Using Soft Focus or Blur for Portraits

anna.sfWhen it comes to portraiture, you don’t always want tack sharp photographs. Blur and selective blur, when applied to an otherwise ordinary photograph can create a mood that fits an impression of the subject more than the reality but sometimes the distinction between  blur and soft focus gets confused, so let’s take a look at their differences.

  • Blur: Blur can be caused by camera or subject motion and can be accidentally or deliberately created by an object moving while the camera’s shutter is open or by the photographer moving the camera. Digital blurring is accomplished through software averaging of pixel values to soften edge detail and the effect can be produced digitally using Photoshop’s blur commands.
  • Soft Focus: A lens that isn’t corrected for spherical aberrations produces soft focus and creates a diffused look by bending light away from the subject so parts of the photograph are defocused while the rest remains in focus. Highlights are dispersed onto adjacent areas and the image still looks focused but some of its components are just enough out-of-focus so they’re soften. Sharp line and edges are slightly fuzzy and small details seem to disappear.

Capturing soft focus effects is possible by using a dedicated soft focus lenses, such as Canon’s now discontinued EF 135 f/2.8 SF or though digital darkroom techniques. Color Efex Pro contains a Classical Soft Focus filter that mimics the kind of soft focus camera filters used in traditional film photography and can add diffusion to an image while preserving detail much like a Zeiss Softar camera filter.


Classical Soft Focus creates a soft focus image but not a blurry one and sometimes the only way that you can tell that it was used is compare it against the sharper original which is why wedding photographers (and their clients) will love this effect that doesn’t look like an effect. The control panel’s Soft Focus Method pop-up menu lets you select the type of effect from a subtle soft focus effect to more pronounced diffusion. The Diffused Detail slider controls the amount of random detail to maintain the appearance of some sharpness and prevent banding.

Tip: Since the Classical Soft Focus filter can applied to a new layer I often use the Eraser tool to erase portions of the top (soft focus)  around the subject’s eyes and lips to keep them crisp. It’s an extra step that I prefer to do but you don’t have to if you prefer an overall soft look.

You can see more of this model in my book Joe Farace’s Glamour Photography that’s full of tips, tools and techniques for glamour and boudoir photography and includes information on all of the cameras used as well as the complete exposure data for each image. It is available from your friendly neighborhood camera store as well as at Amazon, where your purchase helps support this blog.


Author: Joe Farace

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