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Bokeh on the Cheap and Other Photographic/Videographic Adventures - Printable Version

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Bokeh on the Cheap and Other Photographic/Videographic Adventures - Samulis - 02-16-2022

I figured it might be fun to open a topic on photography/videography, in particular the budget/scrappy variety. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts, stories, suggestions, feedback, etc.!

A few years ago, my great uncle passed away. He was at one time a photographer and left a collection of photographic equipment, mostly Nikon/Nikkor cameras and lenses from the 60's and 70's, behind. Somewhat unsurprisingly, nothing is worth that much, the most maybe a few hundred dollars, some even under $100, and certainly not the thousands of dollars that modern professional lenses go for.

Photography (and moreso videography) has always interested me, so rather than see the lenses and such thrown away, I took them and started trying to learn. Blush

My first camera was a budget Nikon DSLR. It took a long time to figure out things like exposure and focus, and the camera was pretty limited even for the time. However, it did force me to learn the basic relationship between ISO (sensitivity), Aperture, and Exposure (time).

Photography is a balance between those three aspects to get a good exposure. If any one is too high or too low, the exposure will be too bright or too dark. Too high of an ISO will cause grain, whereas too long of an exposure time may cause smearing due to shake unless on a tripod. The lens itself dictates the maximum and minimum aperture. It reminds me a lot of sampling, where we have to add together pitches, velocities, and articulations or round robins to get a good instrument. Each plays a role in the performance and quality of the final product.

The big thing I learned early on was how "big glass" and "big sensors" allow for much nicer looking out-of-focus areas than, say a smartphone camera. Distant light sources appear as balls or other shapes, called bokeh (most seem to suggest one should pronounce the word like the English term 'bouquet', i.e. 'Boh-kay'), and the rest of the image becomes smoothed the further it is from the plane of focus. The more open the aperture, the larger the bokeh 'balls' appear, and the 'shallower' the depth of field becomes. Similarly, the closer the subject is to the camera relative to the background, the more exaggerated the separation and bokeh become. Lastly, using a larger lens (higher size in mm = 'tighter' image) increases the separation and bokeh as well, so, for example, generally an 85mm will give more separation of the subject from the background than, say, a 20mm. Even objects 10-15 feet behind the subject can be smoothed into a rich blur with a 135mm!

Different lenses also allow you to 'compress' the distance between the background and foreground, as they grow larger. Long lenses like telephotos (above 100mm or so) also allow you to squish down the distance between the background and foreground; at an extreme, if you had something crazy (and totally not affordable) like a 2000mm lens, you can actually start to approach an isometric perspective!

I used to play with 'virtual' lenses back when I did 3D work around 2009-2012, so this was somewhat familiar to me, although there we could specify the depth of field manually.  Cool

The second thing I learned is that even very old lenses like these can perform very well, especially when 'stopped down', or shot using a slightly smaller aperture than their maximum. In general, lenses tend to perform their sharpest around 2-4 stops closed from maximum ('full open'), although newer lenses perform decently even at just one stop down and sometimes even when fully open.

By 'perform well', here's an example shot with the 35mm f/1.4 at both f/1.4 and f/2.0, a really awesome lens which seems to have been my great uncle's favorite, from the wear:
[attachment=132]
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Even at a distance, you can see how many things end up "soft" at "full open". It actually reminds me of the appearance of some old TV shows or movies from the 60's and 70's. By f/2.0 though, it is behaving much more nicely and would probably pass at least as a modern 'kit' lens which comes with a camera.

Eventually I ended up going mirrorless with a Sony a6500 and now a7SII (since I primarily do video now). The advantage of mirrorless is you see EXACTLY what you are photographing/filming electronically on the screen or in the viewfinder; no test shots, no tweaking, WYSIWYG. It also gets around the problem that these older lenses are designed to work with mechanical cameras and aren't directly compatible with modern Nikons unless adapted (which these are not). Overall, mirrorless is definitely the way to go in my opinion; way less hassle, plus the cameras are smaller and lighter too.

The a7SII is particularly nice for video nowadays as it shoots 4K/30p at very decent quality and only costs $1k used (from places like Adorama in NYC), due to its successor, the eye-watering $3.5k a7SIII, being available. The a6500 is even cheaper now used, but it is the smaller APS-C sensor size so everything will be 'zoomed' in about 30%. For general use, something like an a7II or whatnot might be a better option. Regardless the a7SII and original a7S was and is still used by many youtubers as well as professional videographers and news organizations around the world.

Honestly with how good cameras have gotten now, there are lots of great older/used mirrorless options available now for under $1k for anyone looking for a professional experience, and vintage lenses are surprisingly affordable. The sensors are still surprisingly improving quite a bit with each generation, but even older digital cameras can perform very well. Just by eye, I'd say something like the a7SII looks as sharp and clean as films and TV shot on digital about a decade ago. That kind of price drop is insane compared to the music industry, where the "industry leading" stuff just floats around out of reach in the $2,000+ range seemingly forever. Imagine if U47's cost $200 today!

With a simple 'dumb' adapter, I can use the cheap but surprisingly decent vintage Nikkor lenses directly on the Sony alpha cameras. The colors sometimes need a little tweaking as some of the coatings seem to have slightly discolored in some of the lenses, but the results are still remarkable.

One good source I found for reviews/information on old lenses, and not just for Nikon, is a fellow named Ken Rockwell. His site is a bit of a trip to a time when the internet had a different vibe, but the information is great and plentiful:
https://www.kenrockwell.com/

A friend of mine is into Canon lenses and cameras and has found a lot of great info on there to help him as well.

The highlight lens for me is the 85mm f/1.8. It is perfect for portraiture, and when stopped down slightly gives these characteristic hexagonal bokeh (at full open bokeh is round):
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Here is one of my favorite photos I've ever taken on the 85mm, full open at f/1.8:  Big Grin
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Rockwell claims this 85mm f/1.8 is Nikon's "worst" 85mm (albeit still very good) and yet it can still produce some pretty wildly gorgeous images, even fully open! Rockwell thinks you can get one for as low as $200 USD or so, which seems to me to be a bargain. Again, imagine if you could get such a beautiful, rich sounding microphone for just $200! Even the cheapest 'decent' ribbon mic I have found starts at $400...

It makes it seem relatively silly that some smart phones costing well over $1k take way worse photos than a lens from the 1970's adapted onto some few-years-old camera. Obviously all lenses and cameras now are wildly superior to what we were dealing with 20 years ago, a smartphone is way more compact and portable than this giant honking thing, and in all honesty, you can get great photos with literally anything, even early digital cameras like that Mavica. However the results from these old lenses are just really remarkable and beautiful in a way I can't really describe.

Apparently I read somewhere that Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket was shot partially with Nikon (Nikkor) lenses, as they were the primary lenses used by war photographers and he wanted to capture that feeling. Whether or not that's true, it fits I guess, and the lenses are very sharp even today on digital equipment (when used appropriately).

Probably the most 'worthless' lens is the 80-200mm f/4.5 zoom. It is 100% manual like the other lenses, so no one really wants it, and you can't 'lock' the zoom in place (it slides with gravity if you tilt the camera too much!), but, it produces surprisingly impressive photos and costs under $100:
https://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/80-200mm-f45-n.htm

By the way, there is a small easter egg on the Versilian Studios website: on the home page, one of the photos was taken with a Sony Mavica floppy disk camera from the early 2000's! I doubt anyone really notices, as it's rather small. So, just like in music, it is all about how you use your tools, not necessarily what the tools are. Most of the other photos on the VS website and manuals were shot either with my phone or with one of these vintage lenses.

(sorry for the double-post, ran out of attachments but wanted to share a few more little things!)

The main reason I shoot in 4K is that, even when downscaled to 1080p, it is remarkably sharp. The other reason is that it's actually possible to crop into the shot up to 2x and still have 1080p resolution. This is very useful for example for a situation where you only have stationary cameras but want to "zoom" in on a performer or such. Sometimes also a very gentle zoom of 5-10% during the course of a shot adds to the sense of direction.

Here's an example from a videography project I did for a friend (I'm actually playing trombone on the right, in the center; all the cameras and mics are 100% unmanned!):




Because it's shot in 4K, I can crop in on the Left, Right, or Center camera to get sections or soloists without significant loss of quality. One can even digitally pan and zoom around at the same time! My favorite sequence starts around 16:00, as it slowly zooms in on the tenor, then has a shot panning across the choir. Gets me right in the feels every time!

This was actually a technique I learned about a few years ago, when it was described on the director's commentary, I believe either for S1 of Chuck or S1 of Eureka. I can't remember which, but they discussed how useful it was with digital to be able to crop and recompose shots in post, even with the lower resolution cameras of the day (I think they were 1440p or similar?). You can do this process even with smartphone video, but the digital noise, noise reduction, and quality of the lens limits how far you can go before it starts getting ugly.

There are other benefits; for example, in this case I couldn't remember the name of the piece or composer from a gig, but I was able to simply zoom in and take a look at the pianist's music!
[attachment=137]
[attachment=138]

Speaking of smartphones, you really have to hand it to modern manufacturers for how sharp the lenses manage to be. Here's another project where I only had two cameras at the time; I used an older iPad, which I purchased primarily for reading sheet music, with a 3rd party camera app which allows 4K/24fps recording, as the camera on the piano! Aside from it having basically no depth of field and appearing somewhat noisier, a little color grading was all it took to integrate into the other shots.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFT_qkuXSlQ&list=PLLdL4zn_x-4iKs4NE-x7uEtA7gNr91tPm&index=4
[[ah, only one video allowed per post too]]

The other cameras are a 35mm covering the room, and the aforementioned 85mm at f/2 on the trombonist (you can just about make out the hexagonal bokeh on the trumpet bells, which is part of why I love recording in this space).


RE: Bokeh on the Cheap and Other Photographic/Videographic Adventures - Mattias Westlund - 02-18-2022

Wow, this is going to take more than a few reads (and some experimentation) before I have anything useful to comment in regards to the topic at hand. I'm reading it thinking "right, that's cool!" but at the same time, a lot of it goes WAY above my head.

Thing is, I've never owned a proper camera. Or more correctly, I've never owned a proper camera that puts all these options at my fingertips (and even if I had, it wouldn't have helped me much because I know almost nothing about the fundamentals and inner workings of the technology itself). Like everyone else I got into taking pictures with cell phones/smart phones. I've owned a few digital compact cameras, just point-and-shoot dealies, but when smart phones became a thing and kept getting better and better, these cameras just ended up in a drawer somewhere. Why lug around a camera when my phone can do an equal or better job of it?

In recent years, however, I've found that phone cameras are holding me back somewhat. Even though the camera in my Huawei P30 is probably the best smart phone camera I've ever used. I see people doing things I can't do with my smart phone, and I want in on that. I want to learn, for the sake of shooting better pictures, and better videos.

To this end I recently got myself a Sony NEX-5 and a Canon Legria HF R88 camcorder. I know, the Sony is an ageing camera but it was reasonably priced and I'm not spending hundreds of bucks on equipment for hobbyist purposes. Also got myself a softbox and a couple of cheap lenses for the Canon. Right now I'm waiting for the dreary Swedish winter to end so I can go outside and take pictures and shoot some video in actual color, and maybe learn some stuff as well Smile


RE: Bokeh on the Cheap and Other Photographic/Videographic Adventures - Samulis - 02-19-2022

(02-18-2022, 11:20 PM)Mattias Westlund Wrote: Wow, this is going to take more than a few reads (and some experimentation) before I have anything useful to comment in regards to the topic at hand. I'm reading it thinking "right, that's cool!" but at the same time, a lot of it goes WAY above my head.

Thing is, I've never owned a proper camera. Or more correctly, I've never owned a proper camera that puts all these options at my fingertips (and even if I had, it wouldn't have helped me much because I know almost nothing about the fundamentals and inner workings of the technology itself). Like everyone else I got into taking pictures with cell phones/smart phones. I've owned a few digital compact cameras, just point-and-shoot dealies, but when smart phones became a thing and kept getting better and better, these cameras just ended up in a drawer somewhere. Why lug around a camera when my phone can do an equal or better job of it?

In recent years, however, I've found that phone cameras are holding me back somewhat. Even though the camera in my Huawei P30 is probably the best smart phone camera I've ever used. I see people doing things I can't do with my smart phone, and I want in on that. I want to learn, for the sake of shooting better pictures, and better videos.

To this end I recently got myself a Sony NEX-5 and a Canon Legria HF R88 camcorder. I know, the Sony is an ageing camera but it was reasonably priced and I'm not spending hundreds of bucks on equipment for hobbyist purposes. Also got myself a softbox and a couple of cheap lenses for the Canon. Right now I'm waiting for the dreary Swedish winter to end so I can go outside and take pictures and shoot some video in actual color, and maybe learn some stuff as well Smile

Mattias, that was exactly where I was just 4 years ago. Just like everything music, the only way to really learn is to try and mess up a bunch. If I could share all those failures with you, well, I doubt you would be impressed. Shy

I think the gear you got is perfect. As I said, nothing special required, just trial and error until you get a feel for angles that look good or bad. Sometimes the cheaper the stuff is, the more artistic possibilities are presented to you, just like the limitations of virtual instruments. Plus, cheap lenses have gotten really good, just like even cheap mics are pretty good these days.

For several years I actually used a camcorder as my photo camera because I didn't have anything else, and I was still able to get a few decent images which I still like today.

Please, by all means share what photos you are able to take! Don't hold yourself to very high expectations, just enjoy it for what it is. Besides, my very first photo with a "real" camera was basically a black square (way under-exposed lol), so it doesn't take much to beat that.  Blush

Probably the biggest 'hack' to try is just to create a lot of distance between your subject and the background. Have the subject as close as you can, with the background as far as you can. Set the aperture to a low value (below 5 if you can) and you will get a nice blurred background with almost any lens.


RE: Bokeh on the Cheap and Other Photographic/Videographic Adventures - Mattias Westlund - 02-27-2022

We had a sunny and very springlike (though windy) day today, so I took the opportunity to go down to the marina close to where we live and take some pictures with the NEX-5. Coldn't really see what I was doing because of the strong sunlight, but here's a few shots.

[Image: DSC01248.JPG]

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Also ran across a seal when I was there! Sadly it slipped down into the water before I had a chance to take a picture of it. A very rare encounter as I don't think seals normally live here.


RE: Bokeh on the Cheap and Other Photographic/Videographic Adventures - Samulis - 02-28-2022

(02-27-2022, 03:09 PM)Mattias Westlund Wrote: We had a sunny and very springlike (though windy) day today, so I took the opportunity to go down to the marina close to where we live and take some pictures with the NEX-5. Coldn't really see what I was doing because of the strong sunlight, but here's a few shots.

Also ran across a seal when I was there! Sadly it slipped down into the water before I had a chance to take a picture of it. A very rare encounter as I don't think seals normally live here.

Hey Mattias, those are some very nice pictures honestly!  Cool

I especially like the one of the orange buoy; almost looks like a fancy ray-tracing demo with the reflection of the color off the snow.

Overall I think the colors, contrast, and lighting are great; even if you are just using full auto, that can be hard to do in snowy situations! You also clearly have a good eye for composition; it looks like you really enjoyed taking the photos.

It seems the NEX-5 takes the Sony E-mount lenses, same as mine, so you could use all kinds of lenses on this. I was surprised to see it still has plenty of resolution and can shoot 1080p video as well. Win-win!

I don't think the NEX-5 has a viewfinder (little thing you put your eye up to), just a screen, right? That's usually the only way to go in bright situations. Though, you might find a menu option to turn up screen brightness. There are also some (not very expensive) products you can clip onto certain camera screens which turn them into viewfinders. I think they are called in English "Loupes":
[Image: H32MB.jpg]

We also had unusually warm weather the other day, and I filmed and took some photographs in the local park. There was a lone swan hanging out with a bunch of geese at one end of the reservoir.
https://assets.versilstudios.com/media/2452zz0jl4neirm7jisx

[attachment=149]
[attachment=150]
[attachment=151]

Not much snow at the time, but there was some very pretty ice around.
[attachment=152]

I filmed some of the ice as well; wish I could have recorded it, as it made a very interesting "brittle" sound I can't quite describe, like a thousand shards of glass being rolled around in an ocean drum.
https://assets.versilstudios.com/media/egonrsmthwde7a9okp56


RE: Bokeh on the Cheap and Other Photographic/Videographic Adventures - Mattias Westlund - 03-03-2022

(02-28-2022, 07:31 AM)Samulis Wrote: Hey Mattias, those are some very nice pictures honestly!  Cool

Thank you!

(02-28-2022, 07:31 AM)Samulis Wrote: Overall I think the colors, contrast, and lighting are great; even if you are just using full auto, that can be hard to do in snowy situations! You also clearly have a good eye for composition; it looks like you really enjoyed taking the photos.

I used full auto for some of the pics, and HDR mode for the others. The buoy might have been HDR. The photo of the red and white cranes across the bay was taken at max zoom, and it's awesome being able to do things that are impossible with a smart phone Smile

(02-28-2022, 07:31 AM)Samulis Wrote: It seems the NEX-5 takes the Sony E-mount lenses, same as mine, so you could use all kinds of lenses on this. I was surprised to see it still has plenty of resolution and can shoot 1080p video as well. Win-win!

I'm aware that it takes a variety of lenses, and I often see Sony lenses for sale on FB marketplace and such. The exact specifications aren't always listed though, and without knowing a 100% that they will work I have been hesitant to buy any. As for video, it does 1080i, not 1080p, and the quality is ever so slightly worse than my Canon camcorder. Still, video is not what I got it for. It'd do in a pinch for B-roll though!

(02-28-2022, 07:31 AM)Samulis Wrote: I don't think the NEX-5 has a viewfinder (little thing you put your eye up to), just a screen, right? That's usually the only way to go in bright situations. Though, you might find a menu option to turn up screen brightness. There are also some (not very expensive) products you can clip onto certain camera screens which turn them into viewfinders. I think they are called in English "Loupes":

It doesn't have a viewfinder, no, and on a day like this it would certainly have come in handy. Turning up the brightness a lot makes the camera eat through the battery even faster. I do have a secondary battery, but I didn't have it with me. What was intended to be be a 20 minute stroll turned into a two hour outing Big Grin

(02-28-2022, 07:31 AM)Samulis Wrote: We also had unusually warm weather the other day, and I filmed and took some photographs in the local park. There was a lone swan hanging out with a bunch of geese at one end of the reservoir.

Wonderful pictures! Especially love the one with the swan and the geese.

(02-28-2022, 07:31 AM)Samulis Wrote: I filmed some of the ice as well; wish I could have recorded it, as it made a very interesting "brittle" sound I can't quite describe, like a thousand shards of glass being rolled around in an ocean drum.

Wow, I don't think I've ever seen slushy ice like that. Here you just get the big sheet of ice that  slowly melts, turning it into smaller drowning patches, and then it's all gone.


RE: Bokeh on the Cheap and Other Photographic/Videographic Adventures - Samulis - 03-04-2022

(03-03-2022, 10:27 PM)Mattias Westlund Wrote: I used full auto for some of the pics, and HDR mode for the others. The buoy might have been HDR. The photo of the red and white cranes across the bay was taken at max zoom, and it's awesome being able to do things that are impossible with a smart phone Smile

Wow, that's really impressive! I had no idea. That crane shot looks remarkably good.

(03-03-2022, 10:27 PM)Mattias Westlund Wrote: I'm aware that it takes a variety of lenses, and I often see Sony lenses for sale on FB marketplace and such. The exact specifications aren't always listed though, and without knowing a 100% that they will work I have been hesitant to buy any. As for video, it does 1080i, not 1080p, and the quality is ever so slightly worse than my Canon camcorder. Still, video is not what I got it for. It'd do in a pinch for B-roll though!

I think anything 'E-Mount' is safe. Your camera is APS-C sized sensor I believe, so worst case, it will just 'zoom in' more than the lens says on it. APS-C is something like 30% smaller than Full Frame, so something like 50mm becomes 85mm, 85mm becomes more like 135mm, etc. The problem is actually worse for people with Full Frame sensors, because there are lenses designed for APS-C, and if used on a full-frame sensor, they will have very bad problems at the edges of the lens.

There are also lenses designed for 'Micro 4/3rds'/'Micro four-thirds', but these are not found in the Sony E line I believe because Sony does not make a micro 4/3rds camera. Micro 4/3rds is even smaller sensor than APS-C.

Overall the differences aren't really that much, mostly dealing with the density of the individual receptors on the sensor and how they process the results. In general, people might say full frame sensors tend to be less noisy and more detailed than APS-C, which tend to be less noisy and more detailed than micro 4/3rds, which tend to be less noisy and more detailed than 1" sensor point-and-shoot cameras, which tend to be less noisy and more detailed than phone camera sensors, on and on, but it is hard to say for certain as every brand has different sensors and image processing and in all honesty, with Micro 4/3rds and above, it's hard to have a truly bad camera nowadays. APS-C is a fantastic size and gives great results, especially compared to a phone camera, which it is several levels above in sensor size.

You can buy adapters too, which let you put other types of lenses on the E-Mount. I use a (non-optical) Nikon F to Sony E adapter which lets me use the vintage Nikon lenses on the Sony camera bodies. The good adapters (I use 'Metabones') cost quite a bit though, I think over $100, since they have to be very carefully dimensioned to keep the focus correct, but you can get cheaper ones just to play around with I think. There are lots of weird old lenses out there which can be had for very little, as well as modern 'kit' lenses which sell for very little too. It's pretty hard to find a really bad lens unless it has been damaged or has fungus growing in it, but even that can be an artistic tool. Unfortunately it's sort of hard to tell with that unless you buy from a store in person where they might let you try out the lens first, or at least a reputable seller online who discloses the condition accurately.

(03-03-2022, 10:27 PM)Mattias Westlund Wrote: Wonderful pictures! Especially love the one with the swan and the geese.

Wow, I don't think I've ever seen slushy ice like that. Here you just get the big sheet of ice that  slowly melts, turning it into smaller drowning patches, and then it's all gone.

It was a very weird day; weeks of near or below 0 C, but a single day where it passed nearly 20 C and with extreme winds! The ice was being blown around and broken up, with the sun perhaps causing a lot of cracking and such.