How to Simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

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Hailing from Russia, I give you…the Helios and its swirly bokeh.

I know, it’s kind of an ugly duckling right? At the very least, Helios lenses are certainly not the shining example of classical grace and beauty that the company’s bestowed name might conjure forth. Instead, the true charm and appeal of these vintage lenses comes from what’s on the inside.

Due to their optical nature, Helios lenses can produce wonderfully swirly bokeh and backgrounds when shot at wide apertures.

How to Simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop - image shot with Helios lens

Image by Mike Newton made with a Helios lens.

If you don’t happen to have a Helios lying around (they’re actually quite cheap) then I hope you will consider learning how easy you can simulate that swirly bokeh of this nifty little lens. You can do it right inside of Photoshop – here’s how.

What Kind of Images Work Best?

The charm of the Helios lens comes from separating the subject from the background with style. This means that just like any other time you want to blur out a background, the further you can place your subject from the objects behind it the more blurred the background will become.

The same is true for images you choose to simulate the “Helios effect” in Photoshop. Look for images with isolated subjects that can be easily separated from the background. This is the example we’ll be using for the demonstration.

How to Simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop - example image for tutorial

Not only do swirly backgrounds complement images like these more so than others, but having easily identifiable borders between your subject and the background will make things much easier on you during the processing.

How to Create the Helios Effect

The key player in this edit will be a hidden little tool, or rather a filter, buried inside of the Blur Gallery portion of the Filter menu bar at the top of the window. You will use the Spin Blur Filter to give you that dreamy understated swirly bokeh background for which Helios lenses are so favored.

After you’ve got your image opened in Photoshop it’s time to begin the effect.

Duplicate the Layer

Make a duplicate copy of the background layer by using the keyboard shortcut Cmd/Ctrl+J. Feel free to rename the duplicate layer as I’ve done here to help you keep track in case you’re working with more layers.

spin blur layer - How to Simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

Next, go up to menu bar you looked at earlier and go to Filter > Blur Gallery > Spin Blur… This will open up the blur gallery and it is here where you’ll do the actual blurring.

spin blur in the menu - How to Simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

You’ll notice quite a few options here in the spin blur gallery; the most important of which is the Blur Angle slider.

blur angle slider - How to Simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

This is how you will control the amount of simulated blur in your image. Think of the blur angle as the control for the degree of swirl in the background. Before you decide on how much blur you want to introduce to your image you first need to decide where you want the blur effect to be applied. Do this by adjusting the size and shape of the blur filter itself.

Adjust the Size and Feather Amount of the Filter

You can click and drag the outside of the filter to control its size and shape. How close the blur comes to the edges of the filter is controlled by the four larger dots shown here:

spin blur adjustment dots - How to Simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

Think of these dots as the way you dictate the feathering of the spin blur effect as it approaches the edges of the filter. Drag the filter out to just past each corner of the frame and then adjust the feathering accordingly.

Feel free to experiment with placing the center point of the filter at different locations within your image.

spin blur filter in action - How to Simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

Select the Blur Amount

As I’ve said, the largest variable you can control when applying your swirly bokeh background is the angle of the blur, which essentially dictates the amount of perceived spin blur. In most cases, a very small amount of blur angle works best, say maybe 2-4%.

Keep in mind that the true swirly bokeh from the Helios lens is generally subtle so keep the background blur in your simulated images somewhat subdued. Here’s our image with 4% blur angle applied.

4% blur applied - How to Simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

Keep in mind that the final determination of the amount of blur will be decided just a little later in the process by using the layer opacity. So it’s a better idea to add in a little too much blur than not enough at this point in your processing.

Also, keep in mind that you can also increase or decrease the amount of blur angle using the control wheel located at the very center of the filter. Once your blur is applied, click “OK” at the top of the screen.

NOTE: If you convert the layer into a Smart Object before applying the Spin Blur filter, the settings can be adjusted at any time as it will be a non-destructive edit.

Final Blur Adjustments Using Layer Masks and Opacity

Now that you’re back to the main editing window in Photoshop you can finish up your Helios-style blur effect by using layer masks and opacity to customize the blur.

Adjust the opacity of the spin blur layer by using the layer opacity slider until the effect reaches the desired amount you like for your particular image. In this case, I’ve set the opacity to a modest 70%.

layer at 70% opacity - How to Simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

Next, we’ll want to make sure the subject of the photo is free from the blur effect. To do this, add a layer mask to the spin blur layer.

add a layer mask - How to Simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

Then use the Brush tool to remove the blurring effect from the areas where it’s not needed. And viola! Your freshly minted Helios swirly bokeh simulation is complete!

final image butterfly and flowers - How to Simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

Final Thoughts on Simulating Helios Bokeh

Acquiring an actual Helios lens is a surprisingly easy and budget-friendly method for adding a little uniqueness to your photography. Still, if you choose not to get a lens of your own, you can simulate the look of that classic Helios swirl by using the methods shown in this article.

Here are a few points to remember if you want to give the Photoshop Helios method a try:

  • Choose a photo with a subject that is relatively isolated on its focal plane.
  • Images with busy backgrounds work best.
  • A blur angle of 2-4% is adequate for most photos.
  • Center the blur around the main subject but don’t be afraid to move it elsewhere!
  • Control the final blur amount using the layer opacity slider and layer masks.

Simulating the swirly blurred backgrounds of the Helios is easy and quick in Photoshop using the spin blur filter.

Here are a few more examples of images which have been given the Helios effect using the techniques shown here.

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Adam Welch is a full-time photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find him on some distant trail making photographs or at his computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography. Follow his blog over at aphotographist.com and check out his eBooks and Lightroom presets!.

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