Photoshop Tutorial: Soft Focus (Fantasy Blur)

A quick and easy finishing blur that gives you two levels of control.

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What you need

To follow through with this tutorial you need at least Photoshop CS. More recent versions of Photoshop may appear a little different (mostly the interface has added features) as this tutorial is originally from 2006, but the techniques here are sound and work quite well across all versions since its publish.

To follow along with this tutorial you will need to download this image: Soft-Focus.jpg (right-click and choose: Save As).

What is Soft Focus and When Should You Use It?

Watkins Glen in Soft FocusSoft Focus, or Fantasy Focus is commonly used by portrait studios as a finishing effect to remove detail and add a warm, sometimes surreal feeling to a photo. When used on portraits it does a great job of hiding sharp details like freckles and wrinkles, and adding a cozy warm feeling to the photo. When used on the right landscape, it can make the scene look surreal and almost unworldly. It’s not an extremely popular effect, and perhaps to some crowds it is a bit dated (maybe because of its overuse in 80s school pictures), but it does work wonders on some photos.

When you’re finished touching up your image, is it still too cluttered, have too much detail, look too harsh? One thing to try is to add a slight diffusion of light to the image, to bind it all together, smooth out the rough edges and make it look more uniform, without making it look out of focus. Enter Soft Focus.

A good Soft Focus will also highlight the subject of the photo, by removing or softening noise and distractions. Save your Soft Focus until the last step (instead of sharpening) and never save over your original photo with the Soft Focus version. Since Soft Focus will remove detail, you want to make sure you don’t replace your original with it.

I generally recommend Soft Focus on portraits of babies, children, wedding scenes (should be subtle), photos to be used for funeral services, and nearly surreal landscapes. It works especially well on misty and dark landscape scenes. The effect is not recommended to be used on: HDR, photos for documentaries or journalism, portraits of men, and wildlife.

How to Add a Soft Focus

Open the image (Soft-Focus.jpg) and make sure the Layers Palette is visible. Windows shortcut keys are used here. If you use a Mac, just replace the Ctrl key with the Command key.

  • Open the photo.

This image of Lucifer Falls is crisp and full of detail. We want to add a bit of fantasy with a Soft Focus.

  • With the Background Layer selected, press Ctrl-J  to duplicate the layer (1).
  • Name the new layer “Smooth(2) and
  • set the Opacity to 33%. (3)
Before Soft Focus Your Layers Palette:
Duplicate layer
Double-click a layer name to rename it.
We will now smooth out the detail on that layer with the Smart Blur filter.

  • In the Filter menu, choose Blur and then Smart Blur.
  • In the Smart Blur window, keep an eye on the preview (4) and adjust the Radius and Threshold to remove the details from the photo. (5)

The goal is to smooth out most of the detail in the photo.

I went with a radius of 5 and a threshold of 30. I kept the rest of the settings the same.

Keep in mind that the layer you are blurring was set to a 33% Opacity, so all the blur you create now will be reduced by 2/3 when you click OK. So it’s fine to smooth things out a little more here than what you would want in the final photo.


Smart blur
The image now has some of the harsh details smoothed away from it. Now let’s diffuse the light.

  • With the Smooth Layer selected, press Ctrl-J to duplicate the layer (6).
  • Rename this new layer to “Soft(7).

Because it was duplicated from a layer with 33% Opacity, this layer also has 33% Opacity.

After smoothing Duplicate layer
We will now smooth out the light with the Gaussian Blur filter.

  • In the Filter menu, choose Blur and then Gaussian Blur.
  • In the Gaussian Blur window, keep an eye on the preview (8) and adjust the Radius to add a significant blur to the image. (9)

The goal is to think of the Gaussian Blur as a light mist. Add enough to cover the scene with “mist” but not too much where you can’t resolve objects.

I chose a Radius of 3.2 here. Keep in mind the layer we are working on is set to an Opacity of 33%, so the blur you see here will be reduced by 2/3 when you click OK. It’s okay to overdo the blur a bit here, since you can change the Opacity of the layer later.

Gaussian Blur
With the two blurs combined, you have created a nice Soft Focus to the scene. You can now tweak the effect by increasing/decreasing the Opacity of the Soft or Smooth layers. A higher Opacity number makes that blur more prominent. Soft Focus applied Change opacity
Want to add more POP? This extra step will brighten up the highlights from the Soft layer and result in a more vibrant image.

  • With the Soft layer selected, change the Blending Mode to Lighten (10).

This brightens the highlights but reduces some of the light diffusion. Offset this by increasing the Opacity of the layer.

  • Set the layer Opacity to 60% (11).
After Lighten Blending Lighten Blending mode

Final Results

The soft focus effect is a great way to give your landscape images a dreamy appearance, by reducing the detail and making some elements appear to glow. You can vary the settings for, and even omit altogether, either the smooth or soft layers to suit your image best.

Soft focus works even better on portrait photography. Vary the Smooth layer to remove small blemishes and even out complexions. The Soft layer will give your subject a highlighting glow, capturing the viewer’s eye and giving a feeling of cozy warmth. It’s best not to overuse the soft focus when shooting groups of people. Wedding photos of the bride and groom are excellent uses, but it just doesn’t look right when used on the whole wedding party.

Before Soft Focus

Original photo

Soft Focus applied

Soft Focus applied

After Lighten Blending

Soft layer set as Lighten

Baby Original

Original photo

Baby with soft focus

With Soft Focus

Soft focus Devlin

Alternate Soft Focus settings applied

What's Next

More Photoshop tutorials can be found in our Articles section.

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