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Review: Alien Skin Bokeh 2

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By Don Chick, M.Photog.Cr., CPP

Controlling the areas of an image which are in focus and out of focus is a powerful aesthetic tool in the hands of a skilled artist. There are times, however, when it’s not always possible to obtain the exact amount of focus while capturing the image (in camera) due to the limitations of your equipment. That’s where Alien Skin Bokeh 2 Photoshop plug-in may come in handy. As defined in Alien Skin’s manual, “bokeh (derived from the Japanese ボケ味) refers to the visually distinctive character of the out-of-focus areas of a photograph. Alien Skin’s Bokeh plug-in is a realistic lens simulator that allows you to alter the focus characteristics of a photograph after it has been taken. It also lets you creatively focus the viewer’s attention to any part of your photograph by applying a combination of blurring and vignettes.”

The Bokeh interface is laid out in an easy to understand, easy to navigate way. It is so easy, in fact, that I was able to launch the software and begin applying it to images without reviewing the manual. Figure 1, below, shows the settings tab with many of the factory settings displayed. For the image of Erica, I’ve chosen to apply the effect of a Canon 50mm f/1.8. There are many, many looks available, including fast lenses such as the popular Canon 85mm f/1.2 and the Nikon 300mm f/2.8. In addition to traditional lens blurring, there are a whole host of creative blur possibilities. The Setting tab also includes creative apertures that produce heart-shaped highlights. If hearts are not your fancy, you can choose from diamonds, triangles or stars. Several motion blurs, grains and vignettes are also possible.

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Figure 1. (click for large view)

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Figure 2. 

You can see the Bokeh tab on the left side of the interface in Figure 2. From this tab you make decisions on how to apply the various mask options. Each time you open an image, the software begins with the most recently used settings. You can modify those settings or delete them and start from a default setting. Radial, planar and half planar masks can be applied individually or in combination. A complex image may require applying more than one mask or making a Quick Selection in Photoshop prior to applying the Bokeh filter. Well-produced, short video tutorials on the Alien Skin site show you how to use Photoshop with Bokeh 2 and other techniques, such as the popular toy model effect.

As you can see with the image of Erica in Figure 2, a single radial mask is not going to create a realistic effect because the background—the plane of focus that we want to blur—shows through the position of her arms. No matter how carefully I mask the image by using radial and/or planar masks, it doesn't have the precision that an image like this will need. The radial and planar masks work best on images where your subject can be isolated as a single mass in the scene, without any areas of negative space on a different plane of focus, as in the example below.  

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Original

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Planar mask and vignette applied

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Final with vignette, blur, and face masked from blur.

So, if I want Erica’s background to blur as if I'd shot with a Canon 50mm f/1.4, I need to cancel Bokeh 2 and make a selection in Photoshop first. The process is fairly simple, though Erica’s exciting hair detail adds some difficulty. I used the Quick Select tool in Photoshop to select all of Erica. I saved this selection (Select > Save Selection), and then went on to refine the selection by editing the mask created by the saved selection. To do this, click on the Edit in Quick Mask icon at the bottom of your tool bar; you’ll see a red mask over the non selected areas. You can edit this mask with a Brush tool (black masks, white reveals) to create a soft transition between the hair and the background. Go to Channels, load the Quick Mask Channel as a selection (the dotted circle icon at the bottom of the palette), and then save that selection.

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Edit your selection in Quick Mask Mode,
then load the mask as a selection.
Save the new selection, turn off Quick Mask, and return to Bokeh 2.

Turn off the Quick Mask (click on the Edit in Quick Mask Mode icon again). Go to Filter > Alien Skin Bokeh 2. Choose your Settings, then got to the Bokeh tab. Your selection mask should be loaded already, but if it’s not, click the red X in the Focus Region section of the interface to delete the default active region. 

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 The image with Bokeh applied around a Photoshop selection.

You can see that the transition of the selection needs some work around the camera-left side of her head, but otherwise looks very good. This did not take hours of work. A little Grain Matching (below) makes the ultra smoothness of the background come back to a state that matches the grain/noise of the focus area. Bokeh also has a vignette tab available too where you can apply either a white or black vignette to an image.

 

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Grain Matching makes the blur blend with the digital
texture of your sharp focus area and lends to the realism.

Click OK to return to Photoshop, where your Bokeh 2 effect will be applied in its own layer, allowing you to scale it back via Opacity or further masking if you choose. 

Bokeh will also work within Lightroom. While working in the Lightroom platform, I found it best to create a virtual copy of the image and access the plug-in while in Lightroom. This allows Lightroom to create another copy of the image with the Bokeh enhancements. Once the Bokeh filter is applied, the image would appear as a .tiff in the lineup of available images in Lightroom. Watch the Video on using Bokeh 2 with Lightroom to see the process.

Since Alien Skin does offer a trial period for their software, checking out the Bokeh 2 plug-in is easy to do. The software is easy to learn, and getting up to speed happens quickly. The 30-day free trial period should give you ample time to decide for yourself whether the creative enhancements that Bokeh has to offer is right for you.

Price: $199; Upgrade $99

Professional Photographer magazine Senior Editor Joan Sherwood contributed to this article.