image’s out-of-focus qualities. In reality, the term bokeh does not translate literally into one meaning in English. In the Japanese literature, there are many shades of the meaning of bokeh, but all boil down to some version of “blur quality.” Johnston was ultimately responsible changing the spelling from “boke” to bokeh to address proper pronunciation, and he popularized the term through a series of 3 commissioned articles on the topic, which were published in March and April 1997 issues of “Photo Techniques”. It was stressed that pronunciation was “bo” as in bone and “ke” as in Kenneth. So that’s how you say it.
I recently had the privilege of communicating with Mike Johnston in preparing to write this article. For those of you haven’t checked out his blog, it’s a great way to orient yourself on current topics and movements in photography. Mike’s blog includes wide ranging topics spanning product reviews to photographic philosophy to photography features…kind of like Steve’s site, but with a different flavor. Interestingly, Johnston has been keeping track of the popularity of the word through Google lexicon searches. The number of hits that come up on a web search has increased from 15 in 1997 to now more than 3.4 MILLION in 2010! Whoah! How’s that for popularizing a term! Kudos to Mike!
Johnston was also responsible for popularizing the term “Bokeh King” to describe the Leica 35 mm f/2 Summicron Pre-Asph v.4 (version 4 of this lens), which was produced by Leica until the late 1990’s. This lens has since been replaced in the Leica lens lineup by the current Leica Summicron 35 mm f/2.0 Aspherical, which by all reports has slightly less desireable bokeh but is notably sharper and better-corrected for aberrations. The version 4 “Bokeh King” Summicron is widely considered the lens that creates the best bokeh of them all! In homage to Lord of the Rings, it’s the “one lens to rule them all”….More on this later, since the title of king of bokeh is up for grabs, and for many, the 35 mm Summicron bokeh king is no longer king.
Leica 50 Noctilux F1
Just to add controversy and stir the pot, Johnston mentioned to me that in general, the Leica lens line-up is not particularly good for bokeh! Quoting from his email, Leica lenses “clearly aren’t designed with out-of-focus characteristics taken into account and there is no consistency to their look. Zeiss lenses are typically even worse. There are always exceptions, however, as it’s always a case-by-case (and picture-by-picture) thing”.
However, Johnston stressed to me, and I agree based on personal experience, that it’s best not to dwell too much on this. Depending on the proper circumstances of light and background busy-ness, it’s possible to generate pleasing bokeh out of most any lens….but still, Leica and Zeiss lenses are bad for bokeh? Ouch! I think my wallet and ego just tool a substantial bruising! Per Johnston, the discontinued line of Minolta lenses and Bronica medium format lenses produce the best bokeh. Problem is, neither of these lines of lenses are even produced any more!
For those of your micro 4/3 freaks, Johnston does agree with me on one point: The bokeh of the Panasonic 20 mm f/1.7 lens is pleasing! Kudos for Panasonic getting it right for the m4/3 contingent! (From Steve: I agree!)
Leica 35 Summaron F2.8
The nitty gritty of bokeh (i.e. TECHNOBABBLE)
H how is bokeh rendered? Why does one lens have a different look than another lens? Basically, bokeh is the byproduct of a lens’ various properties, including aperture, focal length, near focus/macro qualifications, and its aberrations.
Good bokeh is particularly important for larger aperture lenses, macro lenses, and long telephoto lenses, all of which seek to obtain shallow depth of field to achieve out-of-focus backgrounds to make a subject pop and stand out.
Getting beyond the above parameters, which primarily define a lenses ability to generate narrow depth of field, there are several other factors that affect the quality of bokeh. One must examine the image’s circle of confusion, in which a sourced point of light becomes an image of the aperture, which is generally rendered as a round disc. Depending on how well a lens is corrected for spherical aberration, these discs of light may be uniformly bright (idea) or bright either at the center or edge. Lenses that are poorly corrected will additionally show different kinds of out-of-focus highlights depending on the plane of focus. What’s interesting is that lenses made by Canon, Nikon, and Sony have adjustments to deal for this type of aberration, while Leica lenses, particularly older lenses, often do not. The irony is that these aberrations may be desirable for image quality, given particular light fall off properties of these aberrant out-of-focus lights towards the edges of the image, which produce less defined shapes that blur better into the background.
The Canon 135L F2
Bokeh may be also affected by the shape of the aperture opening, which is in turn a property of the number of aperture blades as well as the shape of the aperture blades themselves. Thus, at wide open aperture, you may notice that out-of focus highlights can appear polygonal. Thus a lens with a 6 blade aperture will demonstrate hexagonal highlights in its bokeh. In the old days, lenses avoided these geometic out-of-focus highlights by increasing the number of aperture blades. In fact, many old Leica lenses have more than 10 aperture blades, and it is though that that this number of blades results in many positive qualities for the bokeh of these older Leica heritage lenses. Modern lenses often compensate for lower aperture blade counts by changing the shape of each blade to render more circular out-of-focus highlights.
Testing bokeh…Controversy, Controversy, Controversy
Some vocal photographers would have you believe that the best way to evaluate bokeh is shooting a lens wide open, that is, at its widest aperture. It turns out that this is DEAD WRONG. While wide aperture lenses throw the background out of focus, it is also the widest of apertures that reveal most of a lens’ problematic aberrations, making bokeh hard to evaluate in this circumstance. In my correspondence with Mike Johnston, he mentioned that the “bokeh king” Summicron actually has rather bad bokeh when shot wide open at f/2.0. Per Johnston, it takes stopping down the lens a bit to reveal the lens’ inherently beautiful bokeh and gentle transitions in out-of-focus rendering. Thus, it may be best to shoot the bokeh king at f/4 to f/5.6 to reveal its charms, NOT f/2!
Canon EF 50 1.4
Bokeh quality tends to break down in several circumstances. Not only is wider aperture a problem, but so are harshly lit, contrasty backgrounds (for example, light shining through the leaves of a tree as background to a portrait). Bokeh also seems to break down at close focus distances and when there’s a large foreground-background separation. What these rules essentially dictate is that if you wish to avoid distracting or unsightly bokeh, you should shoot with your lens slightly stopped down, while keeping focus at moderate distances, and while avoiding high contrast backgrounds. This advice is clearly delineated in Mike Johnston’s bokeh ratings pdf document, which is available freely online.
A word on the bokeh of Leica lenses
So what’s the deal with Leica lenses? They cost a king’s ransom. Shouldn’t they exhibit the best out-of-focus qualities? To my eyes, they do a good job, though others may feel differently. Modern Leica lenses incorporate one or more aspherical elements. These elements optimize these lenses’ sharpness and microcontrast, and as you all know, Leica lenses are renowned for their sharpness. Even wide open, lenses from the Canon L series and Nikon FX lenses break down in terms of sharpness, but nearly all modern Leica lenses remain tack-sharp. The issue with aspherical elements is that they render more abrupt transitions from focused areas to out-of focus areas. These abrupt transitions in focused AND out-of-focus photographic zones can also make background blur seem harsher and a bit more geometric.
So how does one get around this issue? Well, one way is to invest in older Leica lenses. Many older lenses, such as the 75 mm f/1.4 Summilux, the 50 mm Noctilux f/1.0, and the 35 mm Summilux Pre-Asph, are renowned for their bokeh and their “Leica Look”. Many photographers describe the “Leica Glow” of these older lenses, and some lament that modern Leica aspherical designs seem to lack this characteristic. Remember that these older Leica lenses do not contain aspherical elements, and hence, transitions from focus to out-of-focus regions of the images captured by these lenses are more gentle. The bokeh transitions are also gentler, and it is some the other spherical aberrations the lend themselves to the glow-like casts that these lenses generate. In these cases, all of theses’ lenses have aberrations that may in fact be desirable. When shot wide open, legendary lenses like the Noctilux and 75 Summilux can have harsh appearing, distracting bokeh. But they also have other aberrations that many photographers value. The bottom line is that it probably doesn’t matter that much to real world photography.
The Leica 50 Summilux 1.4 ASPH
What I find valuable about Leica lenses is their character. For me, bokeh is only one part of the picture. Equally important are microcontrast, flare control, edge-to-edge sharpness, and yes, that hard-to-define Leica glow. Maybe I am deluded, but I see it in modern Leica glass as well. To me, I look at images that come from my M lenses, and they just jump off the page far more than images shot with my other cameras. It’s the sum of all of the elements that makes Leica lenses great, not just their bokeh!
It’s all in the eye of the beholder
So you may ask the question, “Which lens should I buy if I want the absolute best bokeh?” Well, that’s a very difficult question to answer. Remember that in Japanese, the term “bo-ke” encompasses a wide variety of subtle variations of the blur concept. There’s no direct literal translation from Japanese to English that clearly encompasses all of “bo-ke”s Japanese derivations. Mike Johnston would argue, and I would concur, that it’s in the eye of the beholder. Ultimately, what’s pleasing to you, as a photographer and artist, is what is most important. While Mike may argue that the Voigtlander 40 mm f/1.4 Nokton has rather ugly blur, I know some very talented photographers for who describe this very lens as their favorite…go figure!
For all intents and purposes, there is really no such thing as “good” or “bad” bokeh.
And, now, to completely contradict myself….BOKEH RATINGS
Rememeber, I just told you that there’s no such things as good or bad bokeh. BUT, as we live in a world where everything is rated on a scale of 1 to 10, I will present you with a list of lenses which I think have great bokeh, based on my personal experience and from that collated from my years of my own endless quest for “good bokeh” lenses. Keep in mind that most lenses are capable of achieving excellent results in the bokeh department, but seem to achieve it more readily than others.
DISCLOSURE: By no means am I a lens tester. For a more detailed and scientifically rigorous approach to lens ratings, I would refer you to Mike Johnston’s PDF on Lens Ratings.
Without further adieu, here are my lens bokeh ratings, based on my own experience and biases (Sorry to you Nikonians, as I have never owned a Nikon and haven’t tried out any lenses):
Bokeh Rating scale: 1-5
1: Horrible, harsh ugly, gross,vomit-inducing yick…. Stay away bokeh
2. Mediocre at best, typically harsh and undesireable bokeh
3. Average performer, entirely useable in most cirmustances.
4. Top-notch performer, capable of occasional magical bokeh
5. Consistently splendid performer, capable of typically awesome results
Wide angle (note that bokeh is hard to achieve for 24 mm and wider lenses)
Canon EF 15 mm f/2.8 Fisheye –
Leica 16-18-21 f/4.0 Tri-Elmar (WATE) 3
Leica 21 mm f/1.4 Summilux Asph 3
Leica 21 mm f/2.8 Elmarit pre-asph 3.5
Leica 21 mm f/2.8 Elmarit asph 3
Voigtlander 21 mm f/4 Color-Skopar 3
Canon EF 24 mm f/1.4 L 3.5
Leica 24 mm f/1.4 Summilux Asph 5
Leica 24 mm f/2.8 Elmarit Asph 4
Zeiss 25 mm f/2.8 Biogon 3.5
Leica 28 mm f/2.8 Elmarit Pre-Asph v.4 4
Leica 28 mm f/2.8 Elmarit Asph 3
Leica 28 mm f/2.0 Summicron Asph 4
Voigtlander 28 mm f/3.5 Color-Skopar 4
Canon EF 35 mm f/1.4 L 4.5
Leica 35 Summicron f/2.0 Pre-Asph v.4 bokeh king 4.5
Leica 35 mm f/2.8 Summaron 3
Leica 35 mm f/2.0 Summicron Asph 3.5
Leica 35 mm f/2.5 Summarit 5
Leica 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux Asph 5
Leica 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux Pre-Asph 3.5
Voigtlander 35 mm f/1.2 Nokton 2.5
Panasonic 20 mm f/1.7 lens (micro 4/3) 4
Canon EF 50 mm f/1.8 2.5
Canon EF 50 mm f/1.4 EOS 5
Canon EF 50 mm f/1.2 L 4.5
Leitz Summar 50 mm f/2.0 screw mount 2
Leica Collapsible Elmar 50 mm f/2.8 (last version) 3
Leica Collapsible Elmar 50 mm f/2.8 (early version) 3.5
Leica Summicron 50 mm f/2.0 3
Leica Summilux 50 mm f/1.4 Asph 4
Leica Summilux 50 mm f/1.4 Pre-Asph 4.5
Leica Noctilux 50 mm f/1.0 Pre-Asph 5
Canon 50 mm f/0.95 (for Canon 7 RF) Modified for M mount 4
Leica 75 mm f/2.0 Summarit 4
Leica 75 mm f/2.0 APO-Summicron 4.5
Leica 75 mm f/1.4 Summilux 5
Canon 85 mm f/1.2 L Mark II 5
Leica 90 mm f/2.8 Elmarit (last version) 3.5
Leica 90 mm f/2.8 Thin Tele-Elmarit 2.5
Leica 90 mm f/2.0 Summicron pre-Asph 4
Leica 90 mm f/2.0 APO-Summicron Asph 3.5
Canon EF 100 mm f/2.8 macro 4.5
Canon EF 135 mm f/2 L 5
Leica 135 mm f/4 Tele-elmar 4.5
Canon EF 70-200 mm f/2.8 L Mk I 4
Canon EF 300 mm f/2.8 L 5
Canon EF 300 mm f/4.0 L 3
Canon EF 400 mm f/5.6 L 3.5
Note that this is in no ways a comprehensive list of lenses, but simply a sampling of lenses that I have either tried, owned, or evaluated. Furthermore, this is not a rating of how I feel about the lens overall, but rather, how I feel about it’s out-of-focus rendering.
AND THE NEW KING OF BOKEH IS….
From my experience and what I have seen, the Leica Summarit 35 mm f/2.5 takes the cake. This lens is desireable on many accounts. It passes the ugly test of shooting a subject with harsh background very well, especially for a wider lens. It is an imminently useable and compact lens for the M rangefinder system, with a wide-enough aperture, very compact dimensions, and unsurpassed IQ. It does not have aspherical elements, so it renders more naturally and softly than its 35 mm Summicron Asph cousin. Of added benefit, this is one of Leica’s most affordable lenses! A top performer, at a reasonable price, in compact dimensions, with great bokeh! Hard to beat…I only wish that I had one.
Contenders for the award, despite their flaws, are the Summilux 35 mm f/1.4 asph, Noctilux f/1, and Summilux 75 mm f/1.4. They all have their issues, but to be honest, they win the artistic award for most unique bokeh!
And if you are wondering, after all of this, what is Ashwin’s favorite lens, that award goes to the Leica Summilux 35 mm f/1.4 ASPH. To me, it’s the best combination of many factors, including sharpness, bokeh, usefulness, and that Leica look.
BEST BOKEH BANG FOR THE BUCK:
Leica M system: Leica Summarit 35 mm f2.5, Leica Tele-Elmar 135 f/4
Canon EOS system: Canon EF 50 mm f/1.4
Micro 4/3: Panasonic 20 mm f/1.7
You can see more of Ashwins work at his cool blog HERE or his Flickr page HERE!
From Steve: Thanks Ashwin for this very cool article. I found it very informative and agree with *most* of your ratings. I am sure others will have a few things to say about your new “King Of Bokeh” but I wanted to add that I own this lens and while I have mainly been shooting with a 50, the Bokeh of the 35 Summarit is very nice. Every time I shoot it I am always smiling when I sit down to look over the images captured with it. I I love mine to death. Truth be told, it seems to have a little bit more “character” than the cron. I have no complaints and could recommend this lens to any Leica M shooter! BTW, this lens is available at this sites main sponsor B&H Photo at their 35 Summarit page. You can also read my 35 Summarit review HERE.
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