Soft Focus Portraits

Millions of dollars are spent every year on cosmetics by women who want their skin to appear smoother. The portrait of themselves that they like the best will make their skin smooth and silky, their eyes shining in gem like clarity and their hair glowing with natural shine.

Unfortunately, the camera lens sometimes portrays them in merciless detail, every blemish and pore etched in clarity. Their hair lies dark and dank and their eyes dull and shaded. But all is not lost. The proper soft focus application can solve most of these problems. There are many ways to soften a portrait.

Soft filters fall into three categories. The simplest is the diffusion filter. Examples of these are a filter made of stretched nylon stocking, a glass filter with raised rings or a randomly etched pattern on lucite.

A second category is the soft focus lens or the Hasselblad Softar filter. A new type is often included in digital imaging software. The advantage of the diffusion filter’s low cost is mitigated by the soft effect being accompanied by a lowering of contrast and a muddying of shadow detail. All of the light coming through the lens and the filter is diffused over the whole picture, thereby diminishing the sparkle in the highlights and throwing unwanted light into the shadows. The effect does soften the skin tones, along with dulling the eyes and hair.

Only a super close portrait could be satisfactory with this type filter. The soft image lens replicates the achromatic spread of light inherent in the early portrait lenses. In those days, only two, three or four lens element lenses were used for portraits. Only when stopped down to F16 or F32 were they completely sharp. On the other hand, when opened up to F8 or F5.6 these lenses produced a glow of uncorrected light spreading out from the sharp image. Unlike the diffusion filter, the soft focus lens adds light to the highlights and prevents the diffused light from reaching the shadows. The effect was a soft portrait overlaid with a gradually diminishing circle of light stretching from the point source. Skin appears smooth and unblemished, the eyes taking on a wet glow.

Fortunately, contrast is not diminished with this type of diffusion. The Hasselblad Softar I and II glass filters simulate this effect quite nicely. There are even inexpensive ($35.00) clones made of French acrylic plastic that do the same job. The most effective modern equivalents are the Rodenstock Imagon lenses. These soft imaging lenses can be adjusted from super soft to quite sharp with graduated pierced attachments inside the lens.

For the digital portrait artist, Adobe Photoshop, ArcSoft and other professional imaging software include a soft filter or two. The effect is quite strong and should be used at fifty per cent or less for a good look. There is a strong inclination to sharpen the eyes and hair with the sharpening tool, but too much sharpening is quite noticeable and should be used with discretion. A soft image portrait can be extremely flattering and beautiful When done properly and with restraint. Try it out on your loved ones, she’ll love you all the more.