Photos: How Tools Start a Revolution

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36 mins ago10 min read

Photos: How Tools Start a Revolution

Bokeh captured with a DSLR

One of the marquee features of the new iPhone 7 Plus is “portrait mode” and “depth effect” photography. At first glance this might appear as “just a new feature”, perhaps even an over-hyped one. There’s a lot more to it, not in how it works, but in what this says about the evolving nature of how tools create new norms and new forms of expression.

Sometimes we underestimate the impact of something new in a commonly used tool, and as a technologist that can prove to be a fairly fatal mistake. As Thomas Kuhn’s writing teaches us, scientific revolutions come about because of the creation of new tools which enable new ways of thinking, new paradigms. A tool-centric mindset should force us to embrace even small changes in tools because of how that can change the path we are on. I think about this often because of how a tool like a word-processor changed writing, or how presentation graphics changed meetings.

I’m a budding amateur photographer and so was very excited by the idea that the new iPhone camera would have a new lens and that bokeh would be a feature. Super excited. Let me explain why and show some images and then get back to the revolution.


Until a few weeks ago most people did not know the definition of bokeh or even how to pronounce it (bōw-ká, bōw-kāy, or maybe just bōke—all of which work). Phil Schiller explained the new capability of the camera to render bokeh as:

[T]he quality of that background blur, that’s what’s called bokeh and the higher the quality of the bokeh usually, the more advanced and higher quality of the lens and camera system.

Photographers immediately groaned and took the newsgroups to begin to debate this statement. That isn’t new though, because for 10 years photographers have been talking about the inferiority of most phone and consumer cameras because they lack any degree of quality. The debates on camera forums about the new depth-effect and portrait mode were intense and mostly dismissive.

The reason for this is deeply rooted in the physics and technology of capturing images through a lens (whether to film or digital). You can read about all of this in wikipedia articles on bokeh, depth of field, and (yes) circle of confusion. I just want to show some photos.

The bokeh effect is a tool and the tool has come to define the paradigm used for all sorts of iconic images over decades.

Typical bokeh-filled portraits might be a close-up of someone on the beach with the sun reflecting off the waves or a portrait taken at night on a city street with car and street lights in the background. You’ve seen these. The key to these are points of light. To be precise about bokeh, the quality Schiller refers to is not the quality of the blur, but the quality of the blur of points of light and how those are rendered. A Google search on bokeh images will show you a lot of points of light.

This quality is directly related to the physics of the construction of the lens, including the both the size and the shape of the aperture (the whole through which light passes). For decades camera makers have been constructing lenses with the intention of making lenses that are really good at bokeh (and charging more for those).

This is important because bokeh is not something you normally see with your eyes. Think about that. The bokeh effect is a tool and the tool has come to define the paradigm used for all sorts of iconic images over decades. For example, here’s a photo of the President where you can see the cool out of focus points of light in the background. It takes a few thousand dollars of optics and a few pounds of gear to create that image quality.

Points of light reflecting off the flag pole in the blurry background. Associated Press/Toledo Blade

What does this look like in real life by an amateur? I wanted to take some photos to show the comparison between:

  • iPhone regular lens
  • iPhone 2x lens with and without depth-effect
  • DSLR with several different lenses showing a variety of effects

Here’s a scene from a local park (oddly no one would sign up to be my bokeh model while I spent an hour futzing with gear!). The fence post-cap is going to be the subject of our portraits.

Photo taken with iPhone 7 Plus using standard lens.

This is a pretty standard image (imagine kids playing as the real subject!). Turns out hidden in this image are quite a few points of light. But first let’s show the iPhone, both before and after the depth effect.

2X image taken to show what a standard telephoto lens looks like on the iPhone 7 Plus.
2X Portrait mode photo showing the depth effect available on the iPhone 7 Plus.

My first reaction to this image was “wow” and that is going to make for many nicer images of people and objects because far too often the background is a distraction. I’ve wanted something like this for a long time. At the same time, it didn’t look like any image I was used to—certainly not like that photo of Obama. It looks “fake” or “artificial”.

But, cruising the photo forums, there were a ton of before/after images and a lot of complaints that basically this was a blur effect and not a depth of field effect. Background blur has been a digital image effect for years and there are both apps and Photoshop plugins that can add this to images. The effect, though, tends to look artificial relative to what state of the art tools create—tools including sophisticated DSLRs and thousands of dollars of optical gear.

I collect old 35mm cameras and so wanted to show a few images of this scene using some rather exotic lenses specifically designed to deliver exceptional bokeh—this is where we will learn that bokeh is not the same as background blur.

Photo taken with 58mm “Noct” f1.2 lens on DSLR.

The above photo, like magic, shows points of light. These were always there if you had the right tool to capture them. This is a case of a tool defining what we expect normal to look like. This particular lens was specifically engineered (decades ago) to capture this type of consistent bokeh even at the far edges of the lens (which is really hard to do because light rays are different lengths and thus don’t end up being the same at all points of an image). This starts to look more like what we see in portraits and classical images.

Photo taken with 135mm f2 “Defocus Control” lens.

This second images was taken with another vintage exotic lens, even known as the King of bokeh, specifically designed for portraits and to provide the photographer with control over just how the focus in the background appears—back before Photoshop you had to think this stuff up while capturing the image. You might notice the difference in that the edge points of light are slightly out of shape, but the circles in the middle are a pleasing perfect circle. Pretty cool! And totally analog!

Photo taken with 105mm f1.4 lens.

The new more modern bokeh champ creates an incredibly pleasing image as you can see. This lens probably represents the peak achievement in optical design and analog capture and is not likely to see something dramatically improved, perhaps ever.

We can see that the quality of bokeh significantly changes based on the optical design of the lens. To show how much the tool matters, let’s consider one last image.

Photo taken with 500mm f8 mirror lens.

What the heck is that? How in the world did points of light turn into little donuts? The above image was taken with a very long telephoto lens, 10X if you will. But this lens is optically designed not with a series of curved glass lenses but a series of reflecting and refracting mirrors like those in a telescope, called a catadioptric lens. These lenses can reach really long distances, are extremely light weight, and compact. So if you are on a safari or something these are great. On the other hand, the bokeh achieved is unconventional and not particularly pleasing. The tradeoff of tools. Interestingly, for a while when these lenses were new it was cool to have these donuts. Tools define paradigms, even stylistic ones.

Paradigm Shift—Mobile, Computed Photography

In all of the above photos, whether taken with a sophisticated classical (analog) system or with the modern iPhone 7 depth effect, the tool makes some new qualities possible. In every case there are differences in quality. Quality though it relative to a baseline. That baseline was established around the 1950’s when the first cameras with optical construction capable of creating bokeh were created.

For 60 or so years the paradigm for capturing portraits or close-ups was defined by the tools we had at our disposal. Those that looked at the iPhone 7 camera got pretty bent out of shape by the use of the term bokeh to describe what was done—it was about neither points of light nor did it use any well-known lens physics to create a pleasing effect. To those people it was simply a blur in the background.

To Apple this blur was a lot more. This feature involved using depth information from two lenses, machine learning software to compute the primary subject of the photo (the Photoshop lasso selection, if you will), and then software to render the background—not as just blurry but as a computed, depth-dependent blur. Pretty cool. Just not what bokeh means to people that knew. We know how much technologists dislike the imprecise use of terms with precise meanings.

What is going on is the creation of a new tool. This is exciting to me because we are now seeing how the paradigm shift of mobile photography is finally changing from “camera you can carry around” to mobile, computed photography.

While we might not readily be aware or acknowledge or this, photography has been a course changing path for quite some time.

  • Digital darkroom. This is the Photoshop era where images were manipulated, enhanced, or fixed. First this was done like a darkroom (that’s where the Photoshop burn/dodge tools came from). Later this has become a whole world of doing things that could never be done at capture time in terms of composition and manipulation. The world of fashion and advertising were dramatically changed with this tool.
  • Mobile-capture, post-capture enhancements. Instagram pioneered or at least popularized using filters to quickly turn mundane images into some fairly amazing photos. This paradigm change, enabled by phones and software, created a new type of image and new paradigm. For generations normal people with a film camera could never capture a sunset or a landscape shot and now every evening friends post dramatic shots of the sun, beaches, sky, forests, and more. The tool created a new paradigm or new set of expectations.
  • Real-time augmented mobile. We’re in the midst of a new paradigm of real-time tools that augment photos (and video) with all sorts of effects and extras. From stickers to captions to crazy changes to our faces, the new tools are changing the way we communicate.

Each of these innovations in tools is creating a new form of imaging. These are not just “features” but we are slowly observing a paradigm shift. When you consider this, the iPhone 7 camera is not just “cool photo blur feature” but the start of a new paradigm where a new type of image is defined. If you think back, there was a time before the “norm” seen in images today. That norm was defined by the constraint of the tool (and physics).

If you extrapolate from today you can start to see how mobile photography that incorporates multiple sensors, machine learning, and real-time compute will continue to create new types of images. These images are no longer going to be constrained by physics, but can tap into a whole new level of creativity. The fact that the smartphone’s ubiquity also democratizes these new forms makes the paradigm shift doubly cool.

So while the classical photographer was at first excited and then a little disappointed, the more I pondered where we are going the more I thought of all the new things that will come from a super computer in your pocket taking pictures that we could never take before.

That’s why, even as a photographer, I’m not downplaying the cool new features of the iPhone 7 Plus camera.

Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

I could not resist one more image. This is what you might really strive for in a close-up portrait for a dramatic, perhaps overly so, effect.

Photo take with 135mm f2 DC to create overly dramatic bokeh.
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