Travel seems to be a compulsion with serious photographers. We’re a horde of camera-toting gypsies, wandering our shrinking, relentlessly more familiar planet, the so-called “global village,” searching for some fabulous piece of geography that hasn’t already been photographed to death.
There are, of course, scores of useful approaches to making any travel destination—familiar or not—a source of fresh, original imagery. Some of the more predictable tactics: creative lens selection, waiting for dramatic light effects, interacting with the locals, trying inventive camera angles. My personal travel strategy often includes one of my perennially favorite ploys: telling a story with the help of soft-focus effects.
For the record, owing to the rigors of travel, I reserve any focus manipulations for after capture, despite many available in-camera approaches to this technique. I don’t like to complicate my life by swapping filters while I’m shooting on the go, and that’s my advice to anyone: Save it for the digital darkroom.
IT’S MORE THAN EYE CANDY
Soft focus is a misunderstood subset of our craft that too often gets pigeonholed as a sappy photographic parlor trick, good for bridal portraits and little else. It can be that, no argument, but there’s a cerebral side to this versatile technique. It’s more than just sentimental “eye candy.” Carefully stage-managed zones of soft focus in a picture function very much like deep shadows or intentionally blown-out highlights. They subliminally redirect a viewer’s attention to important details elsewhere in the frame. Used creatively, they can add great impact to a photograph.
Over the course of years doing travel assignments, from the Negev Desert to the Rocky Mountains, I’ve often pulled out the soft-focus card—when it’s appropriate—with the idea of revealing a deeper, intangible trait that doesn’t actually appear in my frame, something that lends editorial meaning to a particular subject. On the following pages, you’ll see a few of these travel shooting scenarios. In each of those selections, I’ve used a sort of “subtractive” soft-focus technique to manipulate sharpness. It’s one of several methods I describe in my new book The Soft Touch (Amherst Media, 2015) for giving an image its voice. This first sequence is a bit of a tutorial, detailing, step-by-step, how I applied subtractive soft focus to one specific travel imaging scenario.
A MADE-UP MURDER SCENE
L.A. is the company town for the movie business, so the hilly countryside beyond the city limits regularly appears in films and television shows. Tourists flock to Southern California year-round, hoping to glimpse filmmaking in action. They rarely get closer to the real thing than the canned entertainments of Universal Studios tours. The spot chosen for this image is the real thing—the only locale mentioned by name in the 1946 film noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. It’s one of many iconic filming locations around the city.
In the script, the pastoral tableau you see here becomes the scene of a brutal murder. A road receding in the distance like this often evokes a hopeful message—the promise of things to come. But, in this location, the future takes a much darker turn. I wanted that to be my visual narrative in this photograph. The road and the rail fence curving out of frame were the core ingredients of that message, so my approach was to isolate those graphic shapes from background distractions. Carefully placed soft accents would play a role in accomplishing that. In addition, smeared shadows and pillowy highlights would introduce the illusion of a ghostly aura, a cinematic effect that supports the somber theme lurking in this peaceful little tableau.
The basic idea with subtractive soft focus is to first detune overall sharpness for the abstract, emotional effect we’re after, then to subtly restore selected details back to sharp focus using a simple layer mask. As you’ll see, there are other enhancements involved, as well. Here’s the main sequence of events.
We import the JPEG file of a medium-resolution capture into Photoshop, and with our Layer > Duplicate Layer pull-down menu, create a safe copy to give us freedom for experimenting without damaging our original.
Using the pull-down menu command, Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur, we open this dialog box and set our blur intensity. The windows will show the effect of this adjustment in real time. A rule of thumb here is to gradually apply the blur effect to the point where you can just make out basic shapes, but no textural detail. In this case, that’s a setting of around 26 pixels.
We’ve now draped our entire image in global blur, so, at this point, it’s basically a flawed, out-of-focus picture. But that’s not where we’ll leave it. We now want to retrieve a bit of our subject’s details by “painting” out some, but not all, of the blur, thus, “subtractive soft focus.”
First, we create a layer mask using that tiny icon (1). We’ll specify the mask color as white, by adjusting the slider (2). On the left-hand side of our Photoshop window, we select the Paint Brush tool (3) and choose black as our brush color (4). In the Opacity window at top, we’ll now “thin out” the brush’s paint by changing the slider to 30% (4a). This gives us better control when we go to our next step, which is to gently re-sharpen some details by brushing over this mask—again, subtracting softness in the area (5) where I show the cross-hatching.
Key features of this scene now have some definition, but the overall image retains the emotional dimension we’ve added with our Gaussian Blur. Gaussian is one of many filters in Photoshop’s extensive blur gallery. They all invite experimentation.
We now move forward to isolating our important editorial elements—the fence and the road—from their distracting background. Blue sky and puffy white clouds are cheerful pictorial devices in another context, but they undermine the message we’re after with this image. Our opening gambit is to increase contrast a bit, with Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast. It’s also important here that our blacks “fill in” a bit more. Image > Adjustments > Selective Color will get us to this function. We select Blacks from the menu, as shown, and push the density slider up just enough to block up the picture’s darkest values. A +7 increase is all that’s required.
We’ll now take our little saga home, once again with the help of Photoshop’s handy Brush tool. We select it as before (6) and spec the brush color as black (7). There are now two effects to render—first is to reduce the brightness level beside the fence, a noticeable distraction from the strong graphic statement of white posts and rails. Our Opacity slider (8) is now adjusted to 20% and, at that setting, we can brush a hint of black over the ground highlights to bring down their brightness where I have the cross-hatching, which roughly indicates where we want to apply brushstrokes. (Note: Two important adjustments in the Brush tool are brush size and hardness; neither is shown here, but they’re easy to find when the Brush icon appears in the upper-left corner of the Photoshop window (9). Hardness for a light application like this should always be kept low, with brush size on
the larger side.)
A second Brush tool application on this generation of our image is required to cover the sky and background flora. With our black level increased to 100% opacity and a large brush size, we can obliterate any detail in the background of this frame (where I’ve indicated with cross-hatching). Take care in situations like this to reduce the brush diameter and hardness before you apply brushwork around small details like the top edges of these rails and the fence posts. This last step now isolates and emphasizes the fence line and road—going right to the crux of our story.
With all our various parts in proper relation to one another—fence and road, the downward curve into distant blackness, highlights radiating an ominous glow—we have one last action to perform. The mood of this whole process has been informed throughout by a brooding cinematic tale. Like most films of its genre, The Postman Always Rings Twice was shot in black-and-white. A fitting (some might argue necessary) variation of this photograph would be a monochrome conversion, with perhaps a subtle contrast increase to mirror the film’s stark atmosphere.
There are several third-party software tools for performing color-to-monochrome conversions after capture. Photoshop offers a good option in its Image > Adjustments > Black and White pull-down menu. This will open the dialog box shown here. It allows you to optimize your final Black and White values based on the color levels of the original.
Here’s our finished product, shown above. You can almost picture the scene to come:
EXT. LAKESIDE – NIGHT
CORA: I’ve always wanted to see Malibou Lake, Frank.
FRANK: There it is, Cora…
They shove her husband Nick, already drunk and semiconscious, into the backseat of the ill-fated sedan.
The car speeds away.
FADE TO BLACK
Shown here, as promised, are a few cameos of other situations where the subtractive soft-focus technique added sparkle and dimension to my travel imagery. As mentioned earlier, these examples are discussed in detail in The Soft Touch.
Isola San Giulio, Lake Orta, northern Italy. According to legend, St. Julius of Novaro, a 5th century cleric for whom this little island is named, banished the poisonous snakes from its shores and built the prominent basilica, this lake’s iconic landmark. A popular myth has it that Julius crossed the water by gliding above its surface, safe from the snakes that were slithering beneath him.
To suggest the mystique of this fascinating bit of folklore, I used the subtractive soft-focus technique in Photoshop CS6, first cloaking the whole image in Gaussian blur, then, with a layer mask and the Paintbrush tool, retrieving sharpness only around the great church that also bears the name of this mystical saint.
The Alps of Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy. This action-stopping capture of a serious road cyclist on a training ride near the Sarca River fails to convey his speed and power. Rather than experiment on location with shutter speed changes to achieve the kinetic look of blurred action, I waited until I was able to take the image into Photoshop CS6.
The Filter > Blur > Motion Blur command gets us to this dialog box. The process is the same as working with Gaussian Blur: Select a soft-focus effect, in this case, the Motion Blur command, then, with a layer mask and the Brush tool, subtract enough of that global blur to add the convincing illusion of speed, without obscuring the rider, by far, a more accurate impression of this athlete’s effort.
Oaxaca, Mexico. An outdoor portrait of this woman was made “on-the-fly” between locations, with little thought to the background, other than to use shallow depth of field to drop these acacia blossoms slightly out of focus. On later inspection, the flowers were clearly too prominent in the frame. I looked closer at the image, and found a much more interesting portrait in a closer crop that suggested this subject was looking wistfully at something or someone out of frame.
The tighter crop was executed, and global blur added, this time in Photoshop CC 2014. This version of Photoshop features an expanded blur gallery that includes an Iris Blur filter. This tool can be adjusted to create, among other effects, a creamy, convincing bokeh. We’ll use bokeh first to completely obscure the subject.
Background bokeh is, of course, desirable for exterior portraiture. Selecting a bokeh-friendly portrait lens for the original image would have been ideal, but, in travel situations, a lens change isn’t always a convenient option. Photoshop’s Iris Blur filter provides our best alternative. By subtracting our global bokeh effect from this subject’s face and neck as before with a layer mask and the Brush tool, we separate her from any background distractions and let the soft pastels and shapes of the bokeh concentrate attention on her beguiling off-camera glance.
Jim Cornfield is a veteran commercial photographer and a respected author, journalist and travel writer. This article features excerpts from his book, “The Soft Touch: A Photographer’s Guide to Manipulating Focus” (Amherst Media, 2015). Visit his website at jimcornfield.net.