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How to Create Your Own Custom Bokeh Wallpaper in Photoshop

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We’ve taught you what bokeh is and how to create it with a physical camera, now let’s take a look at how we can create the gorgeous softness of bokeh as a nice colorful and light-dappled wallpaper for your computer and mobile devices.

Why Do I Want to Do This?

There are two big take-aways from today’s photo tutorial. First, you’ll get a chance to create a bokeh wallpaper (which is a really fun and colorful companion to the analog bokeh photographs we’ve previously shown you how to create).

Second, you’ll also learn the basics of the Photoshop Brush Engine, which is a very powerful tool in the Photoshop arsenal (and a rather underused one at that).

Finally, it’s just good clean digital editing fun. Instead of trolling Google Images or other sources for a just-perfect bokeh style wallpaper for your phone or computer, you can create it yourself with the exact colors and composition you desire.

What Do I Need?

For this tutorial you will only need one thing:

We are using Adobe Photoshop CS6, but the techniques outlined in the tutorial should work just fine on older editions of Photoshop.

Beyond Photoshop, there are no additional tools or file inputs necessary; we’ll be creating the entire image within the application.

What Concepts Are We Using?

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For this tutorial, there are a few key design elements we want to keep in mind. In a real photograph, the bokeh effect is created by points of light outside the focal plane of the lens, wherein the unfocused light of the highlights takes on the shape of the aperture of the lens.

To create that effect, we can’t simply create a bunch of circles and proclaim ourselves done with the project, we want to recreate the illusion of depth that an actual photograph would have (as the points of light would exist on slightly different points of the focal plane). We also want to recreate the variability of light size you would find in the real world. In other words, we don’t want a flat image with uniform circle size.

In order to achieve this, we’ll be doing two things: in order to cut down on the tedium of hand drawing hundreds of variable sized circles, we’ll create a custom brush just for this task. We will then combine multiple layers of these variably sized circles to create the illusion of depth.

Setting Up and Creating Your Bokeh Brush

The first order of business is to create our work space and then create our faux-Bokeh brush. Create a new image in Photoshop that is the size of the wallpaper you wish to create. We’re working with the standard screen resolution of 1920×1080 pixels. Set your background to transparent.

Once you have created your new canvas, click on the palette and select a foreground color that is extremely dark gray without being black–we used RGB values 30-30-30: 2013-06-10_115255

Once you have selected a very dark gray, select the Shape Tool (U) and switch it to Ellipses. Hold down the Shift key to lock the aspect ratio of the shape you’re about to draw, and then draw a circle in the center of your canvas. It doesn’t have to be particularly large; on our 1920×1080 canvas we drew a roughly 300-pixel-wide circle. The only critical part is that the circle is large enough for you to view comfortably and edit; the actual size of the circle will be adjusted on the fly at a later point in the tutorial.

At this point, you’ll have a nearly-black circle sitting in the middle of the canvas. Double click on the layer entry in the Layers side panel and make two adjustments. First, adjust the Fill Opacity down to 50% (make sure you’re adjusting the Fill Opacity and not the broader Opacity category). Second, add a pure black Stroke layer 10 pixels wide with 100% opacity like so:

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The result should be quite similar to the image above: a perfect circle with a black border and a smoky center that looks like a camera lens filter of sorts.

This not-so-exciting-yet circle is going to serve as the seed for our brush. This is where the real magic happens in today’s tutorial. Once you’ve created the simple tinted circle above, navigate to Edit -> Define Brush Preset. Name your new brush preset; we named ours “Bokeh Brush 1″.

After naming your new brush, you’ll notice the Brush/Brush Presets panel is now open on the right hand side of the screen. First, select the brush tool by pressing B on the keyboard or manually selecting it from the tool palette. Then click on the Brush Presets tab. Locate and select your new brush:

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Once selected, click on the Brush tab to view and modify the properties of the brush. At the bottom, beneath all the brush variables, is a sample of what a brush stroke from your brush looks like. With the default settings, it looks like this:

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You know what that doesn’t look like? Gentle, natural, and dappled bokeh. We’re about to change that. In the Brush Tip Shape entry in Brush panel. At the bottom of the panel change the spacing from 25% to 100%. Notice the change in the brush preview window: 2013-06-10_121016

Next, we need to create random placement of the circles by increasing the scatter variable. Click on the Scattering entry and adjust the Scatter to 10,000%, the Count to 5, and the Count Jitter to 1%.  (After we’ve made our initial brush, feel free to play with these values with Bokeh Brush 2, changing the values here and in the variables that follow yields neat effects). Your brush sample window should look like this now:

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Now we’re getting somewhere; that sample is started to look like the random and overlapping points of light we would expect from a bokeh-rich photograph.

Let’s do something about the uniformity of sizing by navigating to the Shape Dynamics entry. Change the presets there to Size Jitter 100%, Control: Pen Pressure, Minimum Diameter 50%, and then leave the rest at 0% and off/unchecked like so:

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Even better, the addition of the Size Jitter has really introduced some nice variation. The final touch on our brush is to adjust the Opacity and Flow Jitter in the Transfer category. Click on Transfer and adjust the Opacity Jitter to 50% and the Flow Jitter to 50%. Change the Control on the Flow Jitter to Pen Pressure. Leave everything else off or at 0% like so:

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Now that’s a beautiful preview; just look at it–you can practically see the wallpaper taking form just in the little preview box.

With our brush defined, it’s time to move onto the process of creating the actual wallpaper.

Creating the Background Gradient and Bokeh Layers

Go ahead and create a new layer in your workspace (and, if you wish, uncheck or delete the layer you used to create the ellipse-based brush). Label this layer “Background”. You can put a solid color or a gradient in the background of your wallpaper on this new layer, but gradients are so much prettier in the finished product.

Select the Gradient Tool (G) and then pick one of the preset gradients or create your own. The presets didn’t have the kind of hyper-bright rainbow effect we were looking for, so we created a new gradient using the seed values for gradient locations 0%, 50%, and 100% of 255-0-252, 0-252-255, and 240-255-0, respectively:

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Applied at a roughly 35 degree angle from the lower left corner to the upper right corner of the canvas, the gradient looks like this:

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With the canvas painted, it’s time to start with the first bokeh layer. Create a new layer called “Bokeh Background”. Select the Brush Tool (B). Change the brush color to pure white. Select a brush size roughly one-third to one-half the vertical size of your canvas (in the case of our 1920 x 1080 canvas that means a brush roughly 300-500 pixels in size). We’re playing it big today, so 500 pixels it is.

The next step (and its subsequent repetitions) is entirely a matter of taste. Go light with the brush at first and then a little heavier if you wish. Remember, this isn’t like using a standard brush wherein you can click on spot X and get immediate feedback on that spot. We’ve created a brush that effectively creates a very wide and very variable stroke.

Start off with a pass of the brush from on side of the canvas to the other and then tap here or there to add in more circles. We’ve found that two solid passes left to right and then right to left does a nice job. Here’s what your canvas should look like, give or take a few circles:

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Since this is the background layer, we need to blur it to begin building that sense of depth. While still on the Bokeh Background layer, navigate to Filter -> Blur -> Gaussian Blur. A value of 20-30 yields a nice pleasing background blur:

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Now we need to repeat the process with a few small tweaks. Create a new layer called “Bokeh Midground”. Decrease the size of the brush to smaller value (we dropped it from 500 pixels to 300 pixels). Again, make a pass over the canvas with the brush tool until you are satisfied with the number of circles. Apply the Gaussian Blur again, but this time adjust the blur to between 5-10 pixels:  2013-06-10_124155

We can see the wallpaper really taking shape with the addition of the second layer. Now it’s time for one more layer. Create a new layer called “Bokeh Foreground”. Change the brush size to an even smaller value (we dropped it from 300 pixels to 150 pixels). Repeat pass of the brush over the canvas. Repeat the Gaussian Blur, but drop the value to 1-5 pixels.

This is the last step of the tutorial, once you’ve blurred the “Bokeh Foreground” layer, you’ll be rewarded with the final product:

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The fun thing about the workflow is that it’s extremely easy, once you’ve gone through it once, to whip through it again and again creating new wallpapers with really dense (or sparse) circles, light or dark gradients, and other variations.

In fact, without even repeating the whole process, you can create a new layer over your old background layer, slap a new gradient down, and create a wallpaper with a whole new vibe: 2013-06-10_125741

With projects like this, the variability and randomness of the end result is part of the fun. Feel free to experiment with brush sizes, settings, and other variables to achieve fun and unique results–even better yet, share them in the comments below with your fellow readers.

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 06/12/13

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