Bokeh - 85mm and 35mm Nikkors

Friday, January 16, 2009 ·
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During the film era, the only bokeh (a word that just refers to out of focus areas of a photograph) that drew any attention was that produced by mirror lenses whose characteristic doughnut-shaped, out of focus highlights offended some sensibilities, mine included. That's why I never used them, despite the fact that some were very sharp indeed.

In this great digital world we now inhabit, bokeh can be given the sort of in-depth analysis that was once reserved for sharpness but this pre-occupation has split photographers into two main camps: those who bother about bokeh and those who don't see what all the fuss is about.

So how important is bokeh? Well, depending on the type of photography you do, it's either very important - or not at all important. Let me explain. It's usually desirable to render the main subject in a photograph as sharply as possible. Bokeh obviously doesn't contribute directly to that other than by helping to isolate the subject. But what it does do is determine whether there are any competing distractions elsewhere in the frame that might detract attention away from the subject.

Bokeh's job, therefore, is not to be a feature in itself but to become, to all intents and purposes, invisible. Any out of focus blurring that turns highlights into little facsimiles of the diaphragm blades is liable to catch the eye of the viewer and draw attention away from the subject. The same goes for the type of bokeh which renders an out of focus line as a double line or introduces a swirling effect to the out of focus area. The mirror lens's dougnuts fall into the same category.

If you're taking a landscape with a wide angle lens stopped well down, you'll never see any bokeh worth mentioning. But if you're doing a tight head shot, for example, then the quality of the blurred areas does become very important.

The larger the format you're using, whether it be 35mm versus 4x5 or cropped sensors versus full-frame, also determines how much bokeh you'll tend to see in your photography. Full-frame sensors like that in the Nikon D700 have smaller depth of field for a given image size than smaller formats and, consequently, bokeh becomes more of an issue.

One of the reasons I moved from the Pentax K10D to the D700 was because I like shooting with limited depth of field. Bokeh was, therefore, something I had to take into consideration when choosing lenses. The photographs above weren't taken specifically for the purpose of stressing the lenses' bokeh to the max but they given an indication of the way the 85mm and 35mm Nikkors handle out of focus areas -and it's not too bad at all.

The 85mm does a very nice job of letting out of focus areas melt away. The 35mm is a little fussier but still pretty good. Both have the ability to make the out of focus areas more or less invisible from a distraction point of view and, coupled with their fast speed and light weight, are ideal prime lenses for the D700.

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2 comments:

Thomas PARIS said...
Friday, 16 January, 2009  

Hiya Bruce,

Nice little lenses they are, for sure. I've only just bought a 35 f2 and I already like it.

When I didn't know any better, I used to like my 50 f1.4 (my first prime evar!). But since then, I've learned a lot about what I like and don't like in photographs and I certainly don't like its bokeh. The 105's on the other hand... Silky smooth. I just love it.

How do you feel about Nikon lenses, especially in comparison with Pentax primes? Every time I see the latter, I feel like buying a k20d ;) Or an even smaller body, to make a nice little, but very efficient, package.

Not to say that a D70 (only one '0' here) with a 35 f2 feels too big, of course.

Cheers,
Thomas

BRUCE ROBBINS said...
Monday, 19 January, 2009  

Hi Thomas,

Nice to see you've migrated over from the Pentax blog!

It's early days yet for me when it comes to Nikon digital cameras and lenses so it's difficult to give a strong opinion. I did use a Nikon 35mm outfit years ago (20, 28, 50, 105 and 200 Nikkors) but that was in the days before pixel peeping and I can't remember any special qualities the lenses may or may not have had. I was certainly happy enough with the results.

The 35mm f2 and 85mm f1.8 are lovely and sharp with good bokeh but I don't think they're any sharper than the Pentax DA Limiteds that I have and they're not nearly as well made. The old non-AI and AI Nikkors were beautifully constructed and had a more bomb proof feel about them than even the Pentax K and M lenses.

Being completely honest, in every day shooting, at normal print sizes and without being able to make side-by-side comparisons, I'd say that most people, myself included, would have a hard job telling results from Nikkor and Pentax lenses apart.