If Bokeh is the Best thing about your picture then it's not a good picture

I'm a huge fan of Kai and Lok era Digital Rev. Solid content, great writing and hilarious presentation. It set the standard for what photography reviews could be and how they should be handled. If there was one bad thing to come out of the Digital Rev era it has to be a focus on Bokeh. 



Bokeh, as David Hancock reminds me is the quality of the out of focus areas in an image. Specifically at lower apertures. Historically having a really large lens opening was needed for the worst situations. You were in a room that was lit by candle light and you needed to drop your shutter speed to 1.5 seconds, pushing your film to 3200 mid roll and praying that something would come out.

Then digital arrived. No you can shoot all day and at shutter speeds that do not make sense. For example, my first fully manual camera was the digital  Nikon D40 and it had a top shutter speed of 1/10,000 of a second. No film camera is  mechanically is close to that speed. We could finally capture images at speeds and sharpness that were unheard of before, like catching sweat whip off a forehead or freeze a humming bird in mid-flight. 

These crazy shutter speeds enabled photographers to use large aperture cameras in the middle of the day, for portrait to separate the background from the foreground. Shooting at F1.8 in midday for most of photography required either extremely slow film or the use of light blocking Neutral Density (ND) Filters.

Digital Rev and other reviewers began to focus more on how nice the bokeh looked, pointing out when the highlights were perfectly round, a sign of extra aperture blades. The lenses that had square and more geometric bokeh were now considered distracting and unpleasant. Even old lens formulas were seen in a new light and cameras with properties we found distracting like Petzval and Sonnar, where the backgrounds swirled, suddenly became fashionable. 

I think bokeh is crutch. Meaning, composition and design are much more important. I never felt that a great picture was great because of how out clean the out of focus parts were. It's bizarre to grade lenses on how something out of focus looks. Of all the aspects of a lens, sharpness, color rendering and flare control it ranks pretty low.  

Seeing the lust after 0.95 and 1.1 f stops makes me pause. Aperture is another thing to chase and argue over but like other gear decisions doesn't lead to better pictures. Maybe if I shot a lot at night or really wanted to shoot like Phillip Barrow I would be more interested in lower f stops and bokeh. But I shoot film and the medium and camera doesn't allow for those options. I'm glad it doesn't. 

What is Left Out?

I picked up a Moviepass card earlier this year and have been able to watch a movie weekly. My main aim is to just relax, get caught up on what is in theaters and see some great cinematography. After seeing the recent "You We're Never Really Here", I was taken away by the movie and especially a few scenes.

The images and scenes reminded me of a quote in The Photographer's Playbook from Michael Schmelling.

I had a professor who once told me something like this: if you know what the picture is before you take it, it's not worth taking... I think it's always served as a reminder to avoid the obvious photos, and the easy explanations. You should take any photo you want to -just don't make the assumption about what they mean, or what they might mean later. 

The movie itself is similar to Taken about a teenager being abducted and the violent path to get her back. Unlike taken there is a lot of mood, open pacing and ambiguous shots. Shooting something ambiguously so the audience has to guess at the meaning or motive of the image is a difficult and rewarding task.  

Here are three shots from YWNRH that on stand on their own as images but don't give you enough to know anything else. All three play impactful parts to the stories. 

When I look through my photography, the images that I revisit the most have an open ended and ambiguous nature to them. Three of them happened when I shot in a Catholic high school parking lot, down the block from my house. I didn't have any intentions or goals when taking the images and it led to more interesting images. I actively try and recreate the same feelings now in my pictures but it's not something I can easily channel. 

Maybe it's how you approach the images and the scene and less about composition and lighting. Whatever it is I wish I could do it more. 

Watching more movies this year than I have in a long time has been a great learning experience. You can see how a director develops a story through images and also find little nuggets on how to better frame your photography. I'm really impressed with movies having scenes that leave the audience guessing. It doesn't always have to end up in purpose but it keeps me thinking and analyzing, something I hope to do with my images too. 

Automatic Documentation as Photography

In 2014, my brother and cousin and I went on a once in a lifetime trip. We had all gotten jobs and decided to go to the place we always dreamed about, Japan. My brother and cousin are Japanophiles and I was always down for adventure. Me being the photographer in the group, was charged with documenting the events and trip. 

I did a decent job taking photos, getting the touristy shots and pictures of us eating and being in a group. I documented the trip the in a way to help describe what we did and where we went. In other words, it was pretty boring and pretty basic. 

My cousin on the other hand had a much simpler way of documenting. Whenever he ate anything: a soda, soup or concoction from the street he took a picture of it. No matter how common or insignificant, he took a picture of the item and logged it.

When we got back home and looked at all of our pictures I was extremely jealous of my cousin's shots. What seemed less creative and simple at the time turned out to capture the trip in a more authentic and factual way. We could see what we ate, where we ate it and remember the stories about how we got there and felt. 

I've been trying to get better at shooting automatically and documenting things around me, starting a few series on items like: telephone poles, public payphone, beds I sleep in, good quotes and coffee cups. It makes shooting less of a creative task and more of a documentation routine. Although it's not creatively spectacular it's a way to make images that make you remember more of your days.

My cousin is a super smart guy and got the point of some trips is to not wait for an amazing moment to happen but to take a simple reminder of what happened that day so you could look back on it later. I'm glad I was able to share the trip with him and pick up that new skill. It's helped us create new stories and capture new memories. 

Chance Encounter by Duane Michals

Duane Michals tells stories with his images. He uses written text and sequencing to take us into his world of heart break, fairy tales and short anecdotes. 

Chance Encounter is his image of two men in an alleyway and is my favorite Michal's image. An older man passes someone and looks back without knowing the same person looked back as well. 

The feeling Michal's captures is the hope that we know someone and that they will remember us too. It can be taken broader to beyond personal and art as well. To not be remembered is a shame. Maybe we did meet and did share time but we weren't special enough to be remembered. Maybe our images and photos were shared but forgotten nonetheless. In Chance Encounter both men wonder too.  

Erwin Blumenfeld

Well paid and influential fashion photographer is a great way to be remembered and Erwin Blumenfeld was that and more in his career. As I'm digging through my Pinterest and trying to figure out why I am drawn to certain images, I came across this from Erwin. 


Figure studies, drawing and photography, teach you how to see shapes and light using the greatest canvas on earth, the human body. You sit, see and create an image. The texture and the form draw me in here. The hands rise up out of the image like a tree while a face is buried in a forearm. The composition is strong with hands seemingly praying and having everything, the head and arms fade to black. And even though there is so much darkness in this image we still have a sense there are better and brighter things ahead.