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How to simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop



Coming from Russia, I'll give you … the Helios and its swirly bokeh.

How to simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop - Helios Objective

Image of Markus Spiske

I know, he's an ugly duckling, is not he? At least, the Helios objectives are certainly not the brilliant example of grace and classical beauty that the name given by society could evoke. Instead, the true charm and charm of these vintage lenses come from what is inside.

Because of their optical nature, Helios lenses can beautifully produce bokeh and backgrounds when taken with open apertures.

How to simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop - image taken with the Helios lens

Image of Mike Newton realized with a Helios lens.

If you do not happen to have a Helios around (in fact they are quite cheap), I hope you will consider learning how easy it is to simulate that swirly bokeh of this small lens. You can do it directly in Photoshop: here's how.

What kind of images work best?

The fascination of the Helios goal comes from separating the subject from the background with style. This means that, just like any other time, you want to blur a background, the more you can move the subject away from the objects behind it, the more the background will become blurred.

The same applies to the images you choose to simulate the "Helios" effect in Photoshop. Search for images with isolated subjects that can easily be separated from the background. This is the example we will use for the demonstration.

How to simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop - example image for tutorial

Not only does the swirly backgrounds complement images like these more than others, but having easily identifiable boundaries between the subject and the background will make things much easier for you during processing.

How to create the Helios effect

The key player in this change will be a small hidden tool, or rather a filter, buried inside the Gallery blur section of the Filter menu bar at the top of the window. You will use the Spin Blur Filter to give you that implied dreamlike dream wallpaper, for which Helios lenses are so popular.

After opening the image in Photoshop it's time to start the effect.

Duplicate the level

Create a duplicate copy of the background layer using the Cmd / Ctrl + J. keyboard shortcut. Feel free to rename the duplicate layer as I've done here to help you keep track if you're working with multiple layers.

spin blur layer - How to simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

Next, go to the menu bar you looked at first and go to Filter> Blur> Blur Blur … This will open the blur and this is where you'll actually blur it.

Blur blur in the menu - How to simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

You'll notice quite a few options here in the effects blur gallery; the most important of which is the Blur Angle slider.

blurring corner - How to simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

In this way you will control the amount of simulated blur in the image. Think of the blur angle as you control the degree of rotation in the background. Before deciding on how much blur you want to introduce in the image you first have to decide where to apply the blur effect. Do this by adjusting the size and shape of the blur filter itself.

Adjusts the size and quantity of feathers in the filter

You can click and drag outside the filter to check its size and shape. How close the blur reaches the edges of the filter is controlled by the four largest dots shown here:

spin blur adjustment points - How to simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

Think of these points as the way you impose the blur of the blur effect as you approach the edges of the filter. Drag the filter out just beyond every corner of the frame and adjust the gradient accordingly.

Feel free to experiment with positioning the center point of the filter in different positions within the image.

blur filter blur in action - How to simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

Select the amount of blur

As I said, the biggest variable you can control when applying your background with swirly bokeh is the angle of blur, which essentially determines the amount of perceived blur. In most cases, a minimal amount of blur angle works better, for example maybe 2-4%.

Keep in mind that the true swirly bokeh of the Helios lens is generally thin, so keep the background blurred in simulated images a little subdued. Here is our image with the 4% blur angle applied.

4% blur applied - How to simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

Keep in mind that the final determination of the amount of blur will be decided only a little later in the process using layer opacity. So it's a better idea to add a little too much blurriness rather than not enough at this point of processing.

Also, keep in mind that you can also increase or decrease the amount of blur angle using the control wheel located at the center of the filter. Once the blur is applied, click "OK" at the top of the screen.

NOTE: If you convert the layer to an advanced object before applying the Blur filter, the settings can be changed at any time as it will be a non-destructive change.

Final blurring adjustments with layer masks and opacity

Now that you return to the main editing window in Photoshop, you can complete the Helios-style blur effect using layer masks and opacity to customize the blur.

Adjust the opacity of the background blur layer using the layer opacity slider until the effect reaches the desired amount you want for your specific image. In this case, I set the opacity on a modest 70%.

70% opacity level - How to simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

Next, we would like to make sure that the subject of the photo is free from the blurred effect. To do so, add a layer mask to the level of spin blur.

add a layer mask - How to simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

Then use the Brush tool to remove the blurry effect from areas where it is not needed. And purple! Your simulation with freshly minted swirly bokeh is complete!

final image butterfly and flowers - How to simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop

Final considerations on the simulation of Helios Bokeh

The acquisition of a true Helios lens is a surprisingly easy and convenient method to add a uniqueness to your photography. However, if you choose not to have your own personal goal, you can simulate the appearance of that classic Helios vortex using the methods shown in this article.

Here are some points to remember if you want to try the Photoshop Helios method:

  • Choose a photo with a relatively isolated subject on its focal plane.
  • Images with busy backgrounds work better.
  • A 2-4% blur angle is adequate for most photos.
  • Center the blur around the main subject, but do not be afraid to move it elsewhere!
  • Controls the amount of final blur using the layer opacity slider and layer masks.

The simulation of the swirly blurred backgrounds of Helios is quick and easy in Photoshop using the blur filter effects.

Here are some other examples of images that have been given the Helios effect using the techniques shown here.


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