Bokeh Ratings and Lens Awards

January 13, 2009 ·

Mike Johnston

Fun Stuff: Bokeh Ratings and Lens Awards

Well, this is possibly the silliest and potentially least useful thing I’ve ever done in my life as a photo-writer, but I’ve decided to publish my personal list of BOKEH RATINGS. I’ve simply assigned a numerical ranking on a scale of 1-10 to some of the many of the camera lenses I’m familiar with, rating the subjective visual quality of the out-of-d.o.f. areas orbokeh. Here’s the basic rating key:

10 – Functionally perfect in ordinary usage

9 – Outstanding, exceptional, capable of great beauty

8 – Extremely good, far better than average

7 – Very good, solid performer, bokeh not too much of a limitation

6 – Decent, above average in most circumstances

5 – Acceptable

3 – Pretty awful under certain conditions

1 – So butt-fugly you’d have to be blind not to scream

Please note that unless you are ever-so-slightly crazy (ESSC), bokeh doesn’t matter all that much. What sane photographers mostly care about is that the out-of-focus areas not be ugly or garish enough to be intrusive or distracting. If any particular lens meets that criterion in any particular picture, then you really don’t have to worry about it too much beyond that. And, if any photographer wants to exploit interesting or unusual or "bad" bokeh for artistic purposes, there is, as far as I know, no law against that.

HOWEVER, if you are one of those ESSC freaks who actually care, bear in mind the following: that a) there is really no such thing as "good" or "bad" here – it’s all a matter of taste; b) that I’ve been pretty hard on certain lenses, because my standards are high; and that c) my rankings are ENTIRELY PERSONAL AND SUBJECTIVE. I’m not telling you what to think. You may disagree with me, or think I’m wrong, or call me ESSC, and God bless you. The lenses I’ve awarded a "10" may not be to your own liking (well, I suppose it’s possible), and if I’ve given something a 5, no, it doesn’t mean you should sell yours.

Because this column will no doubt be on the web until I am moldering in the ground and I’d like to be able to modify this list on the fly, or add to it, or remove it altogether should it earn me too much ridicule and grief, I have posted it as a free download on my storefront site. Presently there are 35 lenses rated and I should have about 20 more added by the middle of June, including some zooms. It is ABSOLUTELY FREE, no strings attached, no email addresses harvested, nothing. If you do go download it (it’s a 7-page, ~540k .pdf file), you tacitly acknowledge that you got yourself into this and if I drive you crazy you have no one to blame but yourself.

For the Bokeh Ratings, go to scroll to the bottom of the page. The author (me) reserves the right to terminate this offer and remove this document at any time, if too many people who are not ESSC make fun of me.



I have to say I’m very happy lately, and not in a curmudgeonly state of mind at all. That’s because, thanks to Gene Wilburn and 24 other guys onJorge Torralba’s Rangefinder Forum, I’ve discovered Lulu. Lulu is a SOTA POD site (state-of-the-art print-on-demand) that will publish book files to order, and then take care of production, order fulfillment, and shipping. Ah, bliss.

These 25 guys got together and published some of their own work – two or three pictures per photographer – in book form, and Gene was kind enough to send me a copy hoping I’d mention it in this column. I was impressed with it – for one thing, because it’s the sort of committed amateur project I approve of; for another, as a chance to look at some better-than-average rangefinder photography in book form; for a third, because the book itself is nicely made and the quality of the reproductions is really quite good, and fourth, because it really lit up that old light bulb over my head. For a group project done for fun, the guys did a really nice job. Check it out.

I have to admit it was the personal implication that really resounded with me, though. As you may know, I’ve been dealing with some real frustrations with publishers over the past several years, trying to find some economical yet controllable way of publishing a couple of my books. I’ve really been through the wringer with it. I made the mistake of taking advance orders for one of the books,The Empirical Photographer, when things looked reasonably certain they’d proceed in an orderly fashion. Well, to make a long and painful story short, they didn’t. If this has been a minor annoyance to some of the folks who enjoy my writing, it’s been an enormous frustration to me.

Well, finally, thanks to Lulu, the book has been published…I mean really, as in it actually exists. I’m holding a copy of it in my hand right now. (I know some of you may be having a hard time believing that.) You can’t buy it on, but you can order it at your bookstore (theoretically, anyway) and on the Lulu site. As for those long-suffering fans whom I’ve inconvenienced for lo these many years, next week I’ll be making the big order for the copies to fill the back orders. Although filling the back orders will not exactly be a quick process, at least from now on I’ll be making real progress. So after a string of unfulfilled predictions, this is actually happening. Whew!

Meanwhile, armed with Apple’s new Pages program and the Lulu site, both of which I’m learning fast, I’ve been going, well, nuts. BesidesThe Empirical Photographer, I’ve put up two short books of fiction (under a nom de plume), plus all the back issues of the newsletter in PDF download form, several of them with new illustrations added. Also, as soon as a week from now but no longer than two or three weeks, I’ll make available my second printed book, a compendious collection of articles, essays, and reviews of cameras, lenses, optics, formats, and techniques (you know, all the gearhead stuff), which is calledLenses and the Light-Tight Box. I’ll also be putting up a steady stream of free downloads of purely personal and ephemeral photo-related stuff, starting with the above-mentioned "Lens Bokeh Ratings." Next in line are three similar free downloads comprising "10 Best" lenses lists in various focal lengths. Just fun stuff.

And as if all that weren’t enough, Issue #8 of "The 37th Frame" is finished and set to go out on Wednesday or Thursday. It contains a completely new type of feature, "A Visual Tour of Contemporary Photography," featuring major contemporary photographers from all over the world. Really fascinating to put together, and it should be an eye-opener if you’re not familiar with current trends in who’s hot and who’s who.


Cameras Don’t Take Pictures, Lenses Do

And now it’s time for an example of that delightful oxymoron, the "new tradition." In this case, the new tradition is my ever-so-subjectiveFirst Annual 37th Frame Lens Awards. All good photographers hate cameras; but only the elite, the connoisseurs, thecreme de la creme, also know enough about lenses to hate them, too. (It’s a joke, son, a joke.) For those artists, the search for the lenses they hate least can be an absorbing preoccupation. The following list is presented in honor of that small, rare, and discriminating group.

Never in photographic history have lens awards been less needed. Never have so many lenses been so good; never has quality control and sample variation been less of an issue. And, ever since the advent of Photoshop, DxO, and similar programs, lens flaws can actually be corrected in post-processing, and lens properties convincingly faked.

Despite this, there is still pleasure to be taken in a great lens. "There is something magical about the image formed by a lens," wrote Ansel Adams in his bookThe Print. "Surely every photographer stands in some awe of this miraculous device, which approaches ultimate perfection. A fine lens is evidence of a most advanced technology and craft."

Drum roll, please…


The First Annual 37th Frame Lens Awards

Best Lens Line Available for Photography, Overall:Rodenstock Apo-Sironar-S line

Best Lens Available for 35mm-format Photography:Leica 50mm Summilux-M ASPH.

Best Lens Available for DSLRs:Olympus Digital Zuiko 50mm ƒ/2 Macro

Best Lens Available for Medium Format:Mamiya G 80mm ƒ/4 for Mamiya 7 and 7II

Best Lens Available for Large Format: Schneider-Kreutznach 110mm ƒ/5.6 Super-Symmar XL

Best Recent Lens for Fast B&W Film:Voigtlander Color-Skopar 35mm ƒ/2.5 PII

Best Lens Line Killed Deader’n Hell by Leicaphiles for No Good Reason Except Spite:Konica M-Hexanon (Possible Future Contender in this Category: Zeiss ZM)

Most Complete Lens Line(tie): Canon / Nikon

Least Complete Lens Line:Contax 35mm Autofocus (R.I.P.)


Best Telephoto Zoom for DSLRs:Olympus 50-200mm Digital Zuiko

Best Built AF Lenses:Pentax Limiteds

Best Dual-Purpose 35mm/DSLR Zoom:Nikon AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 28-70mm ƒ/2.8D ED-IF

Longest Lens Name:I Ain’t Typing That Again

Best Independent Zoom Lens:Tamron 17-35mm ƒ/2.8-4 Di LD Aspherical IF for Nikon, Canon, Minolta and Pentax (Also available as Konica-Minolta AF 17-35mm D)


Most Innovative Lens for DSLRs:Canon EF-S 17-85mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS USM

Best Lens in Any Digicam:Olympus C-8080z 5X zoom

Best Tiny Little Lens in a Tiny Little Camera:Minolta G-Rokkor 28mm ƒ/3.5 in the Minolta TC-1

Best Lens Line for Overall Optical Quality (tie):Olympus Digital Zuiko (for Four-Thirds System) Leica R (for 35mm SLR)

All just personal opinions, of course. Don’t sweat the fun stuff!

— Mike Johnston


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Mike Johnstonwrites and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine calledThe 37th Framefor people who are really "into" photography. His book,The Empirical Photographer, has just been published.

You can read more about Mike and findadditional articlesthat he has written for this site, as well as aSunday Morning Index.

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