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I have read on more then one occasion that bokeh or shallow depth of field is trendy currently. I am specifically interested in reasoning why this may be the case.

I understand that bokeh is trendy because it may be overused by sub-par photographers to hide other deficiencies, but that is not what I am asking about. I am wondering about technical or equipment based reasoning behind this phenomenon.

Some theories I have:

  • Is it because bokeh is more common now in professional equipment?
  • Is it less common now in non-professional equipment so it is a better signal of quality?
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@mattdm - I accept the trendiness, and want to know if something historically or technically has happened to account for this. So your second option:) –  dpollitt Jan 18 '12 at 21:51
    
@mattdm - Can you help me with the title? –  dpollitt Jan 18 '12 at 21:51
    
I think it's been trendy for a very, very long time, but the only difference is that now the Internet makes trendiness more obvious. Nevertheless, I suspect that the percentage of people interested/concerned about this hasn't really changed much in many decades. –  John Cavan Jan 19 '12 at 4:12
2  
It's always been around and well-used, but it has kind of become a substitute for background composition in a lot of shots as well, particularly in studio photography and formal portraiture. It's difficult, time-consuming and costly to do a fully-styled front-to-back shot while maintaining the desired emphasis upon and relationship between subjects; it's a lot faster and simpler to suggest and environment than to create one. –  user2719 Jan 20 '12 at 7:50

5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

This is just an opinion, but I see several factors. I don't think it's about professional equipment, but I do think it's about more expensive gear.

Today's point and shoot cameras are very, very capable, and it's hard to point out obvious things that spending more money will get you. So, when your friend asks what your new $700 DSLR can do that their half-that compact can't, and they're not too impressed about interchangeable lenses, you say "ahh, it can do this beautiful, creamy background blur; that's what I'm getting for my money". Or maybe you don't say this to your friend; maybe you say it to yourself when justifying spending a month's salary on a full-frame DSLR. (I'm not judging, you understand. I'm pretty solidly in the photo-spending rationalization boat myself!)

Second, it's a pretty easy effect to do. You don't really need special skill or to spend a lot of time or careful effort. You get the right gear and you point it right, and, bam, you've got blur. That's pretty appealing in a trend, because there's not a big educational, skillful, or artistic barrier to entry.

Third, I think digital has spawned golden age of popular photography. There have always been photo enthusiasts, but we're at a whole new level. My grandmother had an SLR, as did my dad. They didn't just point-and-shoot, but they weren't really concerned with making artistic photos; they just wanted nice-looking ones and didn't spend a lot of time (or money) experimenting. Digital means people can experiment more, getting instant results and with reduced per-attempt costs. That's not a reason for this in specific, but it's a reason that something that has been a thread in enthusiast, artistic, and professional photography all along is now a big deal.

And finally, sometimes things are just trends. People like a look and copy it.

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Oh, some of the reasons I can come up with to justify buying camera equipment. It's always so entertaining in retrospect. –  Vian Esterhuizen Jan 19 '12 at 5:52

The trends I see in bokeh are:

  1. It has a name associated with it more recently, that is more widely known now, perhap because of the internet enabling communication directly between people. This leads to more discussions, new ideas, refinement of old ideas, and gets more people involved.

  2. People are taking more interested in the expression aspect of bokeh because they are learning more about how technique translates into this expression, instead of just assuming that something out of focus is a technical failing. This would be due to the huge internet community of people with interest in photography.

  3. People can actually see the effects of bokeh instantly, rather than having to wait for processing and printing, and make quick adjustments and reshoot. Viewfinders typically won't show this at all (rangefinders and twinlens) or show it wide open (view cameras and SLRs). This is enabled by digital cameras that show the photo on the LCD screen as soon as it is shot.

  4. Good quality DSLRs in the price range of the average consumer are giving more people (and very often people with good artistic talent) the means to better manipulate it through choices of lens that operate over "wider" (yeah, double meaning pun) ranges.

I have seen photos from over 100 years ago with excellent bokeh. Even then, photographers knew well the art form of using that to direct viewer concentration to the subject.

Bokeh is not "in" professional equipment. It is a characteristic nature of larger and/or longer lenses that usually just "happen to be" in more expensive equipment. It is no more or less common. It is "in" science of imaging. It is realized by putting science to work for art.

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With the introduction of mirrorless cameras, and some large sensor compacts, I guess it can be said that photography is becoming a hobby for everybody.

In the past, a compact is truely a point and shoot, as in everyone just point at something and shoot without much thinking.

Nowadays point and shoot almost certainly comes with PASM modes offering many controllable options that would not be given much attention to 10 years back.

Together with the rise of people's understanding to photography, many are realizing more expensive cameras usually has a more shallow DOF (larger the sensor, higher the price, as most of you would agree).

This generalization of

shallow DOF = expensive gear = sense of a professional photographer

may have lead to people favoring shallow DOF, since they enjoy being seen as a pro photographer with expensive gears, be it full frame body or something like those f/1.2 lenses.

If you go to a book store, you may recognize there is a tonne of "beginning photography" books targeted at newbies, and almost all these books will mention how to achieve shallow DOF.

That is what I think. Just like mobile phones, 20 years ago it used to be an absolute luxury that only made sense to CEO or company executives. Nowadays babies are playing angry bird on the subway.

It is a bit similar with photography, cameras not only need no film now, they are cheaper and more versatile, packed with more advanced modes and functions previously exclusive to professionals. As a result more and more people are aware of the hardwares and their limitations.

Finally, as with anything, expensive and high performing equipments are always chased after.

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Trendy is something people want to mimik and that means it starts as rare. So because most lenses have small apertures and small cameras rarely show boken, then mostly professional images have strong bokeh. So wanting boken is like wanting to show professional results. My small camera even has 'Pro' mode to simulate bokeh by taking out-of-focus photo and putting it together with a focused photo.

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1  
Does it actually say "pro"? That is awesome. –  mattdm Jan 19 '12 at 3:52
    
Yes. There are 3 'pro' modes. 'pro focus' = 'fake bokeh'. –  Zak Jan 19 '12 at 3:57
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What camera is that (if you don't mind sharing)? I'd really like to look up its manual. –  drewbenn Jan 19 '12 at 6:40
    
I would guess an Olympus? Not sure which one. –  dpollitt Jan 19 '12 at 13:23
    
No, Fuji F300 EXR: neocamera.com/camera/fuji/f300exr/review –  Zak Jan 20 '12 at 2:13

I don't know if "trendy" is the right word, but something that background blur (bokeh) allows you to do, is to guide the view of the viewer. In a photograph where everything is "in focus", what do you focus on? On a photograph with background blur, the "object of interest" is more clearly defined, especially if done well.

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