Razor-sharp focus is not always the right prescription for a perfect photo. Adding subtle blur effects can impart a surreal or a romantic tone to your image. Check out any original Star Trek episode to see what soft focus can do for a scene.
One way that photographers used to get a soft-focus effect was by applying gel to their camera's lens. Another method was to use a special soft-focus lens, which has a single optical element that was physically unable to produce a sharply focused image. You get sharper--or softer--images based on the aperture setting that you shoot with.
These days, of course, blur and soft-focus effects are just a few clicks away in any photo editing program. I'll show you a trick in Adobe Photoshop Elements, but you can translate it to your favorite photo editing program.
Blur the Background With Photoshop Elements
Take this photo of my daughter, for example. Suppose I wanted to make it a little more interesting.
I'll use the same sort of technique that I described last week in the lesson on sharpening. Start by choosing Layer, Duplicate Layer, and then click OK. Make sure you have selected the top layer (click the top layer in the Layer Palette on the right side of the screen) and then add some blur.
You can find all sorts of blur options in the Filter menu. For this example, I'll try some radial blur. Click Filter, Blur, Radial Blur, and then adjust the blur settings. This control has no preview mode, so you'll have to tweak it "blind." For the photo shown here, I set Amount to 10 and I dragged the blur center to the top of the frame, so it appears to radiate from my daughter's face. Click OK.
If you don't like the effect, undo the step and try again.
This effect covers the entire photo, which isn't really what I want in this case. To limit the effect to the background, click the Eraser Tool (16th from the top of the toolbar on the left side of the screen). In the toolbar at the top of the screen, choose a brush preset that has a soft edge (such as number 21) and then tweak the brush size. For my photo, I set it to 60 pixels. Now just "paint away" the blur from the top layer until you get the desired result, shown here.
Fancy Blur With a Plug-In
Of course, there are a million variations of this effect, and you can make it as subtle or as dramatic as you like. If you find this sort of thing to be as much fun as I do, you might also want to look into plug-ins that make advanced effects easier. Try onOne Software's FocalPoint, for example. It's a bit pricey ($159), but it gives amazing results. You can try it for 30 days for free.
FocalPoint lets you vary the size, shape, and position of the focal point--the region of sharp focus--anywhere in the photo, and then control the amount and style of the surrounding blur. It's like using a specialty lens such as the Lensbaby, except that FocalPoint lets you control the focus afterwards, rather than when you take the photo.