Soft focus for your portraits

Soft focus has been used in photography for almost as long as cameras have been used to take portraits. Softening the focus helps hide wrinkles, age lines, and skin blemishes, but it can also be used to give a somewhat dreamy quality to any subject. And it can help your own photos as well.

Work with layers

Start by opening our sample picture in your favorite image editing program. (I use Corel's Paint Shop Pro X, but, as always, the techniques can be applied to any image editor.) The first step is to duplicate the image in a second layer. Layers are a handy way to make adjustments, since you can vary the opacity of the layer you make the changes in, thus fine-tuning the overall effect.

To add the layer, choose Layers, Duplicate from the menu. You won't see any difference in the photo itself, since all you've done is slapped an identical copy of the image on top of the one that was already there. If the Layers palette on the right side of the screen is turned on, you'll see both layers represented there. (To turn the Layers palette on, choose View, Palettes, Layers.) The new layer, called Copy of Background, is the one on top. Here's what you'll see in Paint Shop Pro X.

Note: In previous versions of Paint Shop Pro X, the layers representation will look a little different.

Add some blur

Now let's add some soft focus to the photo. The easiest way to do that is to choose Adjust, Blur, Gaussian Blur. In the Gaussian Blur dialog box, set the Radius to about 2.0 and click OK.

Now we've got some blur. Actually, we have way too much blur. You could undo the effect and try again with a smaller radius, but it's easier to just use our layers to fine-tune the image.

In the Layers palette, drag the opacity slider (the small rectangle displaying the number "100") to the left until you throttle back the blur to your liking. What we're actually doing is making the top layer increasingly transparent so the bottom layer -- which has no blur -- can peek through. By combining just the right amount of blurred image and non-blurred image, we can make the photo perfectly soft (my favorite setting is an opacity of around 65 percent).

Sharpen the eyes

There's just one remaining problem. Since we indiscriminately blurred the entire photo, the girl's eyes are just as soft as the rest of the image. And that makes the photo look not just soft, but out of focus. In fact, it actually hurts my eyes to look at this image (though it doesn't bother my editor).

Once again, layers can come to the rescue. We'll erase the blurred eyes from the top layer so the sharp eyes can poke through from underneath.

Click the Eraser tool, which lives little more than halfway down the toolbar on the left side of the screen. Set the size of the tool to about 10 pixels in the Tool Options palette at the top of the screen; this adjustment makes the eraser smaller than the eyes in this photo. Then erase the eyes from the top layer, being careful to not stray outside the eyelash region. It might help to zoom in for a better view. In the end, you'll get a photo that appears to be sharp because the eyes are sharp, but the soft focus gives the rest of the image a pleasing appearance.

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Dave Johnson

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