Defocus The Background

Center attention on what's important in your photographs
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Defocused version

Sharp version

When all elements in a photograph are sharp, it tells the viewer that everything is important and commands attention from the viewer. Conversely, if only one plane in an image is sharp, it tells the viewer to zero in on the part that’s focused and don’t pay as much attention to the soft areas. It’s best to create this effect at the time of capture, but sometimes it’s not possible. The lens you have may not be fast enough, you may only have a wide angle, or the background may be too close to the subject. You may also realize that your originally captured sharp image would look better if the background is out of focus. A Japanese word has fallen into vogue over the past few years. The word is “bokeh.” Its Wikipedia definition is “the blur, or the aesthetic quality of the blur, in out-of-focus areas of an image.”

The bokeh effect can be created in postprocessing. The original version of the accompanying image was photographed with a wide-angle lens at ƒ/22—see photo where all is sharp. I created the version with the out-of-focus background in Photoshop using Gaussian Blur on a background copy layer.

Step 1: Duplicate the background layer by dragging it to the Create a New Layer icon (the icon with the dog-ear page) at the bottom of the layers palette. You could also go to the Layer pull-down menu and choose Duplicate Layer.

Step 2: Go to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur. Based on the size of your file, drag the Radius slider to the right until the area you want to appear out of focus takes on the look you want. Click on OK. At this point, the entire image appears soft—not to worry.

Step 3: Add a layer mask to the background copy by clicking on the Add Layer Mask icon (the square with a circle in the middle) at the bottom of the layers palette. You could also go to the Layer pull-down menu and choose Layer Mask>Reveal All. No visible change will occur.

Step 4: Go to Tools and click on the Brush. Be sure the foreground color is set to black, as you’ll paint away the Gaussian Blur under the white layer mask that you created in Step 3. Adjust the brush opacity to 50%, and choose a soft edge. Begin to paint away the area you want sharp. As you get to the edge where the transition between the soft background and hard edge of the leaf merge, zoom in and adjust the hardness and size of the brush to paint in a smooth transition. Continue to paint back the sharp layer until it’s fully restored. The effect can be seen on the layer mask. The darker the area you paint, the more it’s erased until it’s totally black.

If you make a mistake or want to paint some blur back into the image, switch the foreground color to White, and paint over the area you want to change. Be sure to use a very soft edge brush near any area where you want the effect to look gradual. The more intricate the detail in the transition zones, the more precisely you’ll need to paint. Creating selective focus in post capture is very powerful. Add it to your bag of postprocessing tricks.