Soft focus beauty doesn't have to mean art lenses or extensive post processing.
I've had a good many requests to talk about how I post-process my soft focus flowers. But to start the conversation, let's back things up to lens choice and how you use your glass to your best advantage--to achieve lovely soft focus in the camera.
Details First: All images in this post were shot this morning, hand-held, with my Nikon D7100 (so you wouldn't think the effect was in any way enabled by my D810's features). Again, hand-held. So, we're not concerned about tack sharpness--rather, we're "focusing" of the softness and light we can achieve.
I've only post-processed one image (above). And for that image, I used only Photoshop's Camera Raw filter, shadows/highlights, and levels settings (with a touch of a vingnette brushed in at the end). No other filters or "post" software.
I'll walk through that progression at the end of the post. But for the most part, let's look at raw images straight out of the camera--and how much flexibility you have with lens choices, long before you worry about learning processing software.
Because capturing the image IN camera as close to how you want it is, in my growing experience, the most powerful creative choice you can make.
This morning on the first walk I've been able to take in a week, I found myself mesmerized by the Japanese Maple near my mailbox. And then by the tiny yellow flowers blooming beneath. Both great opportunities to demonstrate lens choice and its affect on how and what you shoot.
This first shot was taken with my Nikon 24-120mm at f4--again with no post-processing, just a bit of cropping. Without any additional equipment, this is as close as I could get and focus on anything. And all the "soft focus" I could achieve.
Not a bad start. Soft background. But there's a lot of distraction with the surrounding foliage, I'm not as close as I'd like to be, and there were no real "creative" options to soften the highlights and leaf detail.
Next, I switched to my Lensbaby Velvet 85, set at f 1.8.
NOTE: When using Lensbaby, I recommend overexposing a bit, and looking for natural, diffused highlights, to give your art lens has much glow as possible to work with.
I'm a bit closer, the lens is lighting up the highlights with a soft glow, and I'm able to create a more pleasing composition. There's less sharpness all around with an art lens (due to the way the glass naturally distorts the image). That can be affected a bit by using a tripod and working with focus-stacking, if you like.
But for me, the softness is pleasing here, as are how the brighter parts of the image interplay with the shadows.
But I still can't get as close as I'd like, as I'm working with a 85 mm portrait lens.
So, why not add a 12mm extension tube?
This one's fun. With some post, I could tickle out more detail and sharpness and accentuate the shadows, highlights, and contrast. A vignette wouldn't hurt, either.
But I decided I really wanted the softness, the closeness, but with more of the leaf itself (and more of it in focus).
Enter my Tamron 15-30mm f2.8.
We're not quite as wide open as the f1.8 at the extreme end of the Vevet 85's range. But I've been experimenting with getting super close with a fast, extreme-wide-angle lens and liking the result.
And that's where I ended up with this final leaf image, shot with the added 12mm extension tube, allowing me to once again get super close.
Again, very little post processing was done. The soft-focus, glow, and background bokeh are benefits of using such an amazing lens.
However, I still made some key choices:
- Because of the extreme wide angle, I can get very close, still capture most of the leaf, but not include distracting, nearby foliage.
- Because of the 2.8 aperture rather than the 1.8, I got my background bokeh even with an f4 setting, plus captured more of the leaf in focus.
- Because of the fast lens, I achieve overall brightness that I couldn't capture in the Lensbaby 85 shot (of the full leaf) rendered without an extension tube.
In short, switching to the Tamron 15-30 gives me (in-camera) the desired benefits of each earlier lens choice I'd made, all in one shot. WITHOUT having to do anything fancy in post.
See below for a quick roundup of the post-processing I did do.
There were these little yellow flowers below our maple...
Absolutely NONE of these images were processed in any way, not even the RAW filter. So don't go thinking I think these are anywhere close to ready to show anyone but you.
But look at what you can achieve with nothing but a lens you know how to create with.
Again, I was shooting hand-held with the Tamron 15-30mm f2.8 with a 12mm extension tube.
How amazing is that?
Okay, about the post-processing for the lead picture of the maple leaf (shot with the Tamron 15-30mm f2.8 and a 12mm extension tube).
This gallery will walks you through the image in three stages:
- In-camera (no adjustments at all)
- RAW filter (adjustments made while importing)
- Basic Photoshop adjustments (to only shadows/highlights, levels, brightness/contrast.) No other filters used.
You absolutely can do amazing soft-focus things in post, but first craft your capture to take full advantage of what an image itself has to offer straight out of the camera.