The Beauty of Soft Focus

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We talk a lot about how to achieve tack-sharp, perfectly focused photographs. We extol on the virtues of the Unsharp Mask in Photoshop, and enumerate the countless ways to steady our cameras in order to achieve perfectly crisp images.

There is great beauty to behold, though, in a softly focused photograph – keeping in mind that softly focused does not mean unfocused. Soft focus can enhance the atmosphere of a photograph, and create a mood that is ethereal and dreamy. The methods for achieving soft focus can be both a manipulation of the image physically with the use of soft focus lens diffusers and filters, or digitally with the use of Photoshop or other photo editing software. The key is to provide the appearance of slightly blurring the focus of the image, while still maintaining sharpness around the edges of the subject.

Physically, soft focus can be achieved with the use of a soft focus filter, affixed to the lens of the camera. Soft focus filters are sold in varying degrees of strength, ranging from slightly soft (#1) to very soft (#5), and are also described as a “diffuser filter”, or “glowing filter”. Back in the day, photographers were known to stretch finely-meshed cloth over the lens of the camera, or even apply a thin film of petroleum jelly right on the lens itself, in order to achieve the same effect. With quality soft focus filters available for as little as $30, I’d choose the filter route over gumming up my lens!

Achieving soft focus in Photoshop is extremely easy, and there are various methods to choose from. One method is performed in Camera Raw. When opening an image in Camera Raw, you can soften the photograph by moving the “Clarity” slider to the left, reducing it to a negative number (less than zero). This increases the mid-tone contrast of the photograph, without sharpening the image. You can observe the change to the photograph as the slider is moved and adjust according to your desired level of softness. Zoom in on the photograph to 100% clearly see the effects as they are being applied, then zoom out to view the overall result. This method is particularly effective on portraiture. For example, here is a SOOC shot opened in Camera Raw, with the Clarity slider at “0″ (click to see the full size):

And here is the same shot with the Clarity slider at “-50″ (again, click to see the full size):

Another, slightly more complicated method, uses layers to achieve a traditionally soft-focus look:

1. Open the JPEG file in Photoshop (CS5 is used for this tutorial).
2. Make a duplicate of the background layer by pressing Ctrl+J (Win) / Command+J (Mac) on the keyboard.
3. Apply the “Gaussian Blur” filter to the new layer. With “Layer 1″ selected (active) in the palette, click on the “Filter” menu, then choose “Blur…” then “Gaussian Blur”. Move the slider to the left and right to adjust the Radius. The settings will differ from photo to photo, but you want to soften the photo without making the subjects within it unrecognizable. For the purposes of this tutorial, I set the Radius to “10.0″. This is the result (click for a larger image):

As you can see, the overall effect is much to blurry, but we’re going to fix that by bringing the girls back into focus a bit.

4. Lower the opacity of the blurred layer to about 50%.

5. Next, we’re going to want to bring back a little bit of detail into the photo. To accomplish this, we add a Layer Mask. With “Layer 1″ still active, click on the “Layer Mask” icon, located at the bottom of the Layer Palette (on the image above, it’s the gray box with a white circle, third icon from the left).

6. Select the “Brush” tool from the Tool palette, or click on the letter B on the keyboard (gotta love those keyboard shortcuts!). Choose a round, soft-edged brush.

7. Next, make sure your foreground color is set to black (the keyboard shortcut for this is to press the letter “X”). Then, simply “paint” over the areas of the photo that you wish to bring into sharper focus. To change the brush size on the fly, press the bracket keys ([ or ]) to increase or decrease the brush size. To make the brush edges softer or harder, press the “shift” key, then press the bracket keys. In this case, I painted over each of the girls, but left the background alone. If you look at the layers mask thumbnail on the Layers Palette, you can see the areas that were painted over.

8. Finally, flatten the image (Layer menu / Flatten Image), and you’re done!

Here is the original (click to enlarge):

Here is the softened version (click to enlarge):

In this example, the effect is subtle. The beauty of this method lies in its flexibility – by changing the levels of the Radius, the Opacity, and how much sharpening you paint back in, you can be as subtle or as dramatic as you wish.

Photo Credits (in order of appearance):
- “Plum Blossoms” by Sung ming whang on Flickr Creative Commons.
- All other images: Tiffany Joyce.

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  • Marvyl

    Thank you for your site. I read it daily for tips, photography equipment reviews, and photo ideas. Today’s soft focus article says to”zoom in to 100%”. What does that mean? How do you know when you’re zoomed in to 100%. Is that the standard for checking for sharpness? Thank you.nMarvyl

  • Steve Russell

    Marvyl, I’ll pinch hit for Tiffany. What she’s referring to is that you open your image in photoshop. Using the magnifying tool, click on the image until you’ve “zoomed in” to 100%. You can see the amount of magnification in two places — 1. on the lower left of the photoshop window, or 2. on the tab where the image file information is located in the upper left. You can also just enter 100% in the lower left box that shows the magnification.