In Shadows

This is actually a photograph that I took last month. It’s not often that I use my flash for creative photography. It’s often only used for events or weddings. I decided that I needed to change that!

The photo was taken using a 580EX II with a off camera flash cable.

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Photoshop Tutorial: Soft focus black and white portraits

Many of the photos that I have taken have all been landscape or architectural based. I haven’t done very much portraiture photography. I thought that as I start to get into portraiture, I would write a few tutorials on how I achieved the end result of some of the photos I post. This is the first tutorial that I have written and I hope that it’s informative and useful to those reading it. I would love to hear your feedback.

Photoshop is a program that only works well if you add some creativity into the image that you are editing. And as every photo is different, when reading though this tutorial, I suggest that you actually play around with some of the options rather than just copy and paste the same settings.

Here is a tutorial on how I processed the following photograph

portrait_complete

Firstly, we need to convert the image to black and white. The two most common ways convert an image from colour to black and white are to use the Desaturate tool (Image -> Adjustments -> De-saturate) or the Hue/Saturation tool (Image -> Adjustments -> Hue/Saturation). This just performs a basic desaturation of all the colour in the image without allowing for any control of the desaturation process.

Channel Mixer Settings

There is also a further two methods to convert an image to black and white which allows for a much greater amount of control during the desaturation process. The first of these is the Channel Mixer tool. Using the channel mixer tool, you can select the monochrome check box then use the sliders to change the tonal balance of your black and white image. The second method is only available in Photoshop CS3 and above. The tool is appropriately called the black and white tool. This method also allows for more control during the desaturation process.

For the purpose of this tutorial, I have used the Channel mixer to convert my image to black and white. Normally, I would use the Black and White tool but I don’t expect everyone is running CS3 or CS4.

The settings that I chose for the processing of this particular photo is shown on the right. I recommend that you start with a default of Red: 100% Green: 0% Blue: 0% then adjust the sliders till you achieve a tone balance that you are happy with.

The conversion is the most important part of the process as it creates the tones in the image that is reflected in the final result. Though I suppose you could create an adjustment layer at the end and use the curves tool to touch it up a little.

Here are the images from my conversion:

Original
Original

portrait_desaturated
Desaturated

gaussian-blur-filter

Once you you have achieved a black and white balance you are happy with, we will move along to create the soft focus effect.

Firstly, create a duplicate of the layer we have just converted to back and white. This is as simple as right clicking on the layer and selecting duplicate layer. As we are about to apply a blur affect to this layer, I called the layer Blur.

Once the new layer is created, we will apply the Gaussian Blur filter. This should be easy enough to find in the filter menu. I used a blur of 8px on this particular photo but you may want to use more or less depending on the photo you are editing. The blur will ultimately reflect the softness of the photo.

Once you have chosen a level of blurring that you are happy with, apply the blur to your new layer by clicking OK.

From here, we will need to “Merge” the blurred layer with the original back and white one. We will achieve this by setting the layer to Overlay mode. To do this, select the layer that you are editing and click on the dropdown at the top of the layer manager that is defaulted to “Normal” and select Overlay instead.

Your precious photo probably doesn’t look quite as nice any more with the two layers overlaid. Here are the images from the last few steps.

portrait_blur
Portrait - Blur

portrait_overlay
Portrait - Overlay

Now that we have the overlay in place, we can set the layer opacity to create an overlay blend that isn’t so erratic. Select the blur layer and use the overlay slider at the top right of your layer manager. You will find that the higher the opacity is the softer the photo becomes. My I settled for an opacity of 33%, I suggest that you play around with the opacity to find one that works well with your particular image.

Now that we have the overlay corrected to a less erratic level, We will work on bringing out the facial features in the image.

On the Blur layer, create a layer mask. The layer mask tool can be found at the bottom of the layer manager. Once you have created the overlay, select a black foreground colour and start painting in the features that you want to show though the blur layer. In this photo, I have created a layer mask for just the eyes and lips. If you look closely at the images below, you will see the difference between the eyes and lips.

portrait_mask
Portrait - 33% Overlay

portrait_complete
Portrait - Masked/Complete

Well, there you have it, the finished photo. I’ve tried to explain a few things in this tutorial however, there’s really little involved with creating a soft focus back and white portrait.

1. Convert your image to Black and White
2. Duplicate the layer and apply a Gaussian Blur
3. Overlay the blur and set the opacity
4. Create a layer mask and bring out the features.

If you are looking for more technical and in depth tutorials, I can highly recommend the Photoshop tutorials by chromasia.

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