At the end of last year Alien Skin Software released Bokeh, a Photoshop plug-in designed to recreate the “bokeh” effect that’s commonly used when photographers want to blur or tone down a background. I was a beta-tester for the software and was included in the Case Studies page for some Bokeh-improved images of mine. But now I have to remove by beta tester hat and put on my reviewer’s hat, and what I see in Bokeh is a very handy plug-in for photographers retouching with Photoshop.
The Bokeh effect
Bokeh can apply a wide variety of effects to an image:
- Radial and planar bokeh, applying the effect in a circular or gradient fashion.
- Aperture effects: areas affected with bokeh can reveal a diaphragm shape of anywhere from three to 11 blades, or a circular or heart-shaped diaphragm. Blades can also be curved inward or outward.
- Bokeh can have varying amounts of creaminess.
- Highlight boosting, which can create hot spots if you’re not careful but punches up the image pretty well if you’re judicious with the settings.
- Vignettes: vignette shape, color, intensity, size and feather are all controllable in Bokeh.
If you’re a photographer, the vast majority of your work with Bokeh will be in creating true bokeh: soft backgrounds, sharp foreground or subject, and possibly some aperture effects or vignetting. For this purpose Bokeh does its job exceedingly well: everything I’ve seen Bokeh produce looks like it was photographed that way. If you’re a mix of photographer, artist and designer like I am, you might find Bokeh useful for more than just recreating bokeh. I found that with a combination of colored vignetting and creamy bokeh I was able to age photos in a very nice way. For the bald eagle photo you see below, I played around with the aperture diaphragm settings to create some five-sided stars. A blue vignette and a little highlighting on the eagle’s head (done in Photoshop—Bokeh can’t do such spot retouching) made the image into a patriotic one.
If you’re hoping to use Bokeh for artistic effects like I did, be prepared to run into a few obstacles. Bokeh is designed for photographers, and so the plug-in isn’t designed to create a wide variety of effects. I loved using the “Heart of Hearts” diaphragm shape—it’s included with the plug-in—but there’s no way to create other shapes unless they’re based on a circle or conventional bladed diaphragm. Also, Bokeh cannot do anything to an empty layer, which would have been helpful if one wanted to mask or modify it later. Bokeh does allow you to duplicate the current layer when applying bokeh (click the “Create Output in New Layer Above Current” checkbox) but it flattens the effect with a copy of the original.
Bokeh is another well-designed plug-in from Alien Skin and for photographers who need to recreate true bokeh it’s an excellent tool. I recommend it for any photographer who falls in this category. Creative photographers and designers who want to play with the effects will find a lot of useful tools in Bokeh but keep in mind the plug-in was not really created for this kind of work and there’s sometimes more flexible ways in Photoshop to create the same effects. But Bokeh can do a lot, and I know from personal experience that it can make good photos great.