Using “Blur” to make everything more clear

11 07 2010

This is going to be a longer post – but I think you’ll like learning about this editing technique.  A recent article in Digital Photo magazine - “The Art of Selective Focus” by Tom Bol – discusses how to use selective focus  to keep a specific subject in focus – and keep the rest of the image to some degree out of focus.  The goal is to use selective focus to draw attention to the subject.  That’s why the title of this post refers to using blur to make something else more clear.  It’s a technique that I’ve used for some time – just didnt have a name for it.  Now, you may be thinking – “This is nothing new – I can change my depth of field to do this” but we’re really not talking about the same thing here.  The examples that I’ll show you in this post will help to explain. 

Many years ago a photographer might have smeared parts of his front filter with petroleum jelly to create a similar effect.  It worked, but what a mess that got all over everything and was a major pain to clean up.  Today, as the article points out, it can be achieved by using one of the larger view cameras or more easily with a 35mm tilt shift lense or the new lenses by Lensbaby .  He then goes on to discuss how he uses these to create this effect

A little further on in the article, he brings up the point that you may not always shoot something with this lens effect in mind.  It may be only later when you’re editing that the idea comes to you that selective focus might really work for a specific image.  Fortunately, it’s not too late.  Here is where Photoshop can save the day!  Mr. Bol then talks about how he handles it with his software.  Here are two ways I use that will create this same affect.  The first applies to all Photoshop software from Photoshop 7  up to today’s new Photoshop CS5. 

  1. First, open your image and then duplicate the background layer. 
  2. With the duplicate layer active, go to Filter>Blur>Gausian Blur [the article uses Lens Blur] and set it for whatever degree of blur you like.  This will take some playing around till you find the right degree of blur for your needs.  I often start with Gaussian Blur set at 10%
  3. With the duplicate [blurred] layer active, click on > Add a Layer Mask.
  4. Make sure that your Foreground/Background colors are set to default – black and white
  5. We’re now going to paint out any blur we don’t like.  Always remember that with Layer Mask , black removes and white puts it back.
  6. Take a fairly large, soft edged brush and set the flow to 50%.  As you paint over selected areas you’ll notice that the blur begins to disappear.  Paint over it again and it’s all gone. 
  7. If you don’t like what you did, toggle your background color to white and just paint over the image.  The blur will return.
  8. You can do this as often as you like until you get just the affect you’re looking for

The first set of images you see here show how  this technique can be used to not only emphasize the subject – but also add a mood to the image.  The picture of the father and son captures a fleeting moment in time. While it is somewhat interesting, it’s a very busy image with all the textures from the water plants and grass that pull your gaze away from the real subject of the father and son.  By using selective focus your eye is drawn to the important part of the image – with the out-of-focus portion adding a bit of a dream-like effect.

Using Layer Masks isn’t the only way to get this effect.  In my editing classes I teach with Photoshop Elements because it has a lot to offer at a very low price.  The one disadvantage is that Elements doesn’t have a true Layer Mask function.  Regardless, you can still get just about the same affect – it will just take you a little bit longer.

  1. The first thing you do is to follow steps #1 and #2 just like above.
  2. Now, instead of using Layer Mask go to your tools pallate and select > Eraser Tool.
  3. Make it relatiavely large, with a soft edge [just like the brush mentioned above] and set the flow to 50%
  4. Now, begin to erase the the blur from the image.  Each time you erase 50% will be removed.  Do it a second time and all will be gone.
  5. Because you have a soft edge to the eraser, there will be a slight fade around the edges when you erase.  If you want a harder, more precise, edge – just set the hardness of the eraser tool.
  6. Try it and see what you get.  Unlike the use of Layer Masks, you can’t put the blur back by painting over – but you can go to your history pallette and click back in time to remove some of the eraser’s effect and start again.
  7. This takes a little longer – but the end result can be just as good.

This second set of images is a much tighter shot of a boy holding a salamander.  It was a quick shot and I didn’t think ahead about using depth of field to enhance the salamander.  By using my software to mimic selective focus I got the shot I wanted – emphasizing the salamander – but at the same time a feel for the boy’s hands tentatively in wait of a sudden move.

So, what do you think of selective focus?  If you’re like me, you probably don’t have the view camera or special lenses to get this effect, but by using your editing software it will  to give you a creative and powerful way to edit your images for more visual impact.  You won’t use this on every image you make, but knowing how to apply it will give you a tool to create greater interest in your pictures.  Best – Bill

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