Soft focus photographs present themselves with a tranquil and almost dream-like effect. They have become quite popular, and can be found to some extent in many genres of photography, from portraits to landscapes.
In reality, what many of us think of as soft focus photos, aren’t actually soft focus at all. The more accurate term is soft contrast. Soft focus is essentially the blurring of an image, which is not exactly the same as soft contrast. The softening effect can be achieved a number of ways using softening filters mounted in front of your lens, or in post-processing. With the powerful digital editing tools we have today, a soft contrast effect is both easily achieved, and infinitely adjustable.
In this example, you will see at a step-by-step workflow for applying a soft focus, or soft contrast, look to a photograph in Photoshop using our old friend the High Pass Filter. You might be familiar with using the High Pass for sharpening, but in this case it will be used on the opposite end of the spectrum. We will begin with a RAW image file and work our way to a finished product ready for publishing.
Don’t worry. All these edits are incredibly easy, fast, and will give your images a little creative boost if used correctly. Let’s get started!
Here have the RAW file or as I affectionately call it the “Genesis Image”.
Make basic edits first
We will begin with some basic edits in Adobe Lightroom, then transfer the image to Photoshop to apply the soft contrast magic. It’s best to perform your core processing first, before beginning the soft contrast process. I like using Lightroom because it makes for a super simple transfer, for working in tandem with Photoshop.
For this photo I performed some global exposure adjustments, as well as made some selective adjustments. I also made use of the HSL panel to bring the color saturation and luminance closer to my visualization.
Open in Photoshop and duplicate the background layer
Once you’ve finished the foundational processing it’s time to bring your image into Photoshop. Right click it in Lightroom and choose “Edit in Photoshop”.
Now that you have your file open in Photoshop, you can begin the easy process of applying the soft contrast effect. To begin, you need to duplicate the base layer. Do this by right clicking the base layer and selecting Duplicate Layer, or by pressing control+J (command+J for Mac).
Apply the High Pass Filter
Next, select the High Pass Filter. To do this, select from the top menu: Filter > Other > High Pass. The image before you will transform into a garbled mass of gray muck.
You will be given the option of adjusting the radius of the High Pass. I have found that for most images, a radius of 10-20 pixels is appropriate, but in the end it will be up to you and your creativity to decide. After you’ve selected the radius, click OK.
Next, go to: Image > Adjustments > Invert. You can save some some time by using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+I (Command+I for Mac).
Change the layer blend mode
And vola! Wait…the photo still looks like a moldy piece of bread. Everything is okay, though! The next step is one of the most important, and it will make all the difference. In your layers panel, change the blending mode to Softlight.
The image looks like a photo again. The soft contrast effect has now been applied to every part of the image. If you like how everything looks, great, you’re completely finished and can go on your way. Most often though, additional fine tuning will be needed to bring out the best of your photograph. This is the real power of Photoshop, because you can now selectively choose what areas will benefit most from the softening. To do this you need to add another layer mask, but don’t let this intimidate you.
Add a layer mask to refine the effect
At the very bottom of the layers panel you will see a small row of icons. The layer mask icon is the white rectangular box with the gray dot inside, click that. A layer mask will be added to your adjustment layer. This way, you can choose exactly where you want your effect to be applied using the brush tool.
Now I can really get creative. I want to leave the softening effect on some areas, but remove it from some of the key points of the composition; namely the rock face and the ground surrounding the waterfall. Use the brush tool (paint brush icon) and a layer mask to show or hide your edit. Be sure the two black and white squares at the far left bottom of the tool panel show the black square above the white one (hit D on your keyboard to set them to default and X to swap the colors). This means you are hiding the effect from the image by masking it.
If you click the two sided arrows above the squares (switch to put white on top – or click X on your keyboard to do this) you will be able to paint back in the effect, in the case you remove too much (using a mask is non-destructive editing, you are not removing pixels just hiding or showing parts of one layer). Also, remember the the brush tool is completely customizable as far as size, flow, and opacity are concerned.
Final edits back in Lightroom
In the case of this photo, I save and close it in Photoshop, and it will automatically import back into Lightroom where I will finish up some minute details. The final edits include mainly selective sharpening and a slight vignette.
And it’s done! In what amounts to a few short minutes, I have gone from a RAW file, to an image that artistically captures what I saw when I clicked the shutter.
As with any type of post-processing, it’s important to remember that less is often more. Be judicious with your edits and only go as far as you need, in order to reach the image you want to make.
Have a soft contrast or soft focus image you’ve edited in Photoshop? Feel free to share them in the comments below.