Bokeh – The Art of Blur

Tue, Feb 24, 2009

Photoshop, Tutorials, Workflow

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I’m a big fan of shooting with a shallow depth of field, and as a result of this, I’m also a fan of the resulting bokeh.

What is Bokeh you may ask … ?

Wikipedia defines Bokeh as:

Bokeh (derived from Japanese, a noun boke, meaning “blurred or fuzzy”) is a photographic term referring to the appearance of out-of-focus areas in an image produced by a camera lens using a shallow depth of field. Different lens bokeh produces different aesthetic qualities in out-of-focus backgrounds, which are often used to reduce distractions and emphasize the primary subject.

I’ve written a few posts on how to fake depth of field in both Lightroom and Photoshop, but now I’ve become hooked on a new product from Alien Skin Software named … as expected: Bokeh

Despite the $200 (USD) price tag, which puts this out of reach for some, I have been playing with the 30-day trial and I will admit that this is a very versatile program that is worth trying to see if the cost of adding this to your bag of tricks makes sense. You can download the 30-day trial via the Alien Skin site.

I’ll walk you through an example workflow that comes out of my experiments with the plugin. In this example I am going for a super-shallow depth of field effect that comes through rather nicely considering it’s all done in software.

Here’s our original image, ready for action in Photoshop:

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Once the plugin is installed, you’ll access it in the usual spot – the Filter menu:

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Now the fun begins:

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I mainly focus on 3 areas while in the tool:

Settings

This is where you can select from a bunch of lens types, vignettes, and bokeh settings. In this case I have selected the Canon EF 85mm f1.2L II lens @ f1.2

Focus Regions

Bokeh offers 3 types of focus regions, which are represented by the solid oval line and cross hairs: None, Radial, and Planar.

The cross hairs help you center the effect on your image while the perimeter can be stretched to determine the shape of the radial focus region that will remain sharp and in-focus.

Depending on the type of shot you are working on, you’ll select the settings which deliver the best output for your situation. In this case I am working on a portrait which is a perfect candidate for applying some Radial Bokeh.

Feathering Controls

This is really where the magic is. The dashed oval determines the amount and distance of the feather that will radiate from the focus region outward.

Next, let’s look at the parameter panels that can now be used to tweak just about everything we have set:

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Lens settings let you pick from a massive list of lens types … yes, even a fricking Sony Zeiss. I’m currently in love with the Canon EF series lenses so I’m using these quite a bit.

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The bokeh settings are quite robust, allowing for very fine-grained control of the effect. A few key things I would note on this panel are:

  • Create Output in New Layer Above Current – this is as non-destructive as you’re going to get in Photoshop, but it’s nice to know a new layer can contain your changes in case you have to roll back to your original. It also makes experimentation a snap!
  • Focus Region – I prefer radial for portraits, and planar for images where I have a continuous background I want to isolate and blur.
  • Bokeh Amount – this is similar to the feather control in Photoshop, a little change goes a long way.
  • Diaphragm Shape – I prefer a smooth circle as opposed to seeing the blade edges which often become visible in a real world situation. But if you’re a purist, you can choose blade configurations from 3 blades all the way up to 11.
  • Creamy – the creamy slider allows you to control the softness of the bokeh from the diaphragm shape . If you are working with high-resolution images I have found this control really makes a difference.

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The vignette, our of our favorite effects, essentially has 2 settings:

  • Focus Region – with this setting, the shape of the focus region will match the focus region set in the Bokeh tab above
  • Natural – this setting will set a vignette that is oval shaped and centered directly in middle of the image

Once all parameters have been set across all three tabs, Photoshop will render your changes and set them into a new layer:

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Now let’s see a quick before and after:

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The final portfolio-ready image can be seen here.

I am really happy with the results of this tool, and I’m just scratching the surface of what is possible with the Bokeh product.

We do have other techniques to achieve this effect in Photoshop and Lightroom so feel free to add them to your bag of tricks if the $200 price tag is too much for you.

As a way to get your feet wet with Bokeh though, I think this workflow should have you well on your way to some interesting experimentation using the 30-day trial.

For an exhaustive listing of all the controls available in the tool, Alien Skin’s Bohek manual is a good start.

|Brandon Oelling
x=photography+consulting – image+workflow+technology+business

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2 Comments For This Post

  1. Jeff Butterworth Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Brandon! It’s great to see a review with such good screen shots and examples rather than just a summary of our review guide. Please get in touch if you’d like to be on our press list.

  2. Chris McMillan Says:

    An interesting looking program. Certainly worth checking out. I tend to favor doing things practically in camera (if possible) and don’t do much if any post processing other than B&W conversions or adding contrast/crushing my blacks.

    I think that mindset comes from my cinematographer father. :)

    I have played around with before Alien Skin’s Exposure and really enjoyed it’s ability to help me emulate different film stocks when needed.

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