Is focus breathing the new bokeh? The new obsession for us photographers?

Bokeh
(Image credit: Future)

When I started in photography, the twin obsessions were depth of field and resolution. Not much has changed, you might think, except that these days that depth of field obsession has turned on its head, so that we want as little as possible whereas before we couldn’t get enough.

The resolution obsession mostly affected 35mm film users who were transfixed for a while by Kodak Technical Pan, a film never designed for pictorial photography, or the best developer formulations for acutance and fine grain. (Those in the know, of course, just bought a larger format film camera.)

We didn't obsess about the best film cameras the way we do now about the best mirrorless cameras, the best professional cameras, the best cameras for sport and so on.

But while today’s obsessions are different, the pattern is similar. We all want something we only started wanting when we found out it was just out of reach – or maybe just within reach if you buy the right gear and use it in just the right way. It’s like we only want what we can’t quite have and immediately de-prioritize everything else in photography that matters.

Shallow depth of field is a good modern example. The less there is the better. The blurrier the background, the thinner the plane of sharp focus, the faster the maximum aperture, the more we like it. We don’t know whether our predecessors were right or wrong to want near-to-far sharpness and it’s possible no-one even thinks about it any more.

Shallow depth of field alone is not enough, though – we also want beautiful bokeh, even though only a small proportion of photographers will know what it looks like, or care. This has become the defining characteristic of today’s fast lenses for many reviewers, as if other pictorial styles have been consigned to the history books along with wet plates and field cameras.

But if the bokeh obsession is waning, it’s because of one thing. Focus breathing. A couple of years ago, someone would have had to show you what focus breathing looked like and then convince you it actually mattered; now, it’s gained the kind of critical mass that could at last dislodge our bokeh obsession.

Great – another arcane technicality to distract us from the creative art of photography and filmmaking. 

To go from bokeh obsession to focus breathing is a bit like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. When will we ever be satisfied?

Read more:

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Rod Lawton
Contributor

Rod is an independent photography journalist and editor, and a long-standing Digital Camera World contributor, having previously worked as DCW's Group Reviews editor. Before that he has been technique editor on N-Photo, Head of Testing for the photography division and Camera Channel editor on TechRadar, as well as contributing to many other publications. He has been writing about photography technique, photo editing and digital cameras since they first appeared, and before that began his career writing about film photography. He has used and reviewed practically every interchangeable lens camera launched in the past 20 years, from entry-level DSLRs to medium format cameras, together with lenses, tripods, gimbals, light meters, camera bags and more. Rod has his own camera gear blog at fotovolo.com (opens in new tab) but also writes about photo-editing applications and techniques at lifeafterphotoshop.com (opens in new tab)