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How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

Perhaps you want to creatively improve your image, already taken with a depth of field and bokeh or create this effect from scratch for a specific composition. In this article, you will learn how to work with new and old filters and their features, creatively apply textures, even create a bokeh texture from scratch.

Also, you’ll learn some small secrets and useful features of digital artists. Described techniques and features will be available depending on Photoshop versions, which I will mention in the process. You can use these techniques on any image and get surprising results, I just want to show you the principles and workflow.

Everything is about the creative approach, so do not hesitate and experiment!

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

Shallow Depth of Field and Bokeh

A shallow depth of field (DOF) is when the desired object (focus point) appears sharp and everything else is blurred. Under certain shooting conditions on a blurry background, there may appear some beautiful circles or blurred highlights – that is called bokeh.

This effect can be done during the shooting process or synthetically added in post-processing. You can use this as an artistic style, to pay attention to a certain object or interesting composition. It’s very handy to use such effects if you want to hide some flaws or unsuccessful or empty parts of the composition.

Also, it is often used to create lighting and foreground effects, additional details that help to immerse the viewer in the atmosphere of the scene much more. Areas for using this technique and the creative possibilities are huge, so I suggest that you start with a practice.

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

So, let’s start with the most interesting and powerful features of Photoshop CC – the Blur Gallery and Field Blur filter. Blur Gallery is available in the filter menu, starting with Photoshop CC 2014, and has five blur effects with additional features, such as Motion Effects, Noise, and Bokeh. Note that this does not work in older versions of Photoshop!

Open the image, to which you want to apply the effect in Photoshop via File > Open or use Cmd/Ctrl+O shortcut or just drag and drop the image from your file explorer into Photoshop.

Next, on the Layers panel, right-click on a layer and choose “Convert to Smart Object” (Layer > Smart Object > Convert to Smart Object). Go to Filter > Blur Gallery > Field Blur. Your workspace has been changed to the Blur Gallery dialog box and you are shown a control pin in the center of the image (if there are no pins visible, try Cmd/Ctrl+H or go to View > Extras, to hides/shows guides, controls, etc.).

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

Setting Your Blur Effects

So, for a pin in the center, set the Blur value to 0px and move it to the place in your image that should stay in sharp focus. Begin to apply a blur from the edges of the image and in problem areas that you want to hide by clicking on the place where you want to add pins or drag and drop existing pins to the desired place.

Adjust the blur intensity or remove it on the Blur Tools panel or use the blur handle around the pin itself. For the edges of the image, start with larger Blur values, and then reduce it, if necessary. Also, I used several pins with a smaller Blur values near the area in focus in order to create a softer transition from blurred to sharp areas. If you want to remove any of the pins, select it and press Delete on the keyboard.

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

Creating Bokeh

Now let’s set the settings for the bokeh. Start adding a bokeh by setting Light Bokeh to 100. Next work with the Light Range sliders and start moving white, then black, until finding the optimal ratio of values.

You can slightly reduce Light Bokeh values so you do not get large overexposed areas. At this stage, you need to be careful and change the blur settings along with others to get the best possible, most realistic result.

Adjust Color Bokeh values to vary the texture with a color and add unexpected shades. Just do not make this value too big, otherwise, it will increase saturation or a lot of additional shades will reveal themselves.

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

Iris Blur and Tilt-Shift

The following filter, which we will consider is Iris Blur. The principle of this filter is the same, but now you are working with the focus field. You see the white circle frame, that you can deform and rotate, four small points around it to control blur distribution (shape), pulling by a square you can specify the focus area. You can still use several pins but blur values are the same for all of them.

This filter is very convenient if you want to highlight a specific area. In the previous example, you could specify exactly which areas of the image stayed in sharp focus and had more flexibility to work with the form, here you have less control over the details.

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

Top image – Iris Blur. Bottom image – Tilt-Shift.

Tilt-Shift is very popular for the fact that it creates the impression of a miniature scene. It is especially good for photos of architecture and everything that is at a distance.

As an artist, I use it when I want to emphasize dynamism and distortion (especially, in abstract artworks) or to create a background when I work with portraits.

Path and Spin Blur

Path Blur is very useful if you decide to add motion to your composition or emphasize it. Unlike the Motion Blur filter, you can control the effect and set the most unusual directions for blur. Unfortunately, this filter does not have the ability to add a bokeh to the blur, but Motion Effects are available.

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

Top image – Path Blur. Bottom image – Spin Blur.

Spin Blur, also a motion blur, but in a radial form. With it, you can turn your photos into a painterly image and if you add color effects, it will turn out very well. I use this filter for various artistic techniques, mostly when I work with very abstract creations. With this filter, you can create a very simple simulation of long exposure photography.

You can apply several filters from the Blur Gallery at once. Just checkmark desired filters, adjust their settings and click Ok to apply. Depending on the image size and performance of your computer, it may take time to render a preview of the effect and after once you apply the desired settings, so be patient.

Also, you can edit the settings of the applied filter if you convert the layer into a Smart Object and add the filter on it. It’s automatically a Smart Filter, so just double-click on the name of the filter and edit the settings. This is a non-destructive way of editing photos and creating artworks.

The advantage of a Smart Object is that you can go back and make changes to the filter or adjustment, apply it several times, even delete it if something went wrong and keep the original image intact.

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

Lens Blur Filter

Now let’s look at another powerful and fast solution for adding blur effects. The Lens Blur filter first appeared in Photoshop CS. So whatever version you use, CS or CC, this filter will be available for you. Take into account that this filter will not work on Smart Objects, so you can’t edit and apply this filter as a Smart Filter.

Again, open the desired image. Duplicate the original image layer (Layer > Duplicate layer or use the shortcut Cmd/Ctrl+J) to work non-destructively. In order to only apply an effect to a specific object or area, I made a selection with Quick Selection Tool (W) and added a layer mask to it (Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal Selection or use “Add layer mask” icon at the bottom of Layers panel).

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

To achieve a more realistic effect, blur the layer mask or its edge a bit because the hard edges of the mask can spoil everything. You can use Gaussian Blur filter (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur) or Feather option on Properties panel (Window > Properties) with the settings to your taste.

Lens Blur Settings

Highlight the layer thumbnail and go to Filter > Blur > Lens Blur… In the window that appears, first set Preview to Faster because this filter sometimes takes a long time to process changes. Next, in the Depth Map section, you can set Source to a Layer Mask to not apply a blur to a masked area, or leave this parameter at None to blur an entire image.

Checkmark Invert if only the selection from a layer mask is blurred and adjust Blur Focal Distance for more accurate blur distribution. If Lens Blur effect does not appear on a layer, just delete a layer mask (right click on a layer mask > Delete Layer Mask).

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

In the Shape drop-down menu, you can choose a form of bokeh. In this example, I will use a triangle because this is a rather unusual form, but shapes like Octagon produce more normal blurred results. Radius value controls the size of that shape and the amount of blur that is applied. Blade Curvature quite creatively changes the form and makes the shape more circular. Rotation sets the angle (direction) of the bokeh shape.

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

To control where the bokeh will appear, change the settings in the Specular Highlights section. Brightness increases the strength of the highlights within the blurred area.

Threshold controls which tonal range (pixels) need to be affected to create bokeh. This means that pixels brighter than a Threshold value can be used for creating a bokeh effect. Do not overdo with these two values, otherwise, bokeh shapes can merge into a single mass or even fill a part with white.

Adding Texture or Bokeh Overlays

You can always use additional textures in your artwork, created digitally or by using a camera. Open your image in Photoshop and go to File > Place Embedded (File > Place in older versions), then choose the desired texture. In my case, I made some photos with bokeh on a black background (to separate the bokeh).

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

Next start to experiment with the different layer Blending Modes, such as Screen, Linear Dodge (Add), Color Dodge, etc. You can always reduce the effect of the texture by reducing the layer Fill or adding a contrast to the texture with a Levels adjustment or adjustment layer to add more Blacks and greys, to make it more like “transparent”.

Or if you like texture but don’t like a color in it, then use a Hue/Saturation or Color Balance adjustment to change the hue or remove the color completely. Sometimes in different artworks, I use a bokeh layer with some blurred objects (mostly invisible).

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

Create Your Own Bokeh

This makes artwork more interesting and adds texture and details. There are a lot of opportunities for creativity with layers, and it’s simply impossible to describe them all in this article. But now I will show you one more interesting trick for creating bokeh texture from scratch using only Photoshop filters. If you like to experiment with filters and settings, then this is a very interesting direction, with a lot of options and discoveries in the process.

Create a new layer at the top of all layers by using the shortcut Cmd/Ctrl+Shift+N or going to Layer > New > Layer. In the dialog box that appears set Mode to Screen and checkmark “Fill with Screen-neutral color (black)”. Next, go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise and set following settings – Amount: 15%, Distribution: Gaussian and click Ok. If you want black and white texture, checkmark the Monochromatic option.

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

Next apply Mezzotint filter from Filter > Pixelate > Mezzotint with Type: Coarse Dots. This filter is needed to make noise texture sharper and add highlights to it. Now you need to soften the texture and blend colors. Apply Gaussian Blur filter (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur) with a radius 2.0 pixels.

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

Go to Filter > Other > Maximum and set Radius: 20pixels, Preserve: Roundness. Depending on Radius value and size of your working document, the texture becomes larger or smaller. Apply a Levels adjustment (Image > Adjustments > Levels or use Cmd/Ctrl+L) and move the Blacks until you are satisfied with the result.

Play around and experiment with values of each of these filters and you can find a lot of interesting options.

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

You can add more details to bokeh texture if you want, by using the Unsharp Mask or Find Edge filters. And if you repeat this technique again, but instead of using Mezzotint and Gaussian Blur, apply a Pointillize filter (Filter > Pixelate > Pointillize) with Cell Size: 35 you will get a completely different kind of bokeh texture. So do not hesitate to experiment!

On the internet, there are a lot of paid and free plugins available for Photoshop to create similar effects, for example, the Nik Collection. It’s a free and powerful addition to Photoshop CS4 through CC 2015 with a lot of interesting tools for photographers and artists. There also is the blur, depth of field and bokeh effects produced by Analog Efex Pro 2. In the image below you can see the work of this filter.

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop


And at the end some pieces of advice for you.

More is not always better! Sometimes too many effects (unfortunately any) can give the opposite effect and hide the beauty of the original image or idea. Therefore, try to achieve harmony in color, composition and use these techniques with an intention. If you decided to experiment, then embody the idea entirely, do not hesitate! Do so as you like it.

Bokeh is a lighting effect, use it carefully, so as not to overexpose the overall image. This effect can add excessive brightness to highlights (the right part of the histogram), unwanted light peaks, or increase the overall brightness of the image. It’s important, for example, if you decide to share the picture on the internet or print your image.

The more contrast that is applied with a clear, not overexposed bokeh, the better it looks. So keep your eye on the histogram (you can find it in Window > Histogram).

How to Create Realistic Bokeh and Blur Effects using Photoshop

Also, your bokeh should not be underexposed as well. This is important, by the fact that very often people try to remove unnecessary brightness incorrectly, so get a pale, not realistic bokeh. In exceptional artistic cases, this is permissible, but it is better not to do this.

Pay attention to where you have located or placed bokeh textures and where are the focus and blurred areas in your image, in order to express it more realistically and logically, through a visual image (in photo or artwork).

I will be glad to see your creative inventions, discoveries, and final results. If you have questions, please use the comments section below.

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Maria Semelevich
Maria Semelevich

is my name, I am a photographer, digital artist, and illustrator. The joy for the artist is not only to see the beauty in banal things, but also to be able to show it to the audience. I really hope that my experience will help you find the beauty around yourself and bring it to your loved ones and friends. The main thing is not to stop and believe in yourself!

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