Bokeh in a Box

Photo © Bob Krist
Photo © Bob Krist


Ordinarily, my clients don’t let me mess with reality, but I had a shoot last weekend for the Arthritis Foundation‘s annual report cover that was clearly considered to be a “photo illustration,” and as such, I had more than the normal leeway.

The AD wanted a shot of a remarkable guy named David who cycled across country to raise money for the foundation, despite the fact that he’s pretty heavily laden with arthritis. And the concept was to get him moving along on his bike—trying to keep him sharp but getting a sense of movement to the rest of the shot.

So we popped open the trunk of my car and I got in, rigged up an SB800 on the lid, put my trusty 20-year-old KenLab KS 6 gyro stabilizer under the D300s and 24-70mmf/2.8, and had David trail the car (which was piloted by my good buddy, photographer Jerry Millevoi) at upwards of 20 miles an hour down a country road near New Hope. I tried a variety of shutter speeds, some resulting in very dramatic blurs, but for the cover purposes, just the hint of movement seemed to do the trick.

The 1/30th of second shutter speed picked up a nice bit of blur, the flash froze David (an excellent and fearless cyclist who tracked the car without breaking a sweat!), and the shot worked nicely. But the trees and the road behind him didn’t fall off a lot because we were down at f/11 or thereabouts. So if you wanted to run a cover headline and cutlines, the foliage would be pretty defined and distracting. But how to soften that background after the fact?

Cue the software cavalry…

Aaand bingo! A program called Bokeh, from Alien Skin, comes riding to the rescue.  Hit the jump to find out how.

With this program, you make a selection around the areas you want to remain sharp, and then you can apply the necessary amount of bokeh (unsharpness) to the rest in a variety of ways. I won’t go into too much detail here, since the Alien Skin website is full of great examples and tutorials, but you can emulate a natural focus falloff, a radial LensBaby look and anything in between.

I bought the program about a year ago, and hadn’t used it much (it took me a while to learn how to use the Quick Selection tool in Photoshop…I’m such a klutz). But for this gig, it came into its own.

I’ve also been having fun using it with some of my food shots (forget the LensBaby on your last restaurant shoot? Not a problem getting that sexy selective focus look after the fact with a little of that Bokeh black magic). Do watch the excellent tutorial videos, as they give you a lot of inside info on making the effect look natural.

Truthfully, I’d use it a lot more if I weren’t bound by editorial constraints of “no messing with reality” on many of my assignments. But for a corporate, commercial, or stock shoot, this kind of thing is fair game, and it really is a great option to have. Here’s another before and after example of an owl I shot in Kazakhstan during a falconer’s demonstration a couple of months ago.

Photo © Bob Krist
Photo © Bob Krist

It’s a pretty cool program and it’s earned its keep in my Plugin folder, that’s for sure!

Now, if they could just make an onboard version for DX shooters that would allow us to get a “24mm f/1.4 wide open on a D700” look with a 16-85mm on a D90 while we shoot, all my Bokeh dreams will have come true!

Photo © Bob Krist
Photo © Bob Krist

This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. Hi bob, that last shot of the food does look a little wierd, the focal plane should most likely pass through the wine glass? The other shots look great though.

    1. Hi Rich: That’s the LensBaby emulation mode, which, if you’ve shot with that optic, doesn’t adhere to any rules! But, the beauty of this software is that if it doesn’t look right, you can fix it. Can’t do that with a LensBaby shot! I usually use the radial dropoff for food, but I wanted to show all three types in the blog. I don’t know if there is a good example of the the third type! Bob

      1. Hi Bob, sorry, I missed the reference to LensBaby in the text. Not used one but always tempted to! Bit of a wierd look though. Keep up the good work, enjoy reading your blog, richard

  2. Sorry Bob, but the 1st and 3rd shots look fakety-fake-fake to me.

    1. Elliott: Fair enough. For the Arthritis shoot, I provided both before and after versions to the client. It might not look that bad if 1. it’s covered with headline and cutlines, and, 2 (and maybe more importantly) you don’t see the before version! Bob

      1. Okay, and to be fair #2 looks pretty good.

        1. Hi Elliot: I think the takeaway should be to judge the software by its potential and not necessarily my flawed uses of it. I did mention in the original post that when it comes to post production, I’m a klutz. But this is an amazing application, and it just got me major props from a client, even in my less-than-perfect application of its powers. cheers,Bob

  3. Hi Bob. I’m curious as to why you didn’t use a neutral density filter (or even something like the Singh-Ray Vari-ND) to allow you to use a larger aperture to control the depth of field? Regards, Joe

    1. Joe: I already had three SB800s together through a small umbrella to get the light quality plus rapid fire plus the power needed to shoot quick sequences as we did the rides without burning out the SB’s.

      If I had to do it again, I’d go with a more powerful flash (like a Dynalite 400 UniJr. and the ND.

      Like my old grandmother used to say, “Too late we get schmart!”

      1. Hi Bob. Thanks for the feedback. Yeah, it’s the unbearable lightness of being… By the time we’ve figured it all out, it’s just too late 😉 Regards, Joe

  4. “Now, if they could just make an onboard version for DX shooters that would allow us to get a “24mm f/1.4 wide open on a D700? look with a 16-85mm on a D90 while we shoot, all my Bokeh dreams will have come true!”

    Hi Bob, I think any old 16mm f/1.0 should do the trick!

    … err, what do you mean, there isn’t one? Oh… damn! Guess we’ll have to keep at it with the brilliant 16-85! 🙂

  5. Oh NO..Another Photgraphy Blog with Photoshop..Yuck!!!

    1. Jim: As Steve Martin used to say: Well, excuuuuuse me! Next time I find a piece of software that bails me out of jam, I’ll be sure to keep it to myself so as not to offend any sensibilities! 🙂 B

  6. Thanks for the tips Bob. I like the first shot a lot. I’m sure your client did as well. Just curious, do you only shoot DX? Take care, Rick

    1. So far, yes. It’s a question of weight bearing, and my reluctance to up-size! Bob

  7. But you used to take just amazing images with just your camera..Sorry if I offended you, as digger O’Dell would say.. I’ll be shoveling along.

    1. Jim: No offense taken. But everybody makes mistakes, and needs a little help to fix those mistakes, and I thought sharing this bailout technique might be helpful to a reader in the future. But from the feedback I’ve gotten, nobody on this blog wants to hear about Photoshop, and I gotta admit, I’m kind of in the same camp! B

  8. Wow. Tough crowd. If I were your client, then I’d be really pleased to see that you went through this effort. Really pleased. As photographers we often get stuck in the process, but our clients really only care about the results (unless it’s photojournalism, but lets not even start that discussion/argument/can-of-worms!).

    1. Jeffrey: Amen on that! Bob

  9. Again it’s nice to see professionals like you Bob share their work and techniques! To my eye it seems like the distance between sharp and unsharp is too narrow and hard when comparing to a real “field-of-depth-blur”. Maybe it’s possible to adjust this in the tool? Of that reason the owl shot is my favourite of the above

    1. Jason: Yes, the effects are infinitely adjustable. Season to taste, either yours or the client’s! BK

  10. Wow! great camera applications you got there! How i wish i can know those applications, so next time that i will travel alongside with my camera, i can easily fix any awkward shots that i may have. Thanks though!

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