Bokeh (/bō’kɛ/): In photographic terms, has grown to mean the subjective quality of the out of focus areas in a photograph, and how a particular lens renders out of focus points of light (adopted from the Japanese term boke 暈け, meaning fuzzy, disoriented, et al). Pronounced BO (as the bo in bone) and KE (as the ke in ken) if we are taking it directly from the Japanese word, while the “h” was added to help non Japanese speaking photographers pronounce this adopted term (see the wikipedia article for the history on the term and idea in photographic application). While the definition, pronunciation and it’s subjective nuances are often debated as to it’s application in the photographic realm, it hasn’t stopped Alien Skin from creating a plugin that beautifully applies an out of focus blur to selected areas of an otherwise focused image. With their second release, Bokeh 2 has added new bells and whistles as well as a more refined control of both radial and planar regions within an image and it’s area of focus. Read on for examples and why I think this is a wonderful deal of a plugin.
For many of us, after being bit by the photography bug, we stumble across techniques and gear that we are drawn to. A lot of that has to do with the “look” of certain photographs. One of those looks that tend to catch eyes is a shot with an in focus subject separated from a beautifully blurred background and/or foreground. Using a shallow depth of field can lend itself to selective focus drawing the viewer’s eye to the sharp, in focus elements in the picture while using the out of focus areas to artistic and creative effect. This is not a new technique, but one that in the recent past was only possible with expensive, fast lenses which provide a photographer the ability to decrease the depth of field through optical manipulation so much that it enables them to throw any elements outside of that slice of focus into blur and out of focus.
The two basic approaches to using Bokeh 2 is you can one, select whatever you want to keep in focus, in Photoshop using the magic wand, quick selection tool, lasso, or your preferred method of selection click Filters>Bokeh2 and the magic begins. If you have a recent version of Photoshop (I’ve used both CS3 and CS5 with Bokeh2) the selection tools make a quick meal of your selection task. Or, you can open up an image in Bokeh 2 without a selection made and use the radial or planar blur tools in the Bokeh tab to selectively erase the bokeh effect. If using Photoshop, by default the effect will be applied to its own layer. Easy breezy.
After opening your image in Bokeh 2, you are given three tabs, in the upper left, to alter your image from. “Settings,” “Bokeh,” and “Vignette” which, when clicked on are pretty straight forward. In the Settings tab, you can choose from a variety of Motion Blur options, shape altering bokeh settings and replicated lens profiles ranging from a Zeiss 28mm f/2 to an EF 300mm f/2.8 with various macro lenses and portrait optics to also choose from at various apertures. The Bokeh tab allows you to identify and alter the look of the bokeh within the out of focus (non-selected) area of your image. You can increase or decrease the look globally or alter it based on a planar or radial axis. Finally the Vignette tab allows you to modify the image in terms of a vignette. Whether you want to do a traditional corner burn vignette, want to bleach the vignetted area, or modify a more precise custom region, you can fine tune the look of a vignette.
I am a big fan of fast prime lenses and the ability to use a large aperture to provide a very shallow depth of field. It is a technique that provides an immediate visual distinction from an image taken with a cheaper, slower lens or small sensor camera. To me, using defocused areas in an image is in most cases, more pleasing visually than an image that is sharp throughout the entire frame. Of course there are times where sharpness is king, but more often than not, I like to use sharpness to define my subject and allow that sharpness, and it’s contrast to out of focus areas, to dictate the story in my shots.
Much of the time, it is not practical to drag around large, fast lenses. Many of us may not own any. That shouldn’t stop us from being able to recreate a similar look with a bit of artistic freedom sprinkled around. Here was a case where all I was able to bring with me was my little LX3 compact camera. We had gotten seats at field level which provided a pretty cool photo opportunity. The before and after shots:
Another fun post processing technique that can add a quick dose of movement in a static image, is motion blur. Bokeh 2 allows you to instantly alter the look of the out of focus areas in your image by way of the Motion Settings. You can apply a spin, spiral or zoom effect in varying intensities for fun effect. In this example, I carefully selected the train (took about a minute) in Photoshop as it was important to me to keep it sharp which helped draw my eye directly to what was sharp in contrast to its out of focus surroundings.
Of course there is the very popular “mini” or tilt shift effect which Bokeh 2 makes easy work of by utilizing the “add planar” adjustment in the Bokeh tab. By centering the planar tool and adjusting the feathering, you can gain an instant mini effect without having to select anything.
This is all fine and dandy, but who really benefits from this type of a plugin? Well, I can only speak for myself, but I have a feeling, my needs and desires with a piece of software like this may be similar to others out there. For me, Bokeh 2 will change the way I shoot certain subjects. I no longer have to decide between either shooting environmental portraits (especially group portraits) wide or close to wide open, with an ND filter on my lens, sacrificing sharpness via an overly pronounced, shallow depth of field, to gain a more pleasing out of focus background, or keeping the subject(s) sharp and losing the out of focus background. While I have invested in some fast, expensive prime lenses, there’s nothing wrong with stopping them down a couple stops to gain the ability to keep both eyes (or a whole group) in focus and use Bokeh 2 to throw the background elements out of focus later. This alone is huge for me. Also, I can now feel better when I have to leave my big camera and large, heavy lenses behind in lieu of a compact point and shoot, knowing that if I want, I can still achieve a nice, soft defocused background, or the look of a shallow depth of field later. That is a trade off that I think I will employ fairly often knowing I’ve got this on the computer at home. Software, in my opinion, is in no way a direct replacement to the tools that it aims to replicate, but for roughly 1/10 the price of an 85mm f/1.2 lens for instance, this plugin has already saved me quite a bit of money and provided me with a tool that would not be achieved as easily and controllably otherwise. While it is not a tool I see myself using on every picture I take, it is a tool that I can’t see being without, and one that when needed will be irreplaceable. In many cases (can anyone say weddings?) photo opportunities are not easily replicated. It has already helped me transform a couple shots that I’d thought were too “snap shot” and it has me now going back through years of photos looking for good candidates, breathing new life into some of my old shots!
Download the full, free version of Bokeh 2, and any other Alien Skin software for 30 days to see it in action HERE.
See Bokeh 2 tutorials on Alien Skin’s website HERE.
Bokeh 2 is available through Alien Skin directly for $199 (upgrade for $99) HERE.
Happy shooting everyone, and I’d love to see any shots you end up playing around with in our flickr group, or would be happy to try and answer any questions through my personal experience with the plugin.
*The Bokeh 2 logo is used with permission from Alien Skin Software. As much as I may wish, I am in no way affiliated with Alien Skin Software aside from contacting them and having my reviews used on their website. Thanks guys!