April 19, 2010

shallow DoF / depth-of-field is not the same thing as great bokeh

The first thing you might notice in this image is our super-cute model, Johannie.

Next you will probably notice either:
– the strange background pattern, (due to this lens’ bokeh),
– or the wafer-thin depth-of-field of the Nikon 50mm f/1.4D used wide open
– or the lighting on her, (a reflector),

These are all inter-related in some way for this photo …


With this part of the photo session, I wanted to get images to illustrate a certain point about bokeh.  I didn’t quite get the sequence of images that I needed for a comparison, so that will have to wait for a future article again.  However, we can already see an aspect of that in this photo:

Shallow depth of field is NOT the same as having good bokeh.

The out-of-focus leaves and branches in the background have an intrusive harsh shape to the edges.  The out-of-focus benches in the background also have that strange double effect to their shape.  This is because this lens exhibits harsh bokeh.  Not smooth.  Not “buttery”.

The photo was taken at f1.4 which is the widest possible aperture on this specific lens.  Therefore the depth-of-field is shallow, yet the bokeh remains harsh.  This is simply due to the actual optical design of this lens.  And you may well ask what lens this was – the Nikon 50mm f1.4 AF-D, but the Canon 50mm f1.4 looks very similar.  Ideally we’d want a lens that offers shallow depth of field to also exhibit great bokeh – a smooth rendition of the background.  But we’ll come back to this topic some time soon in the future with another more thorough article.


using a reflector for lighting

Since I desired a very shallow depth of field in such bright light, the wide aperture forced a high shutter speed.  The shutter speed being higher than maximum flash sync speed, would mean I’d have two options:
– use high-speed sync on my flash.  This would mean reduced output on my flash.  And the easiest would be to use wireless radio controllers like the Radio Poppers.
– use a reflector.

Camera settings:  1/4000 @ f1.4 @ 200 ISO

I had my assistant hold up a white reflector to throw some light directly onto our model. This then created that interesting tightly ‘focused’ light on just her face and upper part of her body.  The light that is reflected from the sun like this is pretty harsh, so I made sure that Johannie didn’t have to look directly into this.  I also had my assistant throw the light onto her for very short moments in which I’d shoot a burst of images.

This would also explain the change in color balance across our model’s body.  Her face is now lit by sunlight, yet the rest of her body is still in shadow.  Two different white balance settings would be needed .. which of course is impossible in-camera.  But I like the effect here – it helps direct attention to her.

A reflector is often used for just a bit of fill-light on the subject, but in this case the light from the reflector becomes a main source of light.


shallow depth of field

Using a shallow depth of field is possibly the easiest way to direct attention to your subject.  Your subject pops out from the background, giving a near 3-D effect when used well.  And then we just need to take care of our lighting, our composition and the background, for more effective on-location portraits.

The things we need to consider in our photography are nearly invariably inter-connected like that in some way.


help support this website

{ 22 comments. } Add a Comment

1 Mark Cornwell April 19, 2010 at 9:01 am

That’s a great explanation/illustration of why bokeh is not always good and also why good bokeh is not hand in hand with shallow DOF.


2 olympus_fotograph April 19, 2010 at 10:50 am

hello neil,

sorry for speaking so, but you are right. this bokeh is ugly. you see the picture and you feel something not harmony, just disturbing you.
a kind of growling, not stabilized.
it feels as the picture has some vibrations, like a machine where you may destroy concrete*gg*.
i have found a lot of pics of you where the bokeh looks very good and blowy.
you can feel the softness and the speaking of the picture was where good, like leaving good wine.
i will try this with my panaleica summilux 25mm/1.4 and the olympus 50mm makro/2.0.
thanks for sharing and your upcoming blog about bokeh.
your site is such as fantastic and great :-))


3 Arnold April 19, 2010 at 11:26 am

I found that Nikon 50mm lenses have very bad bokeh that you really have to watch your background and make sure you don’t have too much going on in the background. It is one of the reasons I returned the lens when I bought it last year. If you want a 50mm with nice creamy bokeh at 1.4 then Sigma 50mm would be a great choice. Good article Neil as always.


4 Fred Hoegeman April 19, 2010 at 1:11 pm

The out-of-focus benches in the background also has that strange double effect to their shape.

The out-of-focus branches in the background also have that strange double effect to their shape.




5 Neil vN April 19, 2010 at 1:14 pm

Fred .. I was actually referring to the benches behind her that you can see between her feet. Those too exhibit that harsh doubling of the edges.

Neil vN


6 Laura April 19, 2010 at 1:16 pm


I just bought the Canon 50mm 1.4 lens, but you stated here that this lens also produces bad bokeh. When I was reading the reviews on BH website a lot of people stated it had a buttery bokeh, which is why I bought it. I will return it if you can recommend something better in that price range? I’m looking for a 35mm or 50 mm with a 1.4 aperture. I’m also on a limited budget, but I really value your opinion.



7 Neil vN April 19, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Laura .. the Canon and Nikon 50mm f1.4 lenses are renowned for this type of harsh bokeh. I’m not sure what the Sigma lens does. Perhaps the Nikon 35mm f1.8 is worth checking out?

How noticeable it is, depends on the background. But a lens with great bokeh will always reproduce it better.

I wouldn’t necessarily return the lens. It is very useful to have in your bag. Just don’t expect wonderful bokeh from it.

If you want smooth bokeh, then the 85mm f1.4 is hard to beat. It’s exceptional.

Neil vN


8 nick April 19, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Hey Neil,

Despite the terrible bokeh of the 50mm 1.4D (which you’ve mentioned in previous articles as well), I notice you’ve kept this lens around for a long time. Why do you continue to use it? In what situations does it shine?

I only ask because I own the same lens, and I was recently considering selling it actually.



9 Neil vN April 19, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Nick, I have both the AF-D and G versions of the Nikon 50mm f1.4 … but it is probably my least used lens in my bag.

For my tastes, a 50mm lens is just not tight enough, nor wide enough. I like the versatility of zooms, and when I want narrow depth-of-field, there is the 85mm f1.4 .. that said, I do feel that a 50mm lens is inexpensive enough (in the grand scheme of things), that one should always keep one in a camera bag. Just in case.

But if you need to sell it to make funds available for another lens, I can totally see why.

Neil vN


10 Chip April 19, 2010 at 3:09 pm

I’ve seen this type of ugly bokeh before, but I thought it was particular to the Nikon 50mm 1.4G (the new one). I actually have the 1.8, and I’ve never seen it on that lens.


11 Chuck April 19, 2010 at 10:39 pm

Neil….Is there a reason why you used an ISO of 200 rather the 100?


12 Neil vN April 19, 2010 at 11:19 pm

200 ISO is the base ISO on the Nikon D3, so that’s normally the lowest I go, but there have been times where I go to 100 ISO for the depth of field control, such as with this recent shoot.

Neil vN


13 arnold April 19, 2010 at 11:43 pm

How is the ISO 100 on the D3. Do you see a noticeable quality drop off from the base ISO 200?


14 Neil vN April 19, 2010 at 11:50 pm

Arnold .. I haven’t done any testing to compare, but off-hand I don’t notice anything that would make me not want to use ISO 100.

Neil vN


15 Arnold Gallardo April 20, 2010 at 2:43 am

Wonderful Image Neil! Although yes the Bokeh and the ‘circles of confusion’ are quite distrubing for most I think that it is very painterly almost ‘Impressionistic’ and works well because of the Wb difference in the model so I might be in the minority here :) If the subject matter isnt a beautiful model in a black dress but is a wedding or engagement shot then I think it would not work. Thanks again for showing this :)


16 Daniel Nagy April 21, 2010 at 7:16 am

Hi Neil, have you tried to stop down to f2 using this lens? I read some reviews and find out that most of the fast lenses have a bit nervous bokeh if used wide open. but stopping it down a little bit will improve the bokeh, while preserving shallow depth of field.

check this link for more info on this particular lens:


17 Mike April 21, 2010 at 7:44 pm


Why not simply use a neutral density filter (4 stops in this case to get to 1/250) to lower the shutter speed (to the max sync speed) while still allowing the large aperture?


18 Neil vN April 21, 2010 at 11:08 pm

That would work in theory, and even in practice, if one had a 52mm thread ND filter on hand. ;)

Neil vN


19 Alfredo April 22, 2010 at 7:15 am

“For my tastes, a 50mm lens is just not tight enough, nor wide enough.”

I assume you are referring to full frame. What are your thoughts on this lens (or the Sigma which is known to produce much better bokeh) vs an 85mm f/1.8 on a crop body?


20 Neil vN April 23, 2010 at 11:53 am

Alfredo .. yup, I was referring to how the 50mm feels on a full-frame camera.

On a crop-sensor body forces you to step back a bit with a 50mm gives you a good perspective when you shoot portraits. So that does work.

However, I’d still suggest the 85mm f1.8 because it is such a jump from a kit lens. It will give you an entirely different look to your images than before – tighter portraits with very shallow depth-of-field.

Neil vN


21 Ujwal Bhattarai April 25, 2010 at 6:04 am

Hi Neil,

I was surprised that the Nikon 50mm 1.4’s bokeh was… frankly quite unpleasant. I recently bought a used Sigma 50mm 1.4 and I am sure you would love its bokeh.
I was after a canon 1.4 but got the siggy only because i found it cheap…i took my chance and it was the best decision i have made in a long time. Very smooth bokeh….Sigmas aren’t supposed to be that good. Sorry to turn your post into a praise for sigma but sorry..i couldn’t help it.


22 Jan January 16, 2011 at 6:31 am

I think Nikkor 50/1.8 has nicer bokeh than 50/1.4 however build quality is much worse.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: