I took these two photos of my daughter’s “fairy lights” to talk to you about bokeh and how to replicate it using Lens Blur in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.

This photo has bokeh. It’s the circular areas that my lens created over the individual lights that were out of focus.

Many people think that the word “bokeh” refers to any background blur. That’s not true. Bokeh is what happens when you take a photo with an out-of-focus and overexposed point of light.

Bokeh can occur with any light that is small in relation to the frame of your photo. That light can be twinkle lights, the sun reflecting on leaves, or even the sun shining through drops of water. You can read more about how different lenses create different bokeh here.

Because the light needs to be out of focus in order for the camera to create bokeh, you need to shoot with a shallow depth of field. That means using a wide aperture (an aperture with a smaller f/stop number).

I took the above photo with an aperture at f/1.8. I used f/10 for this next photo.

You can see that little to no bokeh formed in the f/10 photo due to the deep depth of field.

Bokeh can add a whimsical and beautiful effect to your photos, and many people wonder if they can create it after the fact. Both Photoshop and Photoshop Elements offer many possibilities for creating it. Lens Blur in Photoshop CC works the same as it does in (affiliate link:) Photoshop Elements, so this tutorial will cover both programs.

How to Use Lens Blur in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements

The first step required to use the lens blur in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements is the most important. The filter won’t work without this step. Many people miss it though, so make sure and work through these steps in order.

  1. Working in a flattened image, duplicate your background layer. Select the part of the photo that you DON’T want to blur, and add a layer mask. This selection can be sloppy – we’ll refine it in our last step. Type command/control I to invert this mask.lens blur in photoshop
  2. Click on the image thumbnail of this new layer to deselect the layer mask. The white (Photoshop) or blue (PSE) outline should be around the image, not the mask. (Photoshop CC users, Lens Blur is not re-editable. You can’t use it as a smart filter.)
  3. Go to Filter>Blur>Lens Blur. lens blur in photoshop
  4. Change the Depth Map Source to Layer Mask. Adjust the Blur Focal Distance. You’ll find that the subject of your photo (the area you don’t want to blur) will blur at one extreme of this slider. Move it to the other side to remove the blur from the subject and place it on the background of your photo. This takes some experimenting, and this filter is slow. Be patient. I suggest turning it all the way down or all the way up – don’t worry about the middle values.
  5. Next, move to the Iris section to customize the shape of your bokeh. Bokeh can come in all shapes, but round bokeh is the most popular. With this in mind, choose hexagon or octagon from the Shape drop-down menu – these are closer to circles than the triangle option. Move the Blade Curvature slider to the right to enhance the roundness. You can ignore Rotation if you are going for a circular shape.
  6. The Specular Highlights section is where the real magic happens. Remember up above how I said that bokeh is simply a blown highlight? This section controls the size and brightness of that “bokeh ball.” The Brightness slider tells Elements how much brighter you want your bokeh to be – a little goes a long way here. The Threshold slider controls the size of the bokeh. If you left this slider at 0, your entire photo would turn white. Move it to the right to tell Photoshop the brightness level that triggers the bokeh treatment. Is it the just the brightest part of the filament inside the light that you want to treat as bokeh? Move that slider nearly all the way to the right. Do you want your bokeh to extend just outside the lightbulb? Move it to the right, but not as far.
  7. I don’t use the noise section. It’s included in case you want to add a little grain to your image to make the bokeh less smooth and therefore more believable.
  8. As you work through this section, you might notice that the preview doesn’t update as quickly as you change the settings. I find that turning the Preview box off and on is a good way to see the before and after. This filter works slowly. Make sure you have the Preview set to “Faster” as you see in step 5 above.
  9. Finally, click OK at the top right corner of your screen. At this point, my edit looks like the photo below. Compare it to the photo above that I took at f/1.8 – you might notice that the blur in the f/1.8 photo is stronger farther away from the subject, which is the sharpest light. The lights closest to the sharpest light are less blurred than those farther away. This is a natural effect of shooting at a wide aperture. However, when you apply Lens Blur in Photoshop or Elements, the blur is applied evenly across the photo.lens blur in photoshop elements
  10. You can use your layer mask to make this blur fade in more gradually. Double click on the layer mask you created so that the outline is around it. Go the to Edit menu, select Fill, and select White as the color to use. This “erases” your layer mask by filling it with white.
  11. Select the Gradient tool (shortcut: G). Choose the radial gradient pattern, and click on Reverse. Click on the sharpest part of your photo and drag to the first point where you want your blur to be strongest.lens blur in photoshop gradient maskYour mask will look something like this:

For comparison, here are my f/1.8 photo as compared to the edited f/10 with bokeh created by the Photoshop Lens Blur.

lens blur in photoshop before and after

Not bad, right? This is a detailed technique! Can I help? Post your question in the comments below.