Bokeh Obssession

The following thoughts occurred to me this afternoon while shooting in direct sunlight at ISO 800 and realizing my ND filter wasn’t going to be strong enough to let me shoot wide open.

It seems one of the defining characteristics of the film look is shallow depth-of-field; and in my own work, up until very recently anyhow, I almost never closed the lens down beyond f/4. And since in any given frame, 80% of the image is blurry, you’d think the appearance of those blurry bits would be of paramount importance, and that bokeh would be king. But the more I looked, the more I began to notice that lots of otherwise superbly shot films have pretty crappy bokeh – irregular shaped, hard-edged, spotty… Were these men and women blind, or what?? And that’s when it dawned on me that the lenses these DPs use, some of which require two grown men to carry, must have other properties that make them the choice of directors worldwide – characteristics I’d been ignorant of because I was so preoccupied with scrutinizing the backgrounds of each and every scene, looking for oval bokeh, cats-eye bokeh, elliptical bokeh, fringed bokeh, swirly bokeh and onion-ring bokeh. I thought to myself that bokeh must not be that big a deal, for the reason that, as the saying goes, these filmmakers have forgotten more about filmmaking than I’ll ever know in my life. In fact, out of the dozens of lenses in my own personal possession, very few could satisfy my obsession with perfectly smooth, round, blurry blobs. For sure, warmth, contrast and sharpness were words that always popped up during interviews with these legendary DPs – but that secret ingredient turned out to be how smoothly the lens rendered the ephemeral transition between sharp and blurry bits – the cues that humans use to determine depth and shape in our surroundings, which give the illusion of depth in what is after all nothing more than a flat two-dimensional surface and which in fact have been the key to our very survival for millenia. So for me, bokeh is no longer a matter of life or death! hehe

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