A Soft Touch For Wedding Photography; Soft-Focus & Blur Effects In The Digital Darkroom

Despite lens makers’ ads to the contrary, photographers don’t always want or need tack-sharp photographs, especially for wedding or bridal portraits. The use of creative or selective blur when applied in the digital darkroom to an otherwise ordinary photograph can create a mood or look that fits an impression of the original image more than its reality, but sometimes the distinction between blur and soft focus gets confused, so let’s take a look at the differences.

Blur Effects
When all or part of a photograph lacks sharpness it looks blurry and that blur can be caused by something as simple as the depth of field produced by a combination of aperture, focal length, and the distance from the camera to the focused-upon subject. Blur can also be created by an object moving while the camera’s shutter is open, or simply by the photographer, accidently or otherwise, moving the camera. The classic in camera zoom blur effect is produced by selecting a slow shutter speed (small apertures help) and zooming while the shutter is open. Digital blurring is accomplished with software that averages pixel values to soften edge detail and the effect can be produced using any of Adobe Photoshop’s 11 different blur commands (Filter>Blur), including the Radial Blur effect shown here.

Tip: If you want to produce the zoom lens effect when using the Radial Blur filter be sure to select Zoom instead of Spin in its dialog box.

Before & After
The “before” photograph was captured with a Canon EOS 5D and an EF 85mm f/1.2L lens with an exposure of 1⁄80 sec at f/3.2 and ISO 400. The “after” image combines both soft focus and blur. After lightening the image by dodging its center, I used Imagenomic’s (www.imagenomic.com) Portraiture to retouch the photograph then applied Nik Software’s (www.niksoftware.com) Color Efex Pro 3.0 Glamour Glow filter as a separate layer. Using the Eraser tool on that layer I reduced the amount of blur in certain areas, such as the bride’s eyes to produce the “after” image.
All Photos © 2010, Staver Photography, All Rights Reserved

Soft-Focus Effects
A lens that’s not corrected for spherical aberrations produces soft focus and creates a diffused look by bending light away from the subject so that parts of the photograph are defocused while the rest remains in focus. Highlights are dispersed onto adjacent areas and while the image appears in focus some of its components are enough out-of-focus to appear soft. In addition, sharp lines and edges are slightly fuzzy and small details begin to disappear. Capturing soft-focus effects can be accomplished in camera with dedicated soft-focus lenses, such as Canon’s EF 135mm f/2.8 SF, or lens filters, but can also be applied in post-capture using digital darkroom techniques.

Soft Focus
The original portrait was made with a Nikon D2X and an exposure of 1⁄320 sec at f/5 and ISO 400.
Power Retouche (http://powerretouche.com) offers a suite of Photoshop-compatible plug-ins, including Soft-filter which produces an effect similar to traditional on-lens soft-focus filters. The interface lets you control the strength and spread of the softness and does not blur the image.
The final image as it appears after retouching, exposure adjustments, and application of Power Retouche’s Soft-filter plug-in onto a duplicate layer of the retouched image. The opacity of the soft-focus layer was set at 80 percent and the areas around the bride’s eyes and mouth were erased to allow the sharper background layer to show through.

Radial Blur Effect
Here is the original, unretouched portrait made with a Canon EOS 5D and an exposure of 1⁄800 sec at f/6.3 and ISO 125.
After some initial tweaking—dodging mostly—I applied Photoshop’s Radial Blur filter (Filter>Radial Blur) to a duplicate layer.
Applying the blur effect to a duplicate layer gives you the ability to lower the layer’s opacity, allowing more of the sharper background layer to show through. Then you can use the Eraser tool, as I did here, to selectively remove part of the blurred layer to place the emphasis on the subject’s face.