shallow depth-of-field does not mean good bokeh

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.

22 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 2olympus_fotograph says

    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 :-))

  2. 3 says

    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.

  3. 4Fred Hoegeman says

    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.



  4. 5Neil vN says

    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

  5. 6Laura says


    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.


  6. 7Neil vN says

    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

  7. 8nick says

    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.


  8. 9Neil vN says

    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

  9. 10 says

    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.

  10. 14Neil vN says

    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

  11. 15 says

    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 :)

  12. 17 says


    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?

  13. 19Alfredo says

    “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?

  14. 20Neil vN says

    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

  15. 21 says

    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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *