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Soft Focus Portraiture with The GIMP

Before After
I'm sure you've seen examples of "soft focus" portraiture, often used by photographers to lend a soft, slightly hazy, "dreamy" feel to a photograph. The midtones are sometimes keyed up a bit also, giving a sort of glow to the faces of the subjects. Typical applications are high school senior/wedding/baby/couples portraits as well as in fashion or "glamour" photography. In this tutorial I'll show you how to accomplish this easily with the GIMP.

After reading this you may want to continue on with the sequel tutorial, Cosmetic Retouching, which works extremely well in conjunction with soft focus portraiture.

The basic technique is to create a duplicate layer in the image, lighten it and blur it, and combine it using a layer mode with the original. This technique is very similar to the one used in the Gaussian Blur Overlays tutorial.

Giving credit where credit is due: I did not come up with this method. I adapted it for The GIMP from a Photoshop tutorial in the book Photoshop Restoration and Retouching, by Katrin Eismann.

The Procedure

Here is the original example image, loaded into The GIMP.

You'll want to keep a copy of the original image up for comparison while you are working, so start by duplicating the image (Ctrl+D) and do the following steps on the duplicate.

Open the Layers dialog. Make sure the duplicate image is selected in the Image drop-down box. Right-click on the Background layer and select Duplicate (note to the confused: we are duplicating the Background layer in the duplicate image); there is also a button for this in the bottom button bar of the Layers dialog ().

Now double-click on the duplicate layer and rename the new layer "Blur Overlay". This step is not strictly necessary, but it is helpful to prevent confusion about what is on each layer, especially if you add some additional layers for other editing purposes, or more importantly, if you save the file with layers and open it six months later.

In the Layers dialog, select the Blur Overlay layer. In the "Mode" drop-down box, select "Screen". The image will become very light. Don't worry about this for the moment, we will correct it in a bit.

With the Blur Overlay layer still selected, go back to the image window and right click, selecting Filters/Blur/Gaussian Blur. You'll want a fairly high value; 60 is a good value to start experimenting with.

Now go back to the Layers dialog and adjust the Opacity slider for the Blur Overlay layer to your liking. I generally like to blur a little aggressively and then back off the result with the Opacity. Here I set the Opacity to about 80%.

In the Layers dialog, right-click on the Blur Overlay layer and select Add Layer Mask. In the Add Mask Options dialog, select White (Full Opacity).
Click on the Foreground color swatch in the main GIMP toolbox to bring up the Color Selection dialog. In the Color Selection dialog, choose the GTK tab. Set Saturation to 0 and Value to 0.70; this should give you about a 30% gray. Click Close to set the Foreground color.
Open the Brushes dialog (Shift+Ctrl+B) and select a medium-sized, round, fuzzy brush, e.g. like the one shown at right.

From the GIMP toolbox, select the Paint tool ().

In the image window, zoom in (=) to 100% or so. Scroll till you see a set of eyes.

In the Layers dialog, click on the white layer mask icon in the Blur Overlay layer to make sure the layer mask is selected (there will be no visible indication that it is in fact selected--a small white outline around the icon indicates whether the image or the layer mask is selected on the layer, and since the layer mask is white...)

Now go back to the image, and begin painting in the eyes. Be sure to try to cover the entire eye and possibly also the lashes. What we are doing is revealing a little more of the sharp image underneath for critical parts that the viewer will focus on (no one wants to see hazy eyes).

You should see the eyes and lashes become slightly darker and clearer, and the catchlight in the subject's eyes should improve. [Note: the 30% gray we selected as a foreground color insures that the eyes are not completely invisible from the second layer blur effect. If we would be painting with Black, you would find that the eyes do not match the rest of the picture and look very unnatural. In short, we are looking for a compromise. You can try using a darker gray if you want a more pronounced effect.]

Repeat brushing for all eyes in the image, lashes and any other parts that might benefit from this treatment (I usually just do eyes and lashes). If you stray too far outside of the eye it may make unattractive dark streaks around the eye, like bad mascara. In this case, just switch the foreground and background (x) and paint with White over your mistake. Then switch back (x).

If you look very carefully at the layer mask icon in the Layers dialog, you will see tiny spots in the white mask now.

Zoom out (-). In the Layers dialog, select the Background layer. Make sure the original image is visible for comparison with the one you are working on.

Go back to the working image window, right-click and apply a Levels (Image/Colors/Levels) or Curves (Image/Colors/Curves) and adjust it until the overall image has a brightness level you are happy with, compared to the original image. You'll usually find it necessary to adjust the gamma slider (middle slider in Levels) to the right. You are only adjusting the Background layer, but you are viewing the cumulative effect of the layer blend.

Note: you may want to not go quite as dark as the original image that you are comparing it to; a little higher key image gives a "glow" to the subjects that is part of the overall effect.

Once you get the overall brightness at a level you like, you may find that your image looks a little funny, especially with respect to the eyes. If this is the case, don't worry about it! (see next step).

Once you've got the levels adjusted to your liking, go back to the Layers dialog, select the Blur Overlay layer and re-adjust the Opacity slider to do a final fine-tuning of the overall effect. If you were unhappy with the eyes after the last step, reducing the opacity of the Blur Overlay layer a bit will fix the problem.

In this case I dropped the opacity just a bit to 75%.

One last thing you might want to do adjust the saturation a bit. In the Layers dialog select the Background layer again. Go back to the image and bring up the Hue-Saturation dialog (Image/Colors/Hue-Saturation). In this case I reduced the saturation a little to better match the original image.

And we're done. It'd not a bad idea to save the file as a GIMP XCF file to preserve the layer structure in case you want to due further work on it in the future. Saving in most other formats will flatten the image.

Compare the before and after pictures at the top of this page.

If you are looking for further "cosmetic improvement" to the subjects you may be interested in the sequel to this tutorial, Cosmetic Retouching.

If you want to stop here, consider a Smart Sharpen of the Background layer. I would make the sharpening (edge) mask from the original image.


For Further Reading

Last modified: Sun Jan 9 21:02:10 HST 2005

Creative Commons License Text and/or images are available for personal or commercial use under certain conditions.

Contact Eric Jeschke

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