Blurriness and Black: You’re Doing It Wrong

There are a couple of times as you work on your craft that someone points out something to you which immediately raises your game to the next level.

In photography, this happened to me most recently when a photographer friend started rhapsodizing about how proud he was of a picture he’d taken–not because of the composition, the mood, or the lighting, but because of the blurring behind the subject (“bokeh”). Since the most basic worry up until then was that my photographs not be blurry, this initially struck me as madness until he pointed out the trick. Essentially, by shooting with fast lenses and opening up the aperture all the way, the depth of field is so shallow that anything behind the subject immediately fades into a beautiful blur, causing the subject itself to pop dramatically.

Beautiful example of narrow depth of field and bokeh by All17 on DeviantArt

Since all of the lenses I owned up to this point were general purpose zooms whose apertures started at around f4, this was never an effect I could have achieved had I known to go for it. At his encouragement, I dropped $99 on a simple, 50 mm lens with an f-stop of 1.8, opened it up all the way, and took a picture of a person with it. Instant magic!

Suddenly my portraits came alive in a way they never had before, and I was one big leap forward in getting that “certain something” in my photographs which I’d never really been able to see before. (It also led me down the terrible path of buying really expensive lenses, since it turns out that each additional f-stop you want on a given type of lens effectively triples the price)

I got a bit of that eye-opening “bokeh” feeling in my interface design craft as I read Ian Storm Taylor’s article on why designers should almost never use pure black (RGB #0000000) in their work. In short, it’s simultaneously overpowering and unnatural. He also makes some excellent points about the color saturation of shadows, and how much you can warm a design, as well as make it look more natural, by going beyond the straight n% grays that have formed the backbone of interfaces since someone discovered the 3D bevel effect back in the eighties.

Like the blurriness of the picture _behind_ the subject, this is something I’ve never really considered up until now, but which I sense has the prospect of raising my game considerably just by knowing what to look for.

Read the whole thing.


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