Bokeh is one of the most oft-used effects in photography. Originally derived from the Japanese word boke, which means ‘haze’ or ‘blur’, the bokeh effects refers to the aesthetic quality of blur, especially when applied to background elements in an image. You’ve seen this effect aplenty throughout your life, even if you didn’t know what to call it.
In this tutorial, we’ll learn how to create the bokeh effect in Photoshop. You can learn more about the tools used to create this effect in this Photoshop CS6 crash course.
What is Bokeh Effect?
Before we get started, let’s understand the bokeh effect. Take a look at the image below:
In the first two images, the blobs of color are nothing but blurred lights in the distance. The blur effect makes them appear like little balls hanging against the sky.
In the third image, the background is blurred (but not to the point of non-recognition) such that the focus is on the foreground object.
These are three examples of the bokeh effect – blur, either intentional or accidental, adding to the aesthetic appeal of an image.
It is possible to create the bokeh effect with zero post-processing by using certain camera techniques (which are beyond the scope of this tutorial). But a far easier (and fun!) way to create the bokeh effect is through Photoshop, which we’ll learn below.
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Creating Bokeh Effect in Photoshop
To give you an idea of what we will create, this will be our final product:
To create this effect, we’ll have to utilize Photoshop’s Brush Engine and the Gaussian Blur effect. Let’s learn how to do this step by step:
Step 1: On an empty canvas, first create a gradient. This will serve as the background.
To do this, hit G or find the Gradient Tool in the toolbox:
Choose your gradient color in the settings at the top.
Darker colors tend to work better as they play off the light of the blurred brushes. I choose a black-gray-dark pink gradient.
The gradient is just the background; it doesn’t matter what color you use. Just pick something that would look nice against our blobs of light.
Step 2: Create a new layer (CTRL + SHINT + N) and name it ‘Brush 1’. This will hold our light blobs.
To create these blobs, we are going to use Photoshop’s brush engine. Hit F5 or go to Window -> Brushes to open the Brush Engine.
If all the options in the next window are grayed out, make sure that you’ve pre-selected the brush tool in the toolbox to the left (or press B/Shift-B).
The brush engine allows you to use an existing brush and change its parameters (or create a new preset). For this example, I’m going to use a simple round brush – the third in the ‘Brush Tip Shape’ window.
You’ll notice that the brush is a regular line. We want blobs or circles, not a lines, so we will drag the ‘Spacing’ slider until the brush shape at the bottom turns into dots or circles, like this:
Step 3: We will now modify our brush tip further so that it is not only spaced further apart, but also has variable colors, spacing and position.
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First, click on the ‘Shape Dynamics’ check box in the ‘Brush’ menu above and select the following options:
We’ve increased ‘Size Jitter’ because we want each circle or drop to have different sizes. The more the jitter, the more the circles will vary.
You can also determine the size of the smallest circle by choosing the ‘Minimum Diameter’.
For control, I’ve chosen ‘Fade’.
Leave the rest of the options as they are and check the ‘Scattering’ option in the left menu.
This is what your options should look like:
Scattering decides how far each circle will ‘scatter’ when the brush is used. The larger this value, the more variable the distance between circles.
You can also increase the ‘Count’ to crowd circles together.
When you’re done, select ‘Color Dynamics’ in the left menu. This is what you should see among the options:
This basically means that each time you click the mouse with the brush, you will see circles of different colors. As with the settings above, the larger the jitter value, the more variable the colors will be. This will save us a lot of effort since we can create hundreds of circles of different colors without worrying about individual circles.
Finally, check ‘Smoothing’ and close the Brush menu.
Step 4: It’s now time to draw our circles. Make sure that your new layer (Brush 1) is selected. Use the brush tool and drag your mouse over the canvas. You’ll see little circles popping all over the gradient. Each time you click the mouse, you should see circles of a slightly different color. Make sure that you paint all over the canvas with a few dense ‘lights’ crowded in one place.
This is what my canvas looked like after the first round of painting:
Step 5: Now select the ‘Brush 1’ layer in the Layers panel and change the blend mode to ‘Color Dodge’. This will make the circles pop out a little more.
Step 6: Go to Filters -> Blur -> Gaussian Blue
Increase the blur settings until your circles appear hazy and mashed-up together.
This is what your canvas should look like now. It’s almost close to the finished version. We just need to make a couple of more additions and we’re done!
Step 6: We want the blobs of blurred light to pop out a bit more. This is easy enough to do – just make a duplicate of the ‘Brush 1’ layer (CTRL + J).
This layer will sit on top of the previous layer, making our circles appear a little brighter:
You can play around with the opacity and the blend mode to get a mix that you like. Remember: the key to Photoshop mastery is a willingness to make mistakes, experiment with different options and try out new things.
So there you have it – a simple bokeh effect created using just a few brush strokes and the Gaussian blur effect. You can learn more about the bokeh and other effects in this excellent course on mastering Photoshop CC.