Bokeh Kings

Oct 10, 2014  By Bill Rosauer
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Wikipedia defines “Bokeh (usually pronounced Boc-ah) as the blur or aesthetic quality of the blur, in the out-of-focus areas of an image. The term comes from the Japanese word boke, which means “blur” or “haze” or boke-aji (blur quality). It is also defined as the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light.”

I think I first encountered the term Bokeh many years ago (way back in the 80’s) while in the company of Tom Abrahamsson at one of the many Photokinas we attended together. Tom had recently been to Japan prior to the big show in Germany, and during our usual imbibing of copious amounts of Kölsch, he told me about this new concept of Bokeh which folks in Japan seemed to be obsessed with. As I’m sure both Tom and I were in a bit of a Kölsch beer haze or the tobacco haze which we would encounter on the LOMO stand, I more than likely thought this was very interesting and promptly filed it away somewhere in my mind. Spending time with Tom is like that. You learn of a lot of very interesting things and along the way meet a lot of interesting people and often have new ideas, which seem very interesting as well, at least at the time. This is more or less how we dreamed up the concept of the LHSA Black Paint camera.

As time passed, I would hear more about this mysterious Bokeh and that there were in fact both “good” and “bad” forms of Bokeh. I would also hear about certain lenses being Bokeh Kings. In these discussions, some version of the Noctilux lens would always be mentioned. Usually there was also mention of the Summarex and the mighty Thambar, whose sole reason for being was in rendering images mainly out-of-focus (especially in the highlights) decades before the term Bokeh was even coined. It took the passage of one World War, the Cold War and two police-action non-wars for the world to come around to Max Berek’s forward thinking on the subject!

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With the advent of the internet and the many Leica themed and based online fora, I once again became very aware of this Bokeh phenomenon. Occasionally, someone would post some images of one or two lenses they had used in the field extolling the virtues of the Bokeh they observed, and then other folks would comment good or bad. Digital media and the internet really provides an efficient way of seeing and evaluating examples of such a nebulous concept as Bokeh. Last Fall, I stumbled upon a little experiment on the Club Snap forum where they had camped out in a bar with some good Scotch and taken a number of photos of a still-life vignette (some liquor bottles, a glass with ice in it, out of focus bright lights in the background) and shot a number of 50mm lenses wide-open to capture and attempt to evaluate each lenses Bokeh. This led me to propose at last Fall’s board meeting in San Francisco that we try out this little exercise on our own as part of the festivities in Dearborn! To promote this event, I thought what could be better than doing a little article in Viewfinder on Bokeh to introduce LHSA members to the concept? I would shoot some sort of vignette with all of the fast lenses (faster lenses show more and better Bokeh than slow lenses) I could lay my hands on with my M9-P locked down on a heavy tripod to come up with some comparison among them as to their Bokeh qualities. I took some sample photos of my little set-up with a 20” high Geisha Doll that has been in my family for over fifty years to test the concept. I used the Geisha Doll as my subject for several reasons. First of all, I thought it appropriate to use a Japanese themed subject to illustrate a Japanese concept. Secondly, she was three dimensional as most subjects are in real life (unlike Air Force Aerial Test Targets or newsprint, which only really test field flatness and resolution with a subject matter few of us would choose in real life) with a lot of detail and texture in her costume. And third, by using an inanimate object for a subject, she would not get tired, move or complain about the project like human subjects tend to do!

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