Bokeh. An interesting word. What does it mean? Most of you reading this web site already know what it means, but many of you have no clue. Many newbies read this site and I get e-mails almost daily asking me questions like
- What is Bokeh?
- What is Aperture?
- How can I take a good picture?
I get these questions on an almost daily basis along with many others because every day there are new people who are just getting into photography who find this site. Today I am writing a bit about “Bokeh”. What exactly does that term mean? Well, contrary to what some believe, it is NOT the word used to describe the actual blurring of the background in a photo. Bokeh is the term used to describe the QUALITY of that background blur in a photo.
From Wikipeida: bokeh (pronounced /boʊ’kɛ/) is the blur, or the aesthetic quality of the blur, in out-of-focus areas of an image, or “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light.
I know many photographers who obsess with the Bokeh qualities of a lens while others just see blur and think it’s cool. One of the reasons I love Leica lenses is because I find they create some of the most pleasing Bokeh compared to Nikon, Canon or whoever. Leica glass is expensive but unique in the fact that it will give your images that something special that is not apparent when using other glass. Canon and Nikon have some great glass like the Canon 85 1.2, or the new Nikon 85 1.4 that will create beautiful Bokeh but even those lenses are pricey and too expensive for many of us. In Bokeh land, I believe that Leica is king and the fact that their lenses are so tiny in comparison to Nikon or Canon is what also seals the deal for me. Sure there are cheap Canon and Nikon lenses that will give you shallow Depth of Field but many times the bokeh qualities of many of these lenses are headache inducing.
So how do we get smooth pleasing bokeh without breaking the bank? I remember a while ago seeing a software plug in for Photoshop that recreated the Bokeh of lenses artificially and I remember saying to myself “What a joke!- No way software can replace the qualities of a lens”. I refused to even try it because to me, I knew there would be no way it would look good or natural.
Fast forward to 3 days ago…I was invited by Alien Skin to try out their new and improved “Bokeh 2” plug in software and decided to give it a try to see what it was all about.
So I downloaded the plug in and started messing with it in Photoshop CS5. At first, I had NO IDEA how to use it as I did not read the manual yet so I just browsed the presets and chose the “Canon 85 1.2 at 1.2” setting. I used a D-Lux 5 image and as most of you know, getting shallow depth of field from a small sensor camera is very hard, and in some cases impossible so this image really did not have that creamy, dreamy look like I would have gotten from say a Canon 5DII and 85 1.2L. It was the perfect test image..to see if I can take a portrait taken with a small sensor camera and make it look like it was taken with a super fast lens wide open. Here is the result, my 1st try with Bokeh 2 and it took 4 seconds.
As you can see from the above image, it is a bit over the top because i used the 85L 1.2 setting which gives super creamy and dreamy Bokeh. I used to shoot with the 85L and its Bokeh was VERY smooth and dreamlike at 1.2. It is my favorite Canon lens. Period. I can not say this preset recreated the depth of field the 85 would have given me, but the artificially created Bokeh looks pretty similar to the real deal. Very smooth, very creamy and dreamlike. This got me to thinking…I mean, anyone can take a flat image from a small sensor camera and create fake Bokeh giving their image a unique look. How unique can you get? How about this one…
ABOVE: I shot this image outside of my car wiindow while driving. Was testing the fast AF of the Sony A33 and saw the bird and raised the camera and it INSTANTLY focused and took the shot. The image above was treated in Bokeh 2 using the 500mm Mirror Lens preset. I also used a film preset in Exposure 2 to give the color a bump. The original looks quite different…
You can see how Bokeh 2 can give your images a unique and surreal look. Some may like this look and some may HATE it but I have to admit it is quite fun to mess around with. You can go right with the presets or you can customize to your hearts desire. It is easy to go a bit over the top (like I did) so be careful…
Here are a few more images that I gave the BOKEH 2 treatment with. Fun stuff. If you want to give it a try yourself, and have photoshop or lightroom you can download the free demo HERE directly from Alien Skin. It may not be everyones cup of tea but I know if I had only a small sensor cam I would have it in my plug in folder to use on those images that need a little BOKEH BOOST! Another very cool plug in from the guys at Alien Skin.
ABOVE: Using one of the presets in the MOTION category I was able to take a flat photo and turn it in to one that conveys the sense of motion. Worked very well.
Another BEFORE and AFTER…
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They are all tools be it a particular lens plugin et… They are used either pre or post processing to achieve a desired look effect et… There is no right or wrong way as long as it gives the effect the image maker wishes to achieve. We are our own worst critics and the general public will never know what we used be it a 2 million dollar stroke yourself lens or a 20 dollar plugin. I know folks that can make better photographs with a plastic disposable camera than folks with stroke yourself gear. I find the whole idea of you must use this or that or it is not good enough or the quality is not there ect. laughfable. Some of the most bewitching of images were created with cheap glass or plastic and as far as Bokeh or the appearance of circles of confusion very apparent smooth and silky. Oh and let’s not forget the ole Vaseline on the filter trick. There are a million ways to achieve these effects to greater or lesser degrees. But the only one that counts is does the tool achive what the artist sees in the minds eye? If so than that is all that matters regardless of anyone else’s perceptions views and prejudices. Period.
The quality of the bokeh itself is actually pretty good. But, the fact that it is fake bokeh would be spotted by most photographers in seconds. For example, the people in the “play express line” have faces and upper bodies that are in focus but their legs and lower bodies are out of focus. A quality lens at a wide aperture would not do this.
To be fair, the plug in can create mild and more natural looking bokeh or it can be made to look crazy creative. The express line image was a but over the top just to show how creative you can get. Also, this plug in will NOT replicate a real lens but it does and can make some flat images a little more unique/fun/special. For those who cant spend $5-10k on a superb Leica lens would have fun playing with this, which is why I recommended the 30 day demo where you get full access for 30 days. I thought it was fun and interesting.
“A quality lens at a wide aperture would not do this.”
… ever heard of a tilt-shift lens?
Didn’t think so. It pretty much has a similar effect to that photograph. Look at lensbaby lenses, you won’t be able to see the difference between them and Bokeh 2.
For those poor souls who have caught the Bokeh-Bug and are boldly saving up to buy a beautiful Leica Noctilux or a Canon 85 f1.2 etc… and for whom their last bank statement warns them against any kind of frivolous spending whatsoever, but yet are still tempted to spend the $199 dollars asking price for the superb Bokeh 2 plugin – I have good news for you blur addicts! Be aware that there is an excellent alternative to the afore mentioned plugin that you probably have right now installed on your pc! Yes, that good ‘ol virtual darkroom known as… Photoshop (or even the GIMP for that matter).
With the Bokeh 2 plugin, Steve was able to achieve his first virtual bokeh in a mere 4 seconds. With just Photoshop, it took me about 2 minutes – whilst simultaneously drinking a nice cup of tea and enjoying a slice of apple tart (it was breakfast time here) to achieve something comparable.
This is how:
1/ In Photoshop (the Gimp, etc. ) duplicate the Background layer. By default, Photoshop will call this layer ‘Background Copy’.
2/ To this Background Copy layer, click on Filter – Blur – Gaussian Blur, play around with the settings until you get the kind of blur that suits you. Of course, the whole image will be blurred but this is where the fun starts.
3/ Click on the Elliptical Marquee Tool (M) and roughly draw over the face a long ellipse. Perfect this selection by clicking on Select – Transform Selection and then pull on the little square thingamajigs to get the ellipse to perfectly fit the face. That done, click on Select – Modify – Feather (Shift+F6) and choose the ‘feathing’ (softening) setting of the selection according to the resolution of the picture. More for high resolution images, less for low image resolution images.
4/ Cut away the selection Ctrl+x (I believe that’s ‘squiggle+X’ on a Mac). Alternatively, you could simply use the Eraser Tool (E) to reveal the sharp face hidden behind the blur.
5/ You now have a sharp face and a nice blurry background. To perfect the image, you may wish to play around with Image – Adustments – Levels, to achieve a pleasant vignetting.
Oh by the way, Photoshop will even create that swooshing lama picture: try – Filter – Distort – Twirl… But don’t go mad on the Twirl settings.
Nope. The plugin discussed here does far more than just Photoshops “gaussian blur” with a gradient mask. The blur method fails in the transitions from sharp to unsharp whereas “bokeh” goes from virtual focus to virtual out of focus.
I have downloaded the demo and its a fun tool.
If you dont see a difference than have your eyes checked, seriously.
Yes, you are absolutely right – I do need my eyes tested… but alas in my current country of residence (France) there is a 6 month waiting list for eye testing. But I digress… I too have downloaded the Bokeh 2 demo. Yes, it is fun and excellent and yes, I do know the difference between real, virtual and my poor-man’s-empty-wallet-bokeh. I outlined a simple technique to do what genuine bokeh is primarily designed to do: better isolate the subject so that the photograph gains in impact, clarity and conciseness. I’ve used more complex variations of the above Photoshop techinique that allow for a very precise and beautiful control of backgrounds and foreground to background transitions. However, it is a techinique that can take hours of work.
But let’s get back to the real world, were money is scarce and compromises alas, must be made. Take as an example, the second parrot picture such as we can see in Steve’s review of the Nikon D3100 (Nikon D3100 Real World Camera Review – October 26th) Steve describes the bokeh in this picture as ‘irritating’. With the Photoshop techinique I described, it would be possible to discreetly tweak the background just enough to eliminate that irritating bokeh and to produce the kind of picture that the author had in mind when he pressed the shutter release. Applied with care, this techinique will preserve the character of actual bokeh.
In the meantime, we all got 30 days of bokeh fun and games with the demo… 🙂
I’m glad you make the effort to play, my word for work you enjoy, with the many cameras and options available. I see the heat you take, but the overriding truth is, your experience with such a wide range of photographic tools and love of photography, not MTF data, makes you perfect for the job. After finding you, I have reduced my post work to little more than some sharpening and the occasional dodge and burn. So thank you…I’m even shooting film again!
Point for this note..the software looks cool on first impression, but no match for the real deal. I opened link to your Noct photos in another tab and the “looks cool” kinda went poof…
Have a great weekend,
I tried this out as well…not a big fan. I can’t imagine show would really appreciate this, outside of people looking for insane creativity with their images. People who buy and appreciate the bokeh effect from lenses will probably want nothing to do with this, and people who don’t pay attention to bokeh typically do not pay for high end workflow software.
well, if I could only say something positive about this plug-in. it would be; “this will be popular with flickr pro photographers looking to have their stuff be ‘explored’ and hit the front page.”
Thanks for the quick review! Very Interesting!
I have a license of OnOne FocalPoint2 which pretty much does the same thing, but I will definitely try Bokeh 2 demo version.
How are you liking Exposure 2? I have both SilverEfex and ColorEfex and I am unsure if Exposure 2 would do a better job in converting to Tri-x 400, Portra 160VC and Portra 400. I really miss a “Fuji Reala” filter though.