Understanding and Creating Bokeh

With the holidays just around the corner, there's plenty of Christmas trees and holiday lights on display. This article is broken up into two parts. In the first part, you'll learn more about what bokeh is and how it works. Then you'll get the chance to jump into a Photoshop tutorial where you'll learn how you can enhance the photo above to create a bokeh effect just in time for the holidays.

Understanding Bokeh

Before we dive into Photoshop, let's look at what bokeh is and how it's created with an actual camera. You've probably seen bokeh before, and in most cases bokeh is something that happens within a camera itself. The bokeh effect, which you can see in the image above, is really as simple as blurring. In fact, the word bokeh comes from the Japanese word boke, which can be translated to mean "blur". What you're probably familiar with when you've seen bokeh, though, is blurred light sort of like in the image above. However, you've probably seen a range of shapes for the bokeh effect. Sometimes it's circular and sometimes it's got more of a hexagonal shape to it. Light going into a camera lens in relation to the aperture While we won't really go into how every aspect of cameras work in this article, to understand why bokeh happens and what shape it takes on it's important to understand how they work to some degree so you'll know why bokeh happens. In every camera is a mechanism called the aperture, which basically is an opening in the lens that lets light through to the sensor. The aperture is what controls the depth of field in your camera. In the example above, you can see the path of light comes into the camera lens and passes through both the lens glass and the hole in the aperture before it gets to the sensor itself. For most photographs, your depth of field will be low enough that you won't really see the aperture show up in your photos. However, if you have a high enough depth of field that the light passing through the aperture is blurred beyond the shape of the aperture itself, the bokeh effect is the result. Camera aperture Knowing that the light passes through the aperture, the next step of understanding how to control the bokeh effect comes by knowing how you can control your camera's aperture. As you might expect, exactly how much depth of field will cause the bokeh effect is going to vary depending on what your aperture is set to. In the image above you'll see an actual aperture mechanism. If you look closely, you'll notice the hole in the middle is actually made up of a series of blades. Although the exact number of which will vary depending on what type of lens you have, those blades will open or close depending on your camera's aperture settings. Camera aperture opened and closed Here's an example of some different aperture settings. When the aperture is large (which means it's open more), the blades tend to make a more circular shape whereas when the aperture is smaller (which means it's closed more), the blades will take on a more hexagonal shape. Normally, you'll have your lens in focus on your photograph's subject so you won't really notice the shape change in the final photo. However, if you're trying to get a bokeh effect you can use this knowledge to your advantage by defocusing the area of the image you want to have the bokeh while at the same time controlling your aperture's shape.
Before After

Can’t see the bokeh? Hover over the image to see a slider, then use the slider to see the bokeh highlighted.

The most common use of this is with extremely high depth of field simply because that offers the most contrast. In the image above, notice how the ornament on the right side of the photograph is in focus while on the left side of the image there is some bokeh effects happening.

However as you add blur through your lens, for example if you have a high depth of field, what your camera’s sensor sees is going to be greatly affected by the amount of light coming through the aperture. And, by extension, the shape of the bokeh effect will change depending on that aperture shape.

If you look closely at some of the bokeh around the light, you can even see the shape. As you might’ve guessed from the more circular shape of the bokeh in the photo, when I took this photo the aperture was pretty large (f/2).

Bokeh with small aperture
By contrast, as the aperture gets smaller the bokeh effect will usually take on a more polygonal shape (hexagonal, heptagonal, etc. depending on your particular lens and how many blades there are) as you can see in the image above. It’s important to mention that the exact settings to get different bokeh effects will vary depending on your camera, lens and of course the subject of the photo itself.

If you’re wanting to add bokeh to an existing photograph you can get a better idea of what shape you’ll need to create by looking for the aperture setting for the photograph.

Creating a Bokeh Effect in Photoshop

Now that you’re familiar with how bokeh is created in a camera’s lens, the actual act of creating bokeh can be done by basically replicating digitally what a camera lens does. This is actually pretty simple to do if you’re familiar with a program like Photoshop.

In this Photoshop tutorial, we’ll go step-by-step to create the image above. Even though there are quite a few steps to achieving our final effect, there’s three overall steps to creating a bokeh effect and they are:

  • Create the bokeh shape
  • Paint the bokeh shape where you want it in your image
  • Blur the shape

After that it’s a matter of blending the effect into the photo, which is actually a pretty big part of any believable bokeh effect. This is primarily because bokeh is usually not intended to be the center of focus for any given photo.

So we’ll look at how to blend in the bokeh we create into a photo as well. It’s also worth mentioning that this tutorial was created using Photoshop CS5, so even though you can still do these techniques in any version of Photoshop, a few things may be in slightly different locations depending on what version of Photoshop you’re using.

Download the project files for this tutorial

Step 1

I’ll be using the same photo we looked at earlier in this article. You can see the original photo above and download the project files, if you haven’t already.

You’ll notice there are two original Tree images, one is a DNG (digital negative) and one is a JPG. My personal preference is to take photos in camera raw (DNG) and JPG format at the same time. Most modern cameras that shoot in camera raw let you do this.

Of course this isn’t something you have to do, but I prefer to use the raw image for editing purposes but most operating systems can’t natively see raw images so the JPG image will show a nice preview and all of the photo metadata. You’ll find both of these images in the project files, so feel free to use whichever you’d prefer.

If you’re using the DNG file and you’re not sure what to do when the camera raw dialog pops up in Photoshop, the Camera Raw Digital Darkroom Techniques in Photoshop tutorial can really help demystify that for you.

Step 2

Camera aperture f-stop
Looking at the metadata for the image, you can see this photo has an f-stop of 2.8. This means any bokeh effect that’s in the photo from the lens itself will be closer to circular instead of hexagonal.

For that reason, in this tutorial we’ll be adding some more circular bokeh to really push the bokeh effect that’s visible in the image. If you’d like to add in some hexagonal bokeh, the core technique is the same you’ll just want to create a different shape in the next step.

Step 3

Using the shape tool, create a circle. You can hold down Shift + LMB click and drag to create a perfect circle. That’s what I did in the image above.

Step 4

bokeh-tutorial-03Because no actual bokeh shape is an actual perfect circle, select the circle shape and tweak the shape just slightly to give it an oblong shape. To do this, you can use the Direct Select tool (A) and LMB click/drag points along the circle to get a unique shape.

To make it easier to see the shape, I’d recommend turning off the layer with the original photo.

Step 5

Once you’re happy with your shape, Ctrl + LMB click on the shape in the Layers panel. This will select the shape.

Step 6

With the shape selected, go to Edit > Define Brush Preset. By creating a brush out of this shape, we’ll be able to quickly paint the bokeh shape around our photograph. This is a lot faster than manually duplicating shapes around.

Step 7

This will pop up a box allowing you to name your new brush. The name doesn’t really matter for the effect itself, so it’s just for your own purposes of being able to remember what the brush is. In my case, I called it the cryptic name of “bokeh circle”.

Step 8

Once the brush is created, we’ll need to create a layer to paint on. Like the brush, the name of the layer doesn’t really matter for the effect itself. However, it’s always a good idea to stay organized, so give the layer a name that will help you remember what’s on it.

Step 9

If you turned off the photo layer to create the bokeh shape, it’s a good time to turn that back on so we’ll know where to paint the bokeh.

Step 10

We’re almost ready to actually paint in our bokeh. Before doing that, let’s make some changes to the brush settings. Open up the Brush panel by going to Window > Brush.

Step 11

In here, there’s a lot of different settings you can do to really get some cool effects with your new bokeh shape brush. In fact, I’d recommend playing around with some of these settings. If you get lost, you can always refer to the Your First Day with Photoshop CC tutorial to help you better understand what these mean.

For this tutorial, though, make sure the “bokeh circle” brush (or whatever you named your brush from step 6) is selected and adjust its size and spacing as you deem necessary. You can see the settings I used in the screenshot above.

Step 12

Another important thing you’ll notice from real-world bokeh effects is that no two shapes are exactly the same opacity. To mimic this and add more realism to our bokeh, select Transfer and adjust the Opacity Jitter and Flow Jitter.

Similar to the scatter and size, I’d encourage you to play around with the jitter settings to come up with a look that you like. You can see the settings I’m using in the screenshot above.

Step 13

With the brush ready to go, paint in some bokeh shapes. When painting them in, remember two important things: First, because of the way bokeh is created in a camera lens it’s usually easier to see around bright lights. Second, we’re going to be adding in another layer of bokeh at a different size, so for now only focus on creating some small bokeh shapes.

Step 14

Before After

Hover over the image to see a slider, then use the slider to see where the color was sampled from in the photo.

Once you’ve got the bokeh painted in, you can change the color. For this, I’d recommend using the Eyedropper tool (I) to select a color near the light. The RGB values for the color I ended up using for this particular tutorial were 98, 70, 10 (Hex #624f0a).

Step 15

Once you have the color picked, with the layer selected use the shortcut Alt + Shift + Backspace to fill the layer with your foreground color.

You’ll notice the color picked is a darker color. That’s precisely what we want because we’re going to be using a layer mode to help the bokeh stand out a bit more while at the same time blending into the photo a little better.

Step 16

After you’ve changed the color of your bokeh shapes, in the Layer panel change the layer mode to Linear Dodge (Add).

Step 17

You can see right away how the bokeh effect is starting to take shape.

If you picked a color a few steps ago that doesn’t look very believable once you change the layer mode, feel free to select a new color and use the shortcut Alt + Shift + Backspace to change the bokeh paint layer’s color (Ctrl + Shift + Backspace if you’re wanting to fill the layer with your background color).

You could go even further and create multiple bokeh layers with shapes of different colors that really help to sell the realism.

Step 18

Once you’re happy with your bokeh’s color, now it’s time to blur the bokeh. With your bokeh layer selected, go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur.

Step 19

The exact amount you’ll want to blur the bokeh is going to really depend on how you’ve painted them in so far. For this tutorial, you can see I used a value of 12.0 but feel free to adjust it as you need to get a good result.

Step 20

Next, let’s repeat a few steps to help give some variation. All of the bokeh created so far is the same size, so create a new layer to paint some larger bokeh shapes on.

Step 21

Going back to the Brush panel (Window > Brush), adjust the size of the bokeh brush. You can always go in and change some of the other settings like we did earlier, but for this tutorial I didn’t make any other changes.

Step 22

Once your brush is ready to go, paint in some larger bokeh shapes.

Step 23

Repeating the same steps as before, switch the layer mode to Linear Dodge (Add) on the freshly-painted larger bokeh layer.

Step 24

The next step is to blur the bokeh, so you can either go back to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur or you can just go to Filter > Gaussian Blur because Photoshop will remember the last filter you did. To make it even faster, you can just hit Ctrl + F if you don’t want to use the menus at all.

If you go the shortcut route, Photoshop will apply the same amount of blur as the last time you ran the Gaussian Blur (which, if you remember, was 12.0).

Step 25

Before After

Hover over the image to see a slider, then use the slider to see the one of the problem areas highlighted.

At this point, we’ve got all of our bokeh created. Now it’s just a matter of blending it into the photo. The first thing to help with this is going to be fixing areas where the bokeh shapes we’ve created are obviously on top of areas in the photo they shouldn’t be.

Step 26

A great way to start fixing this issue is to use a layer mask. So we’ll need to create a layer mask on the large bokeh layer.

Step 27

Once the layer mask is created, if you hold down Alt + LMB click on the layer mask in the Layer panel, Photoshop will change your view to be the actual layer mask itself. Since we haven’t painted anything on it yet, it’ll probably just be white like in the screenshot above.

Step 28

While you can paint on layer masks without seeing the layer mask like this, there’s some things you can only do if you’ve got the layer mask open. For example, adding in a gradient to the layer mask.

Open the Gradient tool (G) and make sure you’ve got the default white to black gradient selected.

Step 29

Since we painted all of our bokeh on the left side of our photo, we’ll want to create the gradient so the bokeh is visible on the left side.

If you’re using the default white to black gradient, LMB click and drag from the bottom right of the photo to the top left. This should create a gradient similar to the image above. If you need to, don’t be afraid to use Ctrl + Z to undo and then re-draw the gradient on the layer mask.

Step 30

If you LMB click on the layer preview in the Layer panel, you’ll be able to get back to the RGB channels of the photo. If you look closely on the image above, you’ll notice how the gradient layer mask has affected our bokeh shapes.

Step 31

Although the gradient really helped, there’s still a few areas in this particular photo that need to be cleaned up. Usually when painting on a layer mask over a photo it’s easier to paint in the RGB channels. Use the Brush tool (B) and black to hide areas or white to show areas.

You can see my final layer mask in the image above. I should mention that I didn’t actually paint in the layer mask view, I just Alt + LMB clicked on the layer mask in the Layer panel so you can see what my final layer mask looked a little easier.

Step 32

Back in the RGB channels, you can see how the layer mask painted out some of the leaves and other areas to make the bokeh shapes blend into the photo even better.

Step 33

Anytime you’re editing a photo, a little trick that’s helpful to sell the believability of your edits is to add in a layer of grain over everything. The reason for this is simply because that grain will be covering both your edits and the original photo in exactly the same way. Basically, it helps cover up any edits you’ve made by making the whole photo look more consistent.

To do this, create a new layer.

Step 34

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to add grain in Photoshop to a transparent layer. So we’ll need to fill this layer before we can add the grain effect.

With the new layer selected, fill it. In this case, I filled it with black using Alt + Backspace to fill the layer with the foreground color (black).

Step 35

Once the layer is filled with a color, go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise.

Step 36

Make sure you check the Monochromatic checkbox so you get black and white noise. The amount of noise is up to you, but remember you’re going for a subtle look so don’t overdo it.

Step 37

Once the noise is added to your layer, you can hide all of the black areas by setting the layer to Screen mode. Basically, the result of this is that you’ll only be able to see the white grain.

Step 38

If you look closely, you can see the bokeh shapes that we created in this tutorial and the rest of the photo both have grain over top of them. Because the grain is consistent across the bokeh shapes we made and the original photo, it’s a lot more difficult to tell what is edited and what isn’t. In the end, that’s exactly what we want.

If the grain is too obvious, you can adjust the opacity of the grain layer. If you’ll notice in the Layers panel, I set the opacity of the grain layer to about 60%.

Step 39

The final step is to do a little color correction. For this tutorial, I won’t go into color correction too much. We have plenty of image editing tutorials in Photoshop that will walk you through a wide range of color correction techniques, but if you haven’t watched it yet the Your First Day with Photoshop CC course has some great lessons around various color correction tools in Photoshop.


Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this tutorial and learned more about bokeh. Since bokeh is really a stylistic decision so feel free to be creative and try new things! I’d encourage you to try this technique on another photo and start changing up the shapes to be more polygonal. Remember Photoshop has a Polygon Tool (U) you can use to get some great bokeh shapes if you want something more hexagonal instead of circular.

If you have any questions or get stuck along the way, feel free to comment below.