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Aesthetics of shallow DOF

Discussion in 'Back Room' started by Dramaturg, Apr 28, 2014.

  1. Dramaturg

    Dramaturg Mu-43 Top Veteran

    Jun 7, 2013
    Narrow DOF of mu43 system is called an advantange by some, while others try to get as shallow DOF as possible (even to the point of bying Nocticron or VL lenses). Personally, I like to have more control over DOF as there is a certain aesthetics in those shallow DOF shots, something that corresponds to the way things are in real life (or the way I see the world). The interesting thing is that more and more "best wedding photographers of the year" or "best portrait photographers" are those who shoot very shallow DOF pictures with Medium Format.

    Jose Villa (check his blog if you haven't done it yet - http://josevillablog.com/) is one of my favorite people photographers, who always shoots at the widest apertures possible with all of his lenses (he is a Medium Format shooter). Always! I guess he considers shallow DOF of MF an advantage :smile:.

    Check out Greg Finck - http://www.gregfinck.com/blog/ - another "wedding photographer of the 2013" who shoots Medium Format at wide apertures.

    Anne Almasy is often called one of the best contemporary wedding photographers (http://annealmasy.com/), though as I understand she shoots digital FF and then simply post process her images to have that film look. She also have shallow DOF style.

    I also like the way Jen Huang handles her MF camera - http://www.jenhuangblog.com/

    There are many more photographers who have this particular look in their work (not only weddings) - ultra shallow DOF, filmish colors (since most of them shoot film anyway :smile:) , very unperfect and old school rendering (usually with very harsh bokeh and not perfect sharpness), etc. Of course many of them are talanted photographers in the first turn and I am sure they'd have nice work with any format (due to the very nice compositions, emotions, subjects, etc), but this particular shallow DOF trait brings something special to their work (which is often called as "fine art photography"). What do you think about it? Why Medium Format ultra shallow shooters are becoming so popular? Sometimes I even think that my ultra-sharp and "flat" portrait produced by Oly45mm wide open looks less natural that the ultra shallow DOF and less perfect image that comes out of FF or even MF camera. Do you also find shallow DOF pictures aesthetically appealing to you?

    Disclaimer. I am not trolling anyone or saying that mu43 is a bad system. I love mu43 and will keep my OM-D even when I get a FF camera since it is so good for traveling and family photography. Nevertheless I consider the narrow DOF of the system a disadvantage which I decided to live with. This is also not another "can mu43 compete with FF" thread. This is not about system at all. I just wanted to share some samples of shallow DOF fine art photography and hear what others think about it.
  2. Amin Sabet

    Amin Sabet Administrator

    Apr 10, 2009
    Boston, MA (USA)
    As well meaning as you may have been with this topic, I've read this book before, and it always goes the same way: sideways.

    I look at the links you provided and see a lot of images that could have been made with MFT gear like the PL25, O45, O75, and others, while there are also many images there that could not have been made with even our fastest gear (Noktons, etc). The bottom line is that art is subjective, and if a particular person wants more shallow DOF than they can get with MFT, then MFT is not the best system for that person.
  3. Dramaturg

    Dramaturg Mu-43 Top Veteran

    Jun 7, 2013
    Even though art is subjective there are certain trends, which explains why this or that style (in our case ultra shallow MF DOF) is popular. I can see that ultra shallow MF DOF photography is getting popular in the States, which is proven by the number of MF photographers ending up in the TOP 10 lists of the year. Also, as I said, I didn't mean it to be "this or that gear" post. I am more interested in the phylosophy of shallow DOF photography, etc.
  4. fransglans

    fransglans Mu-43 All-Pro

    Jun 12, 2012
    I think josevilla used enough amount of shallow dof in his photos. I like it when the background is still there and not an total bokeh mess. There's soo much good portraits out there who falls flat and uninspiring to the ground when all I see is a pretty face..

    Sent from my GT-I9300 using Mu-43 mobile app
  5. lightmonkey

    lightmonkey Mu-43 Veteran

    Dec 22, 2013
    [1] I don't think shooting open with strong background compression is "becoming ... popular" at all. When I read photo mags 20 years ago while shooting on a Pentax K1000, they had already espoused both effects, and I'm sure that 'style' or look was in well before I was born

    [2] Unless staring at something <6 inches from one's face, that of look is not "natural" at all. I "see" more like 50mm/f8 on 35mm camera

    [3] It can be. But it doesn't , by itself, make or break a photo
  6. tomO2013

    tomO2013 Mu-43 Top Veteran Subscribing Member

    Oct 28, 2013
    It's an interesting topic and one that has been beaten to death!

    I shoot TriX400 on Medium format Rollie and also on a small format Nikon F. The benefit of shooting the Rollie is if I want bigger prints with smoother tonal transitions. Other than that there is not a huge difference. That's with film though.
    Digital is not even so hard and fast these days. Digital has bent many of the rules that we used to assume from film. We have m43 sensors that have the same number of megapixels as small format sensors such as Nikon DF which will print as large. We have sensors with and without AA filters - so some lower megapixel sensors will resolve more than their megapixel count would suggest. Then we have post processing software like BlowUp which utilise fractals to allow us to enlarge greater than we may have originally thought possible. In terms of tonality, we have post processing applications that can 'fill in the blanks' between tones to gives us smoother tonal transitions.

    I looked at Jose Villa's blog and it is immensely impressive. I swapped then to Neil Buchanan Grants blog http://buchangrant.4ormat.com/ (international travel photographer of the year least year) and I personally prefer his work both technically and aesthetically to those that you linked to. Believe me he has shots in there too where he has blurred the crap out of the background as well! The fact that he shoots primarily with m43 is irrelevant. I feel that a good photographer will produce works of art irrespective of sensor size.

    There are so many facets that determine shallow DOF - sensor size is the just one small part of an equation that can be juggled by the photographer. One of the unique strengths of the m43 system that allows wafer thin DOF is the extremely close minimum focus distance that many lenses allow - many of which are practically macro in nature! Achieving wafer thin DOF is not any harder on m43 than small format or medium format; it is just accomplished differently. When we step away from equivalency between systems and stop looking at for example the 25mm 1.4 as 'equivalent' to a 50mm Nikon in 35mm speak we free ourselves to use our equipment to it's strengths and achieve equally beautiful and creative shots. My point is that you should shoot m43 with a m43 mindset and not with a small format, medium format, APS-C mindset etc..
    In terms of lens optics, we have some of the best lenses available for any system. We have many affordable (and some expensive lenses) that are razor sharp across the frame with lots of contrast / micro contrast from wide open and super close focus distances. Oly 45, Oly 12-40, Pan 12-35, Pan 35-100, PL25, Pan20 1.7, Oly 75, Nocticron spring to mind.

    I have never needed any shallower DOF from m43 in my usage and I still have many images that I have had to delete because I got one eye in focus and blurred the hell out of the other with the Oly45 or Oly 75.
    Going with the addage 'it is easier to tone something down than to big it up' - it is easier to add shallow depth of field than it is is to add sharpness to an out of focus area. Modern post processing techniques and applications mean that the final rendered output is no longer merely dependent on your skill as a photographer but also your skill in development and print.If you still crave more shallow DOF (for images that you have already taken) then check out Bokeh2, Topaz InFocus etc... ;)  Of course if you need to print something to billboard size some people will like the pixel peeping advantages of a 50mp hassleblad. Then again, Lisandra had no problem making a huge banner print from her m43 kit ;)  Most of the time you are not viewing these things bang up close. This really is an argument that goes around in circles :) 

    BTW for what it's worth - I follow you on flickr and your shots are really beautiful. I love your 'in motion' shots from the train station. Perhaps you are too critical of your own work. There is nothing flat at all about your images. Many of them are very beautiful. Jose might even learn a thing or two from you about having a sharp image that isn't over-sharpened! ;) 
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  7. tjdean01

    tjdean01 Mu-43 Top Veteran

    Feb 20, 2013
    I like to have the capability to use shallow DOF when I want to. I could buy better gear but I don't want to devote $1000s to a hobby. I shoot m4/3s with many adapted lenses and do what I can do with those (see signature). 1) I really shouldn't spend the money for a Sony A7s (the cheapest full-frame option available considering I can use lenses I already own) so 2) I decided to load up some old film cameras that, again, use the lenses I already own. 3) I thought of buying a medium format film camera for more background separation and be able to shoot at f2.8 but they're so big and film really isn't fun for me as I can't see what I've just done until weeks later. 4) APS-C mirrorless would give me what, 30% more background blur? But then again, the lenses are a lot more money unless if I use the adapted ones I already have, but that would mean odd crop factor confusion. 5) I thought about buying something like the Minolta 58/1.2 lens but stopped when I realized it gives poor results wide open. Finally, 6) speed-boosting. But, they don't make one for Konica or Pentax, and do I really want to spend $400 on something that systematically degrades image quality?

    So, I've pretty much decided to stick with m4/3s where I can have a 20/1.7 pancake on a tiny body and can get a wonderful 45/1.8 for $300 and dream about the 75. But, for the bokeh, I've realized that even better than the 75 is 7) the Voigtlander 42/0.95. Big and heavy? Yes. Better bokeh than FF? No, a Sony A7s with a 50/1.7 lens shot at f2.2 (where the lens is sharp) would beat the Voigtlander's bokeh. But I just think that will be best for me, because I do want shallow DOF, but I don't want to spend $1000s or carry something big and heavy to get it.
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  8. tomO2013

    tomO2013 Mu-43 Top Veteran Subscribing Member

    Oct 28, 2013
    Just my 0.02 on your commentary. Bokeh is not synonymous with shallow DOF - it is an a word that is largely used to describe the quality of the out of focus areas and not the actual depth of field itself. If we want more 'blur' / compression we can use post processing for that with a nice gausian blur in photoshop!
    By that I mean it is perfectly reasonable for a lens with a wider DOF on m43, APS-C to have better/superior bokeh to a shallower DOF lens on a larger format such as small format A7s, A7r etc... For example comparing the the Canon 85 1.8 and the Nocticron, the quality of the out of focus areas and the quality of the blur is subjectively superior (to my eyes anyway) and the majority of reviewers on the Nocticron. I own both of the lenses that I mentioned so I feel that I am being objective here :) .
    As for the Voigtlander 0.95, it would render with a DOF equivalent to a fast full frame 1.8 lens at 85mm, not a 2.2 lens. Again I don't agree that it would be worse than the Canon - in fact a great many small format lenses (even the Canon 85 1.8 glass) tends to need to be stopped down from wide open. Many of these lenses are soft, lack contrast and heavily vignette across the frame wide open. The theoretical vs practical usage actually means that the voigtlander probably has a real world advantage over the Canon at 1.8 where the canon would need to be stopped down to F2 minimum or F2.2-F2.4 for better sharpness and contrast. The voigtlander while softer wide open, still has contrast and sharpness in the centre and the character of an older film lenses which many people (myself included) love.
    As a format, m43 is not the poor mans equivalent of small format. It is a professional grade system in and of itself equally capable of achieving the same artistic results with very few limitations these days. You should check out what Damian McGillicuddy and Neil Buchanan Grant have managed to achieve with the Oly 45 - you want big subject isolation and quality bokeh with a creamy out of focus background.. you got it sir, they just step a little closer to their subjects with this lens and the Oly 75 ;) !

  9. D MATIC

    D MATIC Mu-43 Regular

    Jul 18, 2012
    The photography links you mention are mostly "wedding" which I believe goes hand in hand with shallow dof. What better way to convey a dreamy warm lovely bride photograph then with a nice blurry out of focus background. Every wedding photographer is using shallow dof. If they were shooting products, architecture, landscapes, wildlife, it would be a different story.

    Don't get me wrong I love shallow dof. My beef with ultra shallow dof is the over obsession with it. When I look at a portrait where the eye is in focus, but the nose mouth and ears are soft, and the background is so blown out that it looks like its been green screened, I am no longer looking at the "photograph". I am now looking at technical aspects of the photo. You lose the whole sense and purpose of the photo. (Like I said, I like shallow dof and I am guilty of doing the very same thing with the O75mm) Fine art photography is a bit different and is a wide spectrum. There are so many artists doing different things that shallow dof is just one aspect of it all. Perhaps the bigger sensor is what they need, or maybe a pin hole camera look, or maybe ultra sharpness, or maybe extensive post processing etc. It is a just a tool they are using to create the art. I never understand why people obsess over particular colors and the "film" look, when everything with enough time and skill can be produced via post process aka the modern darkroom, even that "film" look.

    I have a theory, and maybe shallow dof is only perceived to be popular now because of the sheer number of people with cameras. During the days of shooting film, photography was expensive and time consuming, all the supplies you had to buy and not knowing how the photos came out till it was developed. Nowadays, anyone can buy a dslr and all of a sudden they are a photographer. There is the internet where you can learn as much as you want to to develop yourself even before you buy a camera. You have a whole generation of people brought up on the digital camera and everyone is trying to differentiate themselves from each other.

    One system does not fit all. You wear shoes for formal occasions but you wear sneakers to play sports. If you want that ultra super shallow dof, then FF or larger will do. You can get shallow dof with m43 tho, it's not like it's impossible to get out of focus backgrounds and bokeh balls. It's definitely possible. M43 advantage is size and shines with modest expectations. Just my thoughts.
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  10. Art

    Art Mu-43 All-Pro

    Mar 13, 2011
    San Francisco, CA
    The advantage of m43 is weight and size of the system. Wedding photographers are paid to do the job with best possible equipment. Wide angle shallow dof is a short coming of m43 but is very nice when used for wedding shots. Of course, creativity/content is king. But why not have both: best equipment plus content if you're paying for it. I know that for my wedding I will be carefully selecting the right photographer.

    Wedding photographers usually work in pairs with two/three camera bodies. M43 is perfectly suitable as one of the bodies and especially for video. I wouldn't be surprised if m43 will become gold standard for wedding videography.
  11. Dramaturg

    Dramaturg Mu-43 Top Veteran

    Jun 7, 2013
    Thank you all for your contributions. Indeed, I think shallow DOF is something expected by the contemporary wedding-photography standards. However, I follow many photographer who use shallow DOF in other styles (creative photography, surreal photoraphy, etc). Just give you a few examples:

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/105572487@N03/ - Irina shooting mostly atmospheric portraits. I really like how she uses shallow DOF at full body shots.
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/75571860@N06/ - Elena shoots FF camera with very fast glass. See her results.
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/oprisco/ - Oleg is shooting MF film camera.

    And so on. I completely agree that there is aesthetics in narrow DOF photography, where you pay much more attention to composition, colors, etc. No doubts about that. But there is a certain aesthetics in those shallow DOF pictures as well. I don't know, something that keeps catching our eyes :) .
  12. GFFPhoto

    GFFPhoto Mu-43 All-Pro

    Feb 24, 2013
    I like both of these, but for me their use of DoF is just one aspect of the work, and often secondary to the other qualities that really hook me. They both use DoF as a technique in their arsenal, but it's not the first thing I think of when I look at their photos. When I look at Elena's shots, her use of light stands out much more than her use of DoF.

    Sent from my iPad using Mu-43 mobile app
  13. Dramaturg

    Dramaturg Mu-43 Top Veteran

    Jun 7, 2013
    Agree! They all work hard on the making the atmosphere for the shot, costumes, make-up, composition, lighting, etc. Though do you think those shots would look as nice with a narrow DOF of mu43? Don't stating anything just wondering ...
  14. GFFPhoto

    GFFPhoto Mu-43 All-Pro

    Feb 24, 2013
    I think many of them would still look great with a bit less DoF. It's not like m43 has the DoF of an iPhone. But... an artist should use whatever tools they feel will help them best realize their vision.

    But I also think these sorts of discussions are kind of pointless. I don't think you can look at a work of art after its created and say it would look better or worse if it were somehow different. It is what it is, and it stands on its own merits. I don't look at a Picasso and say "It would be better with more curved lines" or "Picasso colors kind of suck, everyone knows Matisse colors are better". Its disrespectful to their artistic vision to even approach it this way. Once its done it stands on its own merits. You can judge a craftsman on the technical quality of his work, but you judge an artist on his vision and his ability to actualize that vision. I guess we each need to decide what we are doing in our photography, if we aspire to master the craft, or to create art. If your vision (or craft) calls for medium format DoF, or even large format DoF, then thats what you need to be using.
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