Digital SLR Photography

Create a fake bokeh effect

By Caroline Schmidt. Posted

Bokeh is that smoothness you get from a shallow depth-of-field, but it can be made even better by incorporating small lights that are transformed into artistic, colourful spots. It’s a great time of year to capture them in-camera with plenty of fairy lights and artificial lighting at night to combine with wide apertures, but it’s not always feasible to include bokeh like this unless you’ve a lens with a large maximum aperture, such as f/1.4-f/2.8, and an array of lights around your subject to blur. You can add your own lights, as in our earlier tutorial, but you can also recreate the effect in a more controllable way using Photoshop. To make the process easier and the effect more authentic to look at, choose a portrait that’s been photographed with a shallow depth-of-field so the image already has a blurred background. You’ll also need a selection of images to overlay that have highlights you can exploit. It could literally be anything –
a still-life, dappled light in a woodland, a night scene, street lamps. The darker the images are and the more noticeable the highlights, the easier the effect will be to create.


1 Select your shots

With your portrait open in Photoshop, make any basic adjustments you need to do before adding the bokeh as a finishing touch. Once ready, open your first bokeh image. Here I’ve chosen a night scene so the image already has great colour, contrast and light. To blur the image, select Filter>Blur>Field Blur.


2 Use Field Blur

Start by adjusting the Field Blur’s Blur slider until the image is unrecognisable and a smooth blur of colour but with some visible definition. You can also try moving the dial in the centre of the image, as opposed to the slider, if you prefer. However, don’t click elsewhere on the image or you’ll create multiple blur spots.

3 Adjust the Effects

Under the Effects tab, move the Light Bokeh slider to the right until you start to see round bokeh spots appear. Don’t push it too far so the spots turn overly bright and white. Move the Bokeh Color slider to increase their vibrance and adjust the Light Range until you find a good tonal contrast. Click OK.


4 Copy to your portrait

Go to Select>All, then Edit>Copy and click back onto your portrait image. Click Edit>Paste to apply the bokeh layer on top. Use the Move Tool and Shift key to resize and position the bokeh layer over the subject. In the Layers palette, select the Blend Mode dropdown menu and select Screen to reveal only the bright bokeh.

5 Edit the bokeh

Use the Move Tool to drag the bokeh where you want it to sit on your subject. Add a Layer Mask and use the Brush Tool with black paint to remove any unwanted bokeh effect from the subject’s face and any straight lines from where the edge of the layers overlap. Reduce the layer’s Opacity too, if needed.


6 Rinse and repeat

For every new bokeh image you want to add, repeat steps 1-5. Sometimes you may find using Levels to darken areas around the highlights helps to separate the bokeh before blending it with the portrait. Remember to resize the bokeh too; the bokeh should be larger in the foreground than it is in the background.