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Softening Portraits

Often the problem with a well-focused photograph is that every flaw and blemish in your subject’s face is too apparent. In short, it is too sharp (Figure 1). This month I will discuss a great method for using Adobe Photoshop to soften your subject without obliterating all of the detail making your subject unrecognizable.

Fig. 1
First, duplicate the background layer by selecting Duplicate Layer from the Layer menu (Figure 2). In my example, I have named the new layer "Soft Background."

Fig. 2

Next, select the new layer and blur it using the Gaussian Blur filter (from the menu choose Filter: Blur: Gaussian Blur) (Figure 3). You need to blur it enough to soften the imperfections, but not so much that it is an unrecognizable mass. For this photograph, I used a five pixel radius blur. Set this layer to about 70% opacity using the Opacity slider on the Layers Pallet (Figure 4).

Fig. 3

At this point, I want to bring back some of the detail on the critical areas of the face, the eyes and mouth, as well as the earring. These are the areas that we notice first when viewing a portrait. To make sure that your photograph still looks like it is in focus, it is important to preserve this detail. To do this, add a Layer Mask to the "Soft Background" layer (Layer: Add Layer Mask: Reveal All). Use the Paintbrush tool with a soft edged brush set to a low opacity (about 20% is good) in the Paintbrush Options Pallet. Paint with black on the layer mask to bring more detail from the underlying layer (Figure 5). Paint over the eyes, mouth and earrings especially. With the low opacity setting on the paintbrush, you may have to go over these areas several times to bring back the amount detail that you want.

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

Lastly, after you save off your Photoshop file with the layers (The Photoshop format, .PSD, is the only format that you can save with layers), flatten the image (Layer: Flatten Image)
Paul Vaughn is the Director of Digital Services at River City Silver, the premiere photographic and digital imaging laboratory in San Antonio and South Texas. Mr. Vaughn is a graphic artist who realizes that being too sharp can be a bad thing, he can be contacted at

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