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Softening & Diffusing Digital Photos
by Tom Ray

The nature of the media has changed. What worked with film doesn't achieve
the same results in the digital realm. Photographers who've discovered this
are either abandoning their old filters and using nothing or using whatever
software comes standard with their Photoshop or similar program. If you're
interested in getting the same quality for your portrait photography that
you used to get with film and filters, you need to know that it can be done!

Like many people who've made the switch from film cameras to digital, I've
discovered that the lens tools I once used so effectively on my cameras to
soften, diffuse and vignette my images for quality "finished" professional
results won't do for digital what they did for film.

I'm sure it's arguable by some that their diffusers still work fine, and I
too have discovered that some tools still work okay under some
circumstances; my Ziess Softar #1 seemed to offer decent results when
photographing a single subject in the studio but I knew that the black
netting diffuser that I used with my Lindahl Bell-o-shade no longer worked
on the Nikon D70 zoom lens at the wider angles without showing lines in the
image. Not a risk I was willing to take professionally so I just stopped
using the Lindahl shade and drop-down filters for a while.

Then it happened. A savvy carriage trade-minded customer brought in a wall
portrait that she had purchased several years ago by a photographer
obviously using medium format lens tools like I was used to using in the
past with my film camera. She wanted her new wall portraits to have that
same "softened" look. So I arrived at the portrait session armed with my
digital camera equipped with the very mild Softar Filter that works at any
aperture on any lens thinking that this was good insurance at getting the
kind of "softness" she could live with.

Understand that I knew any diffusion used on an entire family group portrait
would be more exaggerated by their relative head sizes but I had explained
that to her and she assured me she liked her portrait images "very soft".

While the images looked good on the small camera monitor, once I opened themup in Photoshop and printed them out as proofs I knew they were too soft. I called a colleague who is a digital expert and explained to him what I had
done. He told me that you simply cannot use on-lens filters anymore for
professional softening and diffusion without creating mush on "5mm type
digital camera images. This leaves the special effects job now to the
computer and not the camera. "But I've tried using Photoshop CS for their
diffusion tools and what I get doesn't look like real photography," I
complained, "The results are terrible." He agreed that Photoshop's filters
weren't the right tools either to mimic the professional photography filters
of the past but told me that there is a company that has a software program
that is a plug-in for my Photoshop and has filter tools to recreate
believable results for various levels of softening and diffusion.

The software is called "PhotoKit" and is available from Pixel Genius for
only $49.95. I bought the Mac version and it is wonderful. I have played
around with it now and have found that you can get varying degrees of
whatever you want that looks similar to what you used to be able to do with
your old lens filters and drop-down tools. Even more possibilities are now
available to you. One of my favorites is the ability to lasso areas and
"clear" the results of diffusion keeping eyes and teeth sparkly and sharp.

Now that you are no longer needing actual lens filters you may make the same
mistake I did originally and not have your lens hood or bellows shade on the
digital camera. This is a mistake especially with digital; you still need to
shade your lens from any ambient light even more than you did when you used
film as the exposure latitude is not as great as it was with film and milky
images are even more devastating with digital capture. You will get
vignetting from the shading device at wider angles but just do what you did
before you had access to zoom lenses and take the hood off when using wide
angles. (Most pros using medium format film cameras did not have zoom
lenses.) You shouldn't use anything below a normal lens for portraits
anyway. (The 35mm lens setting with digital cameras).

If there is a downside to doing your diffusion in the computer now it's that
the customer can't really see the results on the proof, so they have to
"trust" your artistic license. But it was like this with retouching too so
there will be a short new education curve for your clientele to learn, or to
save yourself from disaster you might offer a second proof appointment to
show the customer a proof of their selected images with the added softening
or diffusion. It's going to take more time and you'll end up with having to
rework some things more than you want so I'd only recommend this for
customers like mine who's initial concern was the diffusion issue.

In summary, softening and diffusion can be done effectively and
professionally but it's not as easy as it used to be when you'd just pick
the filter you wanted and pop it over the lens. Your old on-camera lens
filters will often turn your digital images to "mush" or images of weak
contrast that may or may not be salvageable.

-Tom Ray is a Certified Professional Photographer through the Professional
Photographers of America. If you are interested in his full story please go
to: Professional Photography: Success Without School
 

   

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