Review - Bokeh 2


Bokeh 2 provides a significant upgrade to an already good product. I was very impressed with the first release of Bokeh (see review here), and Alien Skin Software has made tremendous improvements on what they started out with. It was a surprise seeing many of my suggestions and wishes I gave in my review of the first release implemented in this new release. What made it even better was that their solutions were much better than what I had wished for. First and foremost is the new ability to combine multiple masks for fine-tuning the bokeh effect and more controls on that effect, all providing a significantly better result for the photographer. And as always: wait, there's more!

The term "Bokeh" refers to the soft out-of-focus that occurs when an image is outside of the depth of field of an image. Everyone has seen this manipulated and used in movies or television when the camera has one person in the foreground talking and they are in focus while the person in the background is out of focus. That person in the background is in bokeh.

The value of Bokeh is part of the image composition process. A view of a beautiful hillside might very well be a beautiful view, but it may also end up being a very so-so image. This is because one of the elements for a great photo is for there to be something in the photo for the viewer's eye to focus on. The eye naturally goes to brighter things and/or things in focus. So, if the item is bright AND in focus, your eye will snap to that item. Think about that when you view this famous photo from National Geographic of the Afgani girl.

The mechanics for creating Bokeh in the camera is that you need to have a very fast lens (one with a very low aperture number) and the depth of field is very small. For example, if you have a 55 mm lens, set at f2, if your subject is 7 feet away, the depth of field is 5 inches and anything 2.5 inches in front and 2.5 inches behind will be in focus and everything beyond that range will be out of focus. If your f-stop changes to f32, the depth of field changes to 7' 4". Depending on light conditions or the speed of the lens, your ability to even have a very low f-stop might not exist. In addition, if you are walking around and see a great photo moment, your ability to take the time to set everything just right might not exist. Lastly, if you have a point-and-shoot camera, you may not even be able to set your camera to obtain the best bokeh for the image.

Enter Bokeh. Um, Bokeh 2.

Below is an image displaying essentially no bokeh and was taken at an f-stop of 19.

no bokeh

Below is a different image displaying a pleasant amount of bokeh. This image was taken with an f-stop of 5.6 (at this focal length, that's the lowest limit of my lens).

bokeh in camera

Next, visually mimicking the image above as best as possible, the image below is the same top image (originally with no bokeh) that's been bokehed by Bokeh 2.

bokeh by bokeh

And finally, I can let Bokeh do what I couldn't do in my camera because my lens is not fast enough: push the bokeh to replicate a faster lens and provide a look that my lens is not capable of creating.

final push with bokeh

Now besides the capabilities of bokeh, there's one aspect about these images that should stand out to previous owners of Bokeh: I have the young lady's face and body in focus. One of the limitations that Bokeh 1 had was that you either had an oval or a linear mask over an image to define what was in or out of focus. Now, in Bokeh 2, you can add, mix, and/or combine any number of masks. What's of import and can be seen below is that each mask (and note the new mask: Planar), is that each one shows "Add" to each button. You can add as many of these masks as you need to mask out the region of the image that you do not want to show bokeh.

bokeh settings

This can be seen below where in the top photo, you see the smaller dot handles of one of the masks while the red arrow points to a larger dot. If you click on that you then see the handles of the other mask (and in the 2nd image I'm pointing to the larger dot of the previous mask). On the bottom image below, what I've done is to press the "Show Mask" button (shown on the top of the image above). In this image you can see the range of the masks and the feathering on the image.

multiple masks

I have several minor quibbles with the way these work. First off, all symmetrical masks (the oval and planar) expand or contract from the center, not from the side. I wish these worked from the sides and not from the center. Alternatively, I wished that there be a key-command so you could press (say the Option key) and the re-sizing would work from the side. The reason is that I as I worked with the masks, I'd place one side of the mask against the left edge of an image and then would want to resize the mask to reach the right side. But when you do that, you expand the left side as well so that the mask now extends beyond the edge of where you just place the mask.

My second quibble is that you can rotate a mask from any handle. Thus, as you are increasing/decreasing the size of a mask, you will likely be tipping the angle of the mask even if you do not what you want to do. I wish there was one rotation handle OR use a command-key to initiate rotation.

My last quibble can be seen if you look at the larger gray dots that indicate a different mask or a smaller gray handle to indicate a size/rotation handle. Although you can't see it in these screenshots, the dots are no different for an oval mask, a planar mask, or a half mask. I wish these were more distinguishable and for each different mask to receive a different dot color, and each different type of mask to receive a different shape (e.g., circle, triangle, square).

Despite my quibbles, the new ability to add masks and alter them an infinite amount provides wonderful capabilities and dynamics to fine-tune the image. While the need to make selections in an image to separate the parts you want in focus or bokehed still remains, you now have much greater capabilities and demands.

As in the first release, you do have the option to save the bokehed image as a new layer above the original image. This is of great value because if you do not like the results you can toss that new layer and start again. The settings in Bokeh are sticky and will remain from the last previous use. My wish at this point would be that the layer mask that separates the bokehed region from the non-bokehed region remain a separate mask that we could alter from within Photoshop.

The UI (User Interface) for selecting the shape of the diaphragm has improved as well as providing new dynamics of the shape of the diaphragm blades. Before there was a simple dropdown menu to select the blade you wanted to use and that was pretty much it. Now, you can either click on the left or right facing arrows to scroll up or down the selections or click on the blade image and a popup window will display showing all of the blades available (no new shapes/blades in this release). You can either single click to change the blade or double-click select the blade and close the popup.

New in this release are two dynamics to the shape and dynamics of the blade: Creamy and Blade Curvature. Moving "Creamy" to the left will hollow out the shape while to the right softens the outside edge. Moving "Blade Curvature" to the left will make the shape more star like while moving it to the right will make the shape more bulbus. How either of these effect the image varies upon the highlights and contrasts within the image. As you make changes to Creamy and Blade Curvature, the effects on the blade structure are displayed in the blade images. The effects of these changes are shown in the sample image in the plugin window (not shown).

bokeh blades

Another problem I had with the original Bokeh 1 was that whatever mask you had set for bokeh would also be the mask that was used for any vignetting. While many times this may be what you want, it also may not always work for the image. Now, vignetting has three options as shown in the image below.

  • Bokeh Region: is the same as what Bokeh 1 provided. Whatever the bokeh mask you had with the Bokeh settings where what you will get with the vignette. [Note: if you move or alter this in Vignette, you will have also moved it for the Bokeh settings.]
  • Natural: is what you get within the camera or with Photoshop. That is, only the corners are darkened (or lightened).
  • Custom Region: is completely new and lets the user have a bokeh region that is completely separate with the Bokeh region. Also note on the bottom of the image below are the same options provided on the Bokeh tab where you can add Radial, Planar, and Half masks to the image for vignette control.

vignette controls

This last new option is fantastic but also somewhat potentially tricky: As I mentioned in the very beginning of this review, the eye tends to first be drawn to things that are lighter and in focus. If you've set one object to be in focus, chances are you also want that item to be lighter. But the dynamics of an image or the selected bokeh type may make that not necessarily the best option for a vignette.

If you look at the image below of an old milling stone in a pile of leaves, the top image is the original photo. There is no bokeh or vignetting. For the bokeh, I chose to use the Planar option so that the fore and background were out of focus. As you can see in the middle image below, this plus the default vignetting gave a linear lighter region across the entire middle of the image. That's not what I wanted. By selecting the Custom option, I was able to select the Radial vignetting and was able to help focus the viewer's observations into the middle of the image. It's also possible to have other regions in the image that are naturally lighter than other regions causing some of the vignetted regions to be lighter than you want. Again, by using custom vignetting, you can place the vignetting exactly where it's the most effective.

vignette options

I'll finish at the beginning of the Bokeh process, the changes to the Settings tab (where the Bokeh process should begin) has also been changed with an interesting albeit frustrating dynamic. In Bokeh 1, there were a wide collection of pre-made sets of effects and you could click on one or the other and watch the changes. Here, you can click amongst pre-made components, but they are cumulative. Thus, you can click on (for example) the Canon 50mm lens AND a Fat 50% grain AND set the Highlights for Boost 25%, etc. If you want to turn something off, you click on the -(whatever) effect- 0% (you can't have no lens so there's no way to have -lens- 0%). My biggest frustration with this is that there is no check mark in the list to indicate what you've selected. As such, it's very frustrating if you forgot what you selected


Any setting you've created can be saved for later use and can be placed within custom named folders in the bottom of the Settings tab. As in Bokeh 1, from any tab you can press Command-s and save your setting but only from the Settings tab is there a Save button to click on. I see no reason why this Save button can't be on each of the tabs as the result would be just the same.

There are other new features that I'm not going to show in this review such as zooming (which causes the blurring to have a motion zooming-in appearance) or Twisting (which causes that zoom to have a rotational-zooming blur). I just don't have any photos that do those special effects any justice. However, with the right image these can be quite nice. In the video tutorials on the Alien Skin's website, there's one with a surfer "shooting the tube" which I found to be an excellent display of these effects. I should also point out that these videos are all excellent and worth watching.

In short, as I've mentioned, I have a few quibbles on several areas with this update, but none of them are frustrating to me as the lack of feedback in the Settings tab. There should be either a check mark next to each selected item and/or a list of selected settings. The only current way around this is to save each setting you create with specific details of what settings you've used. While that may be a good idea for settings that you really like, it leaves a lot to be desired if you are still in the experimental phase and may not necessarily remember what settings you've clicked on.

However, that in itself doesn't detract from the fact that this is a significant improvement on the last release and that release earned my comment that "it does what it says it does and it does it well." For this release I'd have to say "it does what it says it does and it does it better." But please, Alien Skin. Fix that Settings tab!

Applelinks Rating:
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___________ Gary Coyne has been a scientific glassblower for over 30 years. He's been using Macs since 1985 (his first was a fat Mac) and has been writing reviews of Mac software and hardware since 1995.

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