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Gently does it – achieving a soft-focus effect

By December 22, 2014 Photography No Comments

If you’ve ever looked at a portrait photographer’s work or a magazine editorial and wondered how they achieved the soft, dreamy effect enveloping their images, we can lift the lid on the secret. It’s called the soft-focus effect and it you can recreate it yourself, either in-camera or in post-processing.

Soft focus iii

Portrait photographers often employ the soft-focus technique as it adds a diffuse, almost dream-like feel to an image. It’s also a useful for hiding minor imperfections in both skin tone and texture, both of which are a useful skill to have for any kind of portrait photography.

In-camera soft-focus

The first and possibly easiest way to create a soft-focus look in-camera is with a wide aperture on a fast lens. Think about using as aperture such as ƒ/1.6 or ƒ/1.8 with a 50mm lens. This should present a very limited depth of field and give the image a soft and gentle feel.

Soft-focus achieved using a wide aperture

Soft-focus achieved using a wide aperture

A second technique is to place something between the lens and your subject that will diffuse the final image: a soft-focus filter, a clear filter smeared with Vaseline, or a piece of fine gauze or even cling film (Saran wrap).

The third method is to use a soft-focus lens. Canon manufactures a 135mm ƒ/2.8 lens with soft-focus for 35mm cameras. The results from this lens are beautifully soft and diffuse. It allows you to set a variable amount of soft focus and can produce wonderful pictures, but it isn’t especially cheap. Thankfully, you can always try a little Photoshop manipulation to render similar results.

Soft-focus from Canon's specialist soft-focus lens

Soft-focus from Canon’s specialist soft-focus lens

Post-processing soft-focus

If you want to add a soft-focus look after the fact, you can follow this five-step Photoshop process!

1. Duplicate the background layer. In the layers palette, right-click the background layer and select Duplicate Layer. Call this layer ‘Blur,’ or something else that will identify its function if you edit the file later. At this stage all you have done is copy the existing image, so nothing looks different.

The original image

The original image

2. Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and set a radius of 15 pixels. This leaves you with a very blurred version of the original shot.

Add some Gaussian blur

Add some Gaussian blur

3. Change the blend mode of this layer to Soft Light using the drop-down menu in the Layers palette. At this stage you begin to get an idea of what the final image will look like.

Select the Soft Light layering mode

Select the Soft Light layering mode

4. At this point, the image may look a little dark. This can be corrected with a Curves adjustment layer. Create one by selecting New Adjustment Layer > Curves from the Layer menu, and adjust the image accordingly. You might wish to lighten the shadow and midtone areas, but keep the highlights at much the same level.

Lighten it a little

Lighten it a little

5. Make your final adjustment using the Hue/ Saturation tool, and push up the saturation by 10 points. Then you should have a new image that’s considerably softer than the original version!

Tweak the saturation

Tweak the saturation

Ta-dah!

Ta-dah!

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