Alien Skin Bokeh 2 £125
9th Dec 2011 | 11:26
Create shallow depth of field effects post capture
Overview and features
Plug-in software publisher Alien Skin made its name long ago with its striking Eye Candy effects for illustrators and designers, but the company also publishes a range of photo enhancement tools, and Bokeh 2 is just one of those programs.
It aims to recreate the shallow depth of field effects you get from shooting in larger formats at wider lens apertures, and it can at the same time produce a range of vignette effects to help concentrate attention on your main subject.
You can try for a subtle background defocus that improves the picture's impact without being obvious, or go for a 'lo-fi' effect reminiscent of Holga or Lomo cameras, with strong vignetting and edge blur.
It's a direct rival to OnOne software's FocalPoint 2 plug-in, but it costs around twice as much, so the key questions are not just whether it's any good, but whether it's worth the money.
Ease of use
First impressions of Alien Skin Bokeh 2 are mixed. The interface looks a little old-fashioned, especially the plain text presets and settings in the control panel on the left side. It looks more like a shareware plug-in than a premium product.
But then when you start to work with the controls, you realise it's both fast and efficient. You can enlarge the plug-in window to fill the screen and zoom in and out of the preview image at will. It updates quickly and in real time, too, so you don't have to render a finished version to see the effects of your blur settings.
You start off with a single focus region. This is the area of the image that will be kept sharp, while the rest will be blurred. This region can be circular, elliptical or 'planar'.
Circular focus regions are ideal for concentrating focus on a specific part of the picture, perhaps with a vignette effect too, while planar regions are designed for creating realistic depth of field effects into the distance. For example, you'd use a planar region to create the miniature effect that makes real-world scenes look like models.
Compared to the 'Focus Bugs' in FocalPoint 2, these focus regions aren't much to look at. They're just an inner shape that defines the sharp area, and an outer dotted line showing how far outwards the blur effect is feathered, or blended in.
Actually, though, it's really simple to change the shape, size and position of the focus regions and the feathering. It's easy, too, to add new focus regions and, if you need a more precise selection, you can make it first in Photoshop, and Bokeh 2 will add it to the focus mask it creates.
There is a rather technical, almost unfinished look about the Alien Skin Bokeh 2 interface, and the hierarchical list of settings or presets you see in the first control tab is pretty daunting.
However, the in-depth bokeh and vignette controls in the other tabs are more straightforward, and provided you don't mind spending a little time with the online tutorials, you'll soon see what this plug-in can do.
It can simulate the highlight shapes produced by simple three-blade lens diaphragms, right up to expensive eleven-blade types, or choose discs or even heart-shaped highlights. You can change the blade curvature, the 'creaminess' of the highlights and boost them for more impact.
Interestingly, there's a Zoom option for creating defocussed detail that seems to streak outwards from the focus region, and an option to apply a Twist motion blur effect. Alien Skin uses a great example of this being applied to an image of a surfer.
The vignette controls work nicely, and you can link the effect to the focus region or apply it to the whole image, with plenty of control over the vignette size, darkening the amount and feathering.
Provided you've spent a little time learning the controls and choosing suitable images to work on, Alien Skin Bokeh 2 can produce some wonderful effects. If anything, its results look slightly more realistic than OnOne's FocalPoint 2, but that could be down to the differences in the controls and which interface you find the most natural.
BLUR:A planar focus region was ideal here for blurring more distant detail, but with awkward objects, such as the tree trunk on the left, you may need to make a selection in Photoshop before you edit it in Alien Skin Bokeh 2.
LO-FI:A combination of blur and vignetting creates an effective lo-fi 'look' that's reminiscent of cheap lenses and old-fashioned cameras.
GRAIN:What happens to film grain if you apply a bokeh effect? Normally, it's blurred along with the detail, but this plug-in's grain-matching tools mean you can preserve the grain structure.
MINI:A planar focus region gives a realistic miniature effect to this Las Vegas night scene, and Bokeh 2's extensive highlight controls have been used to create a 'star' effect in the neon lights.
TOO MUCH BLUR:It doesn't always work. This aircraft's wheels are too blurred and the hills behind the cockpit are too sharp - sometimes it takes Photoshop's selection tools and a lot more work to get a good result.
CLOSE-UP:Close-ups often respond very well to the 'bokeh', treatment. A planar focus region near the base and a smaller, circular region over the watch face give this still-life arrangement more 'depth'.
Real-world scenes consist of different objects and planes at different distances, and it's rare to be able to recreate depth of field effects accurately. But you can create the impression of depth of field very easily with Alien Skin Bokeh 2, and that's all you really need.
Once you've found your way around, Alien Skin Bokeh 2 is easy and fast to work with, and it produces excellent defocus and vignette effects with little effort on your part.
Alien Skin Bokeh 2 looks both technical and distinctly old-fashioned. It's also pretty expensive, costing twice as much as OnOne's FocalPoint 2.
The quality of the results is terrific, but Alien Skin Bokeh 2 is not cheap, and the software interface itself isn't much to look at, either.