Soft focus filters are used for reducing the local contrast in an image, and sometimes also for adding a kind of dreamy glow. The main use for this is in portrait photography - the filter reduces the appearance of fine detail such as skin pores, giving a smoothing effect.
The effect is not the same as just blurring an image. A good quality soft focus filter reduces the contrast of fine detail rather than blurring it away.
Soft focus effects were often used in Hollywood films in the 1950s for scenes with the leading actress. If you look closely when watching these films you can clearly see how the look of the image changes when a scene alternates between showing the male lead and the female lead.
Because of their heavy use in Hollywood, the look given by a soft focus filter is sometimes referred to as the 'Hollywood look'. In this article we'll look at several ways you can produce the same effect in your own photography.
Soft Focus Filter
Probably the easiest and most obvious way to achieve this effect is to purchase a soft focus filter. You may find these filters marketed as Soft, Diffusion, Mist, or Hollywood filters.
Like other filters, you place them in front of your camera's lens. They are available from a range of manufacturers, and in both screw-in and square (e.g. for the Cokin P filter system) varieties.
Generally these filters are quite high quality, reducing the contrast of the image and adding a slight glow, while not having much effect on the resolution. On the other hand, they can be expensive, and if you want to adjust the amount of softness, you'll need to purchase multiple filters in different strengths.
Clear filter plus vaseline
An alternative to using a purchased soft focus filter is to create your own. This can be done by using a clear glass filter and then smearing vaseline (petroleum jelly) on it.
For the glass filter, I would suggest using a cheap UV filter. You can purchase these very cheaply from a site like eBay. The optical quality won't be great, but as you're going to be smearing vaseline all over the filter, that doesn't really matter too much.
You don't want to add much vaseline on the filter (unless you want a really blurred effect). I find it best to just touch the vaseline with my finger to get the tip of the finger slightly 'wet'. Then smear this on the filter.
This tiny amount is still enough to give a really strong effect. Using a tissue to rub the filter will take off some of the vaseline. A wipe or two will usually take enough of the vaseline off to give an image with a nice soft glow.
One of the good things about this technique is that you can easily control what area of the frame will have the softening effect applied. If you only smear the edge of the filter, then you can get an image with a sharp center and soft edges. Or you could create an effect where half the image is soft and half sharp by just smearing one half of the filter.
The other good thing is that you can control the amount of blur / glow by adding or removing vaseline from the filter. The negative is that you need to be quite careful not to get vaseline on any of your lenses. Getting the amount correct for the amount of blur you want can take some trial and error too.
Stockings over the lens
Another cheap DIY alternative to a commercially produced soft focus filter is to stretch a piece of stockings / tights over the front of the lens. This thin material with its fine mesh acts as a diffusion filter, creating the softening effect.
Just cut a piece of the stockings out large enough to stretch over the front of the lens and down the sides a bit. Then use an elastic band to hold it in place round the lens.
The tighter the stretch, the less of an effect they will have. That's not to say you don't want to stretch them much - even a very tight stretch will still have a quite noticeable effect.
I have read that you can stretch the stockings over the rear element of the lens rather than the front, and this reduces the effect. However I haven't tried this, and it would be quite tricky to do safely without risking damaging the lens.
Bear in mind that the color of the stockings chosen can affect the color balance of the image. Black / gray stockings will be relatively neutral, while more flesh colored stockings may introduce a warmer color cast (which is many cases can be a good thing).
The stockings will reduce the amount of light the camera receives, so you will need to adjust your exposure to compensate. (Or the camera will automatically adjust the exposure to compensate if you're using an auto exposure mode).
An alternative to using stockings is tulle netting, the material used for making bridal veils. This is available in a wide variety of mesh sizes and mesh shapes. If you're really into soft-focus imagery you may want to purchase a few different types as they will each give you a slightly different effect.
Adding the effect in post processing
A soft focus effect can also be achieved by taking an image shot normally, and then adding the effect using image editing software. One of the easiest ways to do this to use the clarity control present in Adobe Camera RAW / Lightroom. The same control is also present in some other software, though it may have a different name, such as tonal contrast.
The clarity control affects the microcontrast of an image. By using a negative clarity value, this reduces the microcontrast in a similar way to using a real soft focus filter.
Photo before applying negative clarity - Portrait by Belovodchenko Anton
The benefit of this technique is that you can dial in exactly how much soft focus you want. With tools such as the adjustment brush in Adobe Camera RAW / Lightroom, you can even paint in the effect on only certain areas of the image.
And of course, applying the effect in processing also means that you have a standard version of the photo in case you decide / your client decides they don't actually like the effect.
There are also numerous other ways you can add a soft focus effect in processing, but negative clarity is probably the fastest and easiest method. I covered a method here that results in an image with high global contrast but low microcontrast: Photoshop tutorial: Create a dreamy glowing effect portrait.
Use a soft focus lens
There are various soft focus lenses available that can give you soft images without the use of a soft focus filter. Many of these lenses allow you to control the degree of softness in an image.
There are a variety of designs, but typically these lenses allow you to undercorrect or overcorrect for spherical aberration. This also affects how the out of focus areas behind and in front of the subject appear.
I don't want to go into detail on these lenses as due to their specialist nature they tend to be quite expensive. But I thought it was worth letting you know that they exist.
Another, cheaper option, is any old lens that is not well corrected for spherical aberration. The MF Lens forums can be a good source of information on old lenses, often with example photos taken on modern cameras.
Make your own simple lens
An alternative to using an old lens that is soft is to create your own simple lens. The easiest way to do this is using a close-up diopter lens. These lenses are designed to screw in front of a standard camera lens, to enable you to focus closer. But placed the correct distance away from a camera with no lens attached, they can become a taking lens in their own right.
You just need to add a tube between your camera and the close-up lens to stop light coming in from all sides and destroying the image. The best way to do this is using extension tubes or bellows. However you can use something as simple as the cardboard tube from toilet roll or kitchen roll, provided you can figure out some way of keeping it attached to the camera at one end and the close-up lens at the other.
The slightly tricky bit could be working out how much distance you need between your camera and the close-up filter. Most close-up filters actually give their focal length either written on them, or as part of their name. For example, the Canon 500D close-up filter has a focal length of 500mm. The diopter filter I used, the Raynox DCR-250, has a focal length of 250mm.
In practice, you may well find you can just hold up the filter in front of your camera (with no lens attached). Then move the filter further away from the camera while looking through the camera's viewfinder, until an image starts to form and things get in focus. This then lets you see how far away from the camera the filter needs to be.
A simple lens created like this will usually be a bit soft and give you a slight glow. The amount of softness and glow are dependent on the lens' quality. So in this case a cheaper close-up lens may work better than a more expensive well corrected one.
Here are some comparison photos of a flower to give you an idea of how some of the different soft-focus techniques compare in practice. Unfortunately I don't have a soft-focus lens to include in the comparison, but I have included a photo taken with a Lensbaby.
The photos were taken in harsh sunlight. Note particularly the effect the different soft-focus techniques have on the strong highlight on one of the gone-over flowers near the bottom of the image, the overall softness of the image, and the amount of glow.
Diffusion strength in relation to focal length
When considering a soft focus filter, or using the stockings or vaseline techniques, you should note that the strength of the effect will vary with the lens you are using. A wider focal length will typically require stronger diffusion to give the same effect as weaker diffusion on a longer lens.
So if you buy a soft focus filter that gives just the right amount of softness and glow on your 50mm lens, you might find that effect is too strong on your 100mm lens and not strong enough on your 24mm lens (to give an example).
If you plan to shoot soft focus images with a variety of focal lengths, then it can be worthwhile to purchase a range of soft focus filters in different strengths. Or to work out the optimum smear amount / stretch amount for each focal length separately if going the vaseline / stockings route.
The vast majority of portraits today are not taken using soft focus, though some skin softening may be applied in post production. But the soft focus technique can give images a nice glow as well as 'softening' details.
The technique is not solely reserved for portraits either. Landscapes can take on a dreamy, ethereal feeling when photographed with a soft focus filter. And photos of flowers and foliage can often work well with a soft focus effect.
With a cheap UV filter and vaseline, or using an old pair of stockings / tights, the effect can be achieved quite cheaply. So why not give it a go sometime?
In this article I want to look at why using a different lens to the one that came with your camera might be a good idea. I'm not going to go into details about the quality of the lens - most 'kit' lenses sold with cameras today are perfectly fine.
Rather, I want to look at how restricting yourself to using a lens or focal length you don't normally use much can help you hone your photographic technique.
The vast majority of photographers mostly use the lens that was bundled with the camera when they bought it. And most of the time they photograph with the lens set to its widest setting (fully zoomed out).
Now, there is nothing particularly wrong with this, and you can certainly capture great photos this way. However, it gets you into the rut of only seeing photos from one perspective. By using a lens with a different focal length, that you don't commonly use, it can help you see photographic opportunities that you were previously missing.
You don't necessarily have to actually use a different lens for this exercise. If you normally use your kit lens at 18mm, you could just zoom it to 50mm. You might want to put a bit of tape over the zoom ring to dissuade yourself from unzooming the lens.
Similarly, if you have a camera with a built-in lens, you can just try and make sure you always zoom the lens to a specific focal length before taking any photos.
The focal length to choose to shoot at is entirely up to you. You want something that is quite different to what you normally use for your photography though.
A 50mm focal length makes a good choice for most people used to taking photos using a wide angle. 50mm lenses are available offering a large maximum aperture (e.g. f/1.8) relatively cheaply. This allows you not only to experiment with a change in angle of view, but allows you to try shots with a shallow depth of field too. (Something tricky to achieve with a kit lens zoomed out to its widest focal length).
When you first start trying to take photos only using a single focal length, you will probably find it pretty tricky. Your mind is used to 'seeing' at the focal length(s) you normally shoot at. You need to force yourself to look for the photos that you don't normally see.
You may come across a scene and think that it really needs a wide angle to get everything in. Well, you could 'zoom with your feet' and walk further back to frame up the shot. But a better idea is to look for the details in the scene. What is it in the scene that really attracts your attention?
By focusing in on the main interest, and excluding extraneous parts of the scene, you will end up with a stronger image. Using a focal length you're not used to stops you from being lazy, and makes you really think about how to best frame up the shot.
If you want something to appear larger in the frame when using a fixed focal length, you can't just zoom in. You have to move physically closer to the subject. (Or the opposite for if you want to fit more into the frame). Putting this into practice is a great way to understand how your distance from the subject affects perspective.
Now, it's not to say that using a single focal length that you wouldn't normally use much will necessarily result in better images than you would have got otherwise. The main idea is not to get better photos 'right now'. But rather to train your mind, so that in the future, you can 'see' the photos that you previously would have missed.
Having said that, using a focal length you're not used to does force you to think more about how to capture what you're seeing / feeling. And so you may well find that this does result in an immediately noticeable improvement in your photos.
In some (rare) cases, it may be that whatever you're photographing just really doesn't work well with the particular focal length you've chosen to shoot at. In this case, just look around for a different subject that will work well. You might find an interesting subject you would otherwise have overlooked.
It can be a good idea to repeat this exercise at least once annually. Shooting with a fixed focal length for a day will help refresh your memory about the types of shot that particular focal length makes possible.
By practising regularly it makes it much easier to envision / understand how a subject will look when photographed at certain focal lengths. This then helps you choose the most appropriate focal length to capture the image you see in your mind.
So, if you feel like your photography is becoming a bit stale and boring, and you're mostly shooting at one (or two) specific focal length(s), then give this a go. Try shooting at a fixed focal length for a day or two and see how it opens up photo opportunities you otherwise would have missed.
Before the advent of color photography, a process of hand coloring black and white photos was sometimes used. Color (often using watercolors) was simply painted on top of the photograph, to create a color image.
This process gives the images quite a unique look. In this article I want to look at how you can do the same, giving any image that hand-colored black and white photo look.
For the purposes of this tutorial I will be using Photoshop Elements, however the process is very similar whatever image editing software you use.
To start off with, we need a black and white photo. I am going to use a color photo and then convert it to black and white. The image I'll be using is Girl with fur cap by Catalin Pop. You can download the image to follow along with the tutorial.
With the image open, I create a Hue / Saturation adjustment layer, and set the saturation to zero.
If you are starting off with an image that is already black and white, you may need to convert it to a color image. Otherwise you won't be able to add any color. To do this in Photoshop Elements, go to Image > Mode > RGB Color.
To start colorizing your image, create a new layer. (Click the new layer icon above the layers palette, or go to Layer > New > Layer... or press Ctrl / Cmd + Shift + N on the keyboard).
Decide what part of the image you want to paint first. I'm going to start with the hat. Now, there are a variety of ways you can paint over the image. For the hat I want to paint it a mottled brown color.
To do this, I'm going to use Photoshop's clouds filter. This creates a cloud-like texture using your foreground and background colors as the light and dark parts of the 'clouds'. So I choose a dark brown as my foreground color, and a light brown as my background color.
To choose your color, just click on the respective color chip in the tool panel. This then brings up the color picker where you can choose your color.
To create the cloud texture, go to Filter > Render > Clouds.
Then change the layer blend mode to Overlay.
Next, add a layer mask to your layer. This will be used for restricting the color only to the hat. At the the top of the layers palette Alt / Option click the Add layer mask icon, or go to Layer > Layer Mask > Hide all. This will create a black mask that hides the layer.
Click on the layer mask thumbnail in the layers palette to select it.
In the tool palette, select the paintbrush tool. Choose the brush settings as you see fit. I've gone for a soft round brush. Then paint in the color over the hat, remember for layer masks white reveals while black conceals. You can quickly change between black and white paint by using the X key on your keyboard.
For areas around the edge of the hat you may want to use a smaller brush size. The brush size can be adjusted quickly by using the left and right square bracket keys - [ for reduce size, and ] for increase size. For the thin hairs around the edge you may want to brush over them very lightly by setting a low opacity for your brush.
Next, to color in the face, create a new layer. You may want to rename your layers to indicate what they contain. You can do this by just double clicking on the layer name in the layer palette.
Select a flesh tone color. To do this, I am going to sample a tone from the skin on the color image. Alt / Option click on the eye icon next to the image layer. This will hide all other layers, showing just the image layer.
Select the eye dropper (color picker) tool, and in the tool options choose Average (5x5). This will make the tool sample the average color from a 5x5 pixel square, giving a better result than just sampling an individual pixel. Click on an area of the face to take a sample of the color.
Now Alt / Option click on the eye next to your image layer again to reveal all the layers again. Select your face layer, and change the blend mode to Color.
With the paint brush tool, start painting the color over the face. As with the hat, you may need to reduce the brush size and / or opacity for coloring in more tricky areas.
Create a new layer for the lips, and change the blend mode to Overlay. Again, you can select a color for the lips manually if you like, but I'm going to sample a color from the original color image. The process is the same as for the skin. Then color the lips in.
After coloring in the lips I found that when doing the skin I'd accidentally painted some of the skin color on the bottom right of the lips. This results in the lips color being too strong here, as it has the lips color overlaid on top of the skin color.
So to correct this, I add a layer mask to the skin layer, and then use a low opacity black brush to paint out the skin coloration over the lips.
Create another new layer for the eyes. The eye color isn't very strong in the original image, but for the painted image I will make the eyes a stronger green color. I choose green as my brush color and paint over the eyes.
Because the eyes are quite dark in the original image, the Color Dodge blend mode works well for brightening up the eyes. I find that painting sloppily over the eyes, and then adding a layer mask to clean it up is easiest. Getting the pupils right will take a bit of trial and error with brush softness and size.
Next add another layer for the hair. Change the blend mode of this layer to Overlay. Choose a dark brown hair color, then paint over the hair. Change the brush size and lower the opacity of the brush when dealing with tricky areas.
Personally, I am quite happy with this image as it is now. The desaturated background helps draw attention to the subject (or should that be it doesn't distract from the subject). However, for the sake of completion I'll go over colorizing the background as well.
As the background is out of focus, another clouds layer will work well. I chose dark brown and pale green as my background and foreground colors, created a new layer, and then went to Filter > Render > Clouds. Then change the blend mode of the layer to Soft Light.
How did I decide to use the Soft Light blend mode? Or how did I decide which blend mode to use for any of the other layers? It's just a case of experimenting with the different blend modes to see which one looks best really.
For this layer, Overlay is too strong in my opinion (though you could use Overlay and reduce the layer opacity). But Soft Light gives a nice balance of color to my eyes.
Add a layer mask, though this time just add the layer mask normally (or use Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal all). Then use a black paintbrush to paint out the effect over the sky and person.
Finally, add another layer for the sky, put it in overlay blend mode, and paint the sky area blue. This won't have much effect as most of the sky is blown out white anyway. You could choose a different blend mode (such as multiply) and reduce the opacity. But it's not worth the effort of trying to paint around the edge of the hat in my opinion.
So, the technique of painting over a black and white image is quite simple really, though not necessarily easy. Some images can be quite tricky to paint over correctly. How accurately you paint the image, and how many different areas of color you use are really up to you.
Bear in mind that these issues were the same when people colorized black and white prints by hand. Some studios would hire expert painters to colorize the images carefully, whereas others would do a quick 'good enough' job (and of course the prices reflected the level of work done).
If you are looking to colorize black and white images as accurately as possible without doing much detailed brushwork, then you may want to consider specialist colorizing software such as Akvis Coloriage or Recolored.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention this excellent video tutorial from Photoshop Video Academy. The video shows how to go about colorizing an image based on selections, rather than painting. This can give a more accurate result than painting.
Colorizing black and white images isn't restricted just to portraits, though in my opinion this is where it is most effective. If you have some old black and white images you'd like to see in color, or you'd just like to give some modern images a vintage effect, then give it a go.
A double exposure is a creative technique where you combine two (or more) photos in a single image. It is quite an old technique, before digital it meant capturing two exposures on a single frame of film. But with today's modern cameras and software, creating a good double exposure image is much easier.Read the rest of this entry »
The Droste effect is the name given to the effect when a picture appears within a picture of itself.
It is named after a brand of Dutch Cocoa powder, whose box featured an image of a woman holding a tray with a cup of cocoa and the same box with the same image on it.
The infinite recursion of the Droste effect is an unusual technique, but can produce some great images. In this article I'll look at how to create two different versions of the effect - the frame within a frame technique, and the spiral technique.Read the rest of this entry »
Photographing a white subject on a white background can be quite tricky, particularly if you are looking for a pure white background. In this article I'll look at a number of ways of achieving a pure white background while keeping the white subject exposed nicely.Read the rest of this entry »
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A portfolio is a tightly edited collection of photos. It can be presented online, or in hard copy, such as a book. It is not necessarily only your best photos (though the photos do all need to be good), but rather a set of photos that go together.
A good portfolio can help you attract new customers, or gain a foothold into a new genre of photography that you have little previous experience in. Whereas a bad portfolio can do just the opposite.
In this article we'll look at some tips for how to put together a good photography portfolio.Read the rest of this entry »
If you have an interchangeable lens camera, such as a DSLR or CSC, then you're probably aware that the ability to use a range of different lenses with your camera can be very useful. You should also be aware that you can't mix and match lenses designed for different camera mounts. You can't use a Nikon lens on a Canon camera and vice-versa.
However, this is not actually always the case. A lens mount adapter can allow you to use your camera with lenses that have a different mount. It can even allow you to use lenses that aren't designed for use with cameras at all.
In this article we'll look at Lens mount adapters. Why you might want to use one, the different types you can find, compatibility issues, and potential problems they can have.Read the rest of this entry »
Shadow plays an important part in photography. Without it photos would look flat, lacking in dimension and texture. But have you ever thought about making shadow the main subject of a photograph?
There are lots of different ways you can use shadow as the main element of a creative photo. In this article we'll look at some ideas and tips on photographing shadows, and hopefully inspire you to try some of these ideas yourself.Read the rest of this entry »