Book Review | The Art of Bokeh: A Guide to Using Shallow Depths in Landscape Photography by Christopher O’Donnell
When I started dabbling in serious photography with my first SLR (at the tender age of 11) the first genre I learned to shoot was landscapes. I loved to experiment with composition and elements in the foreground. But I always ratcheted up my f-stop to f11 and above, hoping to get as much of the scene in focus as possible. That was the way to ‘do landscapes’, as far as I knew.
When I started shooting portraits, I discovered the fun of creative aperture. This was especially true once I switched to digital and started playing with Canon’s bokeh-licious portrait lenses (hellooo, beloved 85.1.2!) In fact, it was the combination of creative aperture, diffused color, and the shape of light that really attracted me to portrait photography in my professional career.
As a portrait photographer, I live and breathe ‘bokeh’. My portraits of people are routinely shot with the widest depth of field that my prime lenses allow. I love to focus sharply on a singular element while the rest of the image falls off into the never-never, the colors diffused in creamy bokeh. Delicious!
What’s so exciting about Christopher O’Donnell’s e-book, The Art of Bokeh, is that it takes principles that turned me on to portrait shooting: the isolated sharp focal element surrounded by dreamy watercolor-like bokeh, and applies it to landscape photography. In one sense, it is a primer on the portraiture of landscapes. His idea of using the elements I use routinely in portraiture: color, light and selective focus and shallow depth of field, but in landscapes was a revelation to me, although, like most good ideas, it seems so obvious–after it’s been pointed out.
So, what is ‘bokeh’?
According to O’Donnell,
“Bokeh is not just having a shallow depth of field – or a blurred background/foreground – it is the quality of the blur… an image with good bokeh is one that has a lot of variations in shapes, color, and texture.”
“The quality of your bokeh”, he writes, “… has everything to do with what elements are in your image. The wonderful shapes and patterns created by your lens are made from points of light that are then transformed into bokeh. These points of light could be a variety of things – reflection in the water, light coming through leaves in a tree, or even a bright light reflected on a surface.”
In the book, the author demonstrates the use of light and selective focus to keep one element sharp in the midst of bokeh rich, diffuse colors of the landscape:
“By adjusting my aperture, I was able to isolate the leaves and let the remainder of my image be thrown into a shallow depth of field. If everything was in perfect focus, these otherwise unnoticeable leaves would have been lost in the composition.”
The images in The Art of Bokeh beautifully bear out the instructional principles O’Donnell describes. Even if there were no instructions in the book, it would stand on its merits as a visual feast. It’s a voluptuous collection of images, featuring dreamy, luscious color-scapes contrasted with a sharp focal point of a leaf or a blade of grass in the foreground or crisply in-focus farmhouse in the background.
The author is especially fond of the Canon 24mm f/1.4 lens. He returns to it again and again in his examples. If I have any criticism of the book, it would be that I’d be interested in seeing him include a more thorough survey of other lenses and explore how they change or enhance the effect of his signature style.
But that’s a minor point for a book that has made me personally excited to get out and rediscover my earlier interest in capturing landscapes, this time with the eye of a portraitist. After all, that’s the mark of a great photography book: that it makes your fingers itch to get out there and try some new things yourself.
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No matter how far along readers are in their photographic journey, they will find something to take away from this beautiful electronic volume, which is sold for only $8 on Christopher O’Donnell’s website. For beginners, he articulates what bokeh is and why it’s important. For experienced shooters, he introduces creative concepts that may inspire them to think about planes of focus and landscapes in a new light.
Readers will learn:
• How to create a bokeh-rich landscape
• The best lenses for bokeh
• Finding the best light for bokeh in landscape shooting
• Techniques for using a tripod with this technique
• Selectively choosing focal point in foreground and the background
• Choosing a strong focal point in the background or the foreground
• Creative ideas for finding and using shapes and patterns of light in your landscape photography
• Factors that control your depth of field
• Creating a layered effect in your landscapes using depth of field
Special Offer: When I contacted Chris to let him know I’d be writing this review, he asked me to share a very special offer on right now. For a limited time you can save 25% on The Art of Bokeh by buying it as part of his e-book collection. With the Art of Bokeh being such a worthwhile read, I can only imagine the bundle would multiply the inspiration. Here is more information on this offer.
(Ed Note: Full disclosure, the SLR lounge blog receives an affiliate payment for any e-books purchased as a result of this link, but, as the writer of this review, I don’t. -A.J.)