Creating Soft Focus Digital Images

In a previous article for Apogee Photo Magazine, I described how to use multiple exposures to create soft-focus images. (See Archive in February-March, 2002, “Improve Your Creativity with Multiple Exposures.) Since digital cameras can’t take multiple exposures in the same manner as film cameras, digital soft-focus images must be created in the “digital darkroom.”

One method of achieving digital soft-focus images is to purchase a Photoshop plug-in that will create the effect. There are several on the market that allow you to adjust the final image to your taste. Others let the program make most of the decisions. One that I use is the Soft Focus plug-in sold by Fred Miranda. However, if you already own Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, there’s no need to purchase a plug-in. The following technique takes about thirty seconds to perform once you’ve practiced it. You’ll find that most of your time is spent deciding on the amount of soft focus!

The soft-focus digital images create smooth transitions by averaging the pixels next to the hard edges of defined lines and shaded areas in an image. Soft focus is useful for retouching images. In portrait photography, it can smooth out some facial wrinkles and produce a more pleasing final image. Photographing flowers in soft focus provides an interpretation that the viewer’s eye can’t see. It can create a definite sense of mood. Minor amounts of soft focus can also take the “edge” off landscape photos that are shot during harsh light.

The image below on the left is displayed as it was shot. The image below on the right was created using the technique explained below. The effect of the technique is clear. The detail of the soft image is toned down, and a hazy mood is created that clearly distinguishes the image from the original.

This technique uses Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. Other imaging programs may allow you to accomplish the same results through slightly different procedures.

Step 1 Open the image on your computer screen. For purposes of this demonstration, we’ll walk through the steps using the same image. The image on the right is one I pulled from a trip to the ghost town of Bodie, California. A wedding was taking place at the old church that created an interesting contrast between today and yesterday.

Step 2 Create a duplicate layer. Select “Duplicate layer…” from the “Layer” drop-down menu that runs across the top of the computer screen. A message box will appear asking if you want to duplicate the background as a background copy. Click “Okay”.

In your “Layers Palette” (It’s normally along the right side of your screen in Photoshop and the upper right in the PS Elements screen. Look for the “layers” tab), you’ll see a “background” rectangle and immediately above it a “background copy” rectangle. Be sure the background copy is highlighted.

Step 3 Create a blur. Click on the “Filter” drop-down menu and select “Blur”. Several options will appear to the right; select “Gaussian Blur.” Your image will go out of focus as the Gaussian Blur is applied. It may look similar to the image on the right depending upon the setting of the “Radius” slide.

Below the image is a slide labeled “Radius”. The purpose of the radius is to determine how far the filter searches for dissimilar pixels to blur. I prefer to use a radius somewhere between twenty to thirty pixels, with twenty as my most popular setting. A smaller radius number results in less blur in the image. If you click on the “Preview” checkbox, you can see the changes as you move the radius slide.

Step 4 Determine the final amount of soft focus. In the upper right corner of the Layers Palette is the “Opacity” setting. It should read 100% in the box. Click on the arrow to the right of the box, and a slider appears. As you move the slide to the left, the opacity of the background copy changes, and more of the original sharp image is revealed. Adjust the opacity slide to whatever looks good to you. For many landscape images, I like an opacity setting of around 50%. I use a lower setting for people, and a higher setting for some abstracts. However, you should set the slide to whatever looks good to your eye.

The image above left has an opacity setting around 50%. It is enough to take the edge off the photo, but not to distort it in any way.

The image directly next to it on the right has an opacity setting of around 70%. That setting introduces more “haze” into the image. It imparts a dreamy look to the image that enhances the memory for the participants

For comparison, I’ve reproduced the original image on the right. The soft focus (even at 50%) reduces the contrast of the scene. After looking at the soft focus images, the sharp one may look a little too harsh. Again, remember that you can adjust the amount of softness to your taste. With a little practice, this procedure can be done in thirty seconds or less.

If you want to create soft-focus digital images without the “haze,” you can use Photoshop’s “Smart Blur” filter. This filter has multiple settings to adjust. The main settings are the radius and threshold. The threshold tells Photoshop how different the pixels values have to be before they’re eliminated from the blur. There’s also a quality setting and a mode setting. You can set a mode for the entire selection (Normal), or for the edges of color transitions (Edge Only and Overlay). Where significant contrast occurs, Edge Only applies black-and-white edges, and Overlay Edge applies white. You’ll probably find that the Gaussian Blur technique is easier to use and can be accomplished quickly. While the Smart Blur may take a little more time, it does provide an alternative look.

In closing, here are two landscape scenes created with the Gaussian Blur technique–one sharp and the other in soft focus.

by Jim Altengarten, exposure36 Photography

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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