Faking your focus

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is an excerpt from Julie King‘s Everyday Photoshop Elements 3.0 , by Julie King (2005; reprinted by permission of McGraw-Hill/Osborne).

To draw attention to an important part of a scene—for example, an object in front of a cluttered background—many photographers will shorten the image’s depth of field. This narrows the camera’s focusing range and leaves anything outside of that range blurred. But many point-and-shoot digital cameras have trouble taking these artistic shots.

In that situation, you’ll need to resort to a bit of digital trickery. With Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0 ($90), you can manipulate your image’s focus to create the illusion of a shortened depth of field.

Blurring Large Areas

Whereas sharpening increases contrast along color boundaries, blurring reduces contrast to create the illusion of softer focus. When you want to blur a large area, apply the Gaussian Blur filter (See top screenshot).

Step 1
To select the area of the photo that you want to blur, choose the Selection Brush tool and set the Mode to Mask. Paint over any areas that you want to remain in focus—in my image, this was the garden statue. Elements turns these areas red for easy detection. If you mess up, hold down the option key while painting over the unwanted section of the mask. When you’re done, change the brush’s Mode to Selection to generate a selection outline around the background.

Step 2
Copy the selection to a new layer by pressing Command-J.

Step 3
Apply the Gaussian Blur filter to your selection by choosing Filter: Blur: Gaussian Blur. Use the Radius control to set the amount of blurring (I set the value to 4.0 for this image). Select the Preview option so you can preview the effect in the image window. When you’re done, click on OK to close the dialog box and apply the blur.

Step 4
The one hang-up with this and most blurring filters is that the effect often spills a little beyond the boundaries of your selection outline. To remedy the problem, use the Eraser tool on the blurred layer, dragging over areas that shouldn’t be blurred. For example, I dragged the Eraser along the border between the background and the statue’s jacket to bring the sharpness back to the fringes of the flowers. Use a very small, soft brush for this bit of cleanup work. If the blur effect missed some pixels that you want to be soft, use the Blur tool (discussed later) to touch up those areas.

Step 5
Merge the blurred layer and the underlying layer by pressing Command-E.

Creating a Gradual Blur Effect

In the previous example, all the leaves in the background are about the same distance from the subject, so you can apply the blur consistently throughout the selected area. Suppose, though, that the background contains objects at varying distances—as seen in my photo of a lavender field (See middle screenshot). To realistically mimic the effect of a shortened depth of field, the blur needs to become stronger as the distance from that focusing point increases.

Step 1
Duplicate the Background layer by dragging it to the New Layer icon in the Layers palette (or press Command-J). This step assumes that your image contains just one layer; if not, duplicate the layer that contains the area you want to blur.

Step 2
Select the Gradient tool (See bottom screenshot). In the options bar, click on the arrow next to the Gradient Picker (A, in middle screenshot) and select the Foreground To Transparent gradient. Next, click on the Linear Style icon (B, in middle screenshot). Note that the icon in the Gradient Picker will fade from the current foreground color to transparency; in the figure, the color was black, but you can use any color.

Step 3
In the Layers palette, create a new empty layer above the layer you want to blur by clicking on the New Layer icon.

Step 4
To produce a gradient on the new layer, click on the spot where you want the blur to be at full inten-sity and drag your mouse across the image, releasing at the point where you want no blur effect. For this photo, I dragged from the top of the image to about two thirds of the way down. After you release the mouse button, a fading gradient appears over your image. Where the layer contains paint, the image will receive the blur; where the layer is transparent, no blur will occur. In the translucent areas, the blur will be applied at varying intensities, with darker areas getting a heavier impact.

Step 5
Return to the Layers palette and Command-click on the gradient layer. This step selects all nontransparent areas of the layer. Note that the selection outline doesn’t accurately reflect the extent of the selection, so don’t worry that it doesn’t appear to encompass areas that are translucent in the gradient layer.

Step 6
Click on the eyeball icon next to the gradient layer to hide that layer. Then click on the duplicate layer that you created in step 1.

Step 7
Choose Filter: Blur: Gaussian Blur to open the Gaussian Blur dialog box. Raise the Radius value as needed to produce the maximum amount of blur you want (I set the value to 1.0), and then click on OK. To compare the blurred and original images, just click on the eyeball icon for the blurred layer.

If some areas didn’t blur enough, try using the Blur tool to strengthen the effect in those regions. Use the Eraser to remove or lessen the blur in areas that became too soft. You can also reduce the opacity of the blurred layer to lessen the effect throughout the entire image.

Step 8
When you’re satisfied with the blur, get rid of the selection outline by pressing Command-D. Delete the gradient layer and then merge the blurred layer and the underlying layer.

Softening Focus with the Blur Tool

Sometimes you may want to make focus adjustments only to small areas of your image. Or your image may be so intricate that creating a selection would be too difficult. In these cases, use the Blur tool. When you click or drag with the Blur tool, you blur pixels underneath your cursor. Blurring the background also makes the foreground appear sharper.

Step 1
Create a new empty layer to hold the blurred pixels by clicking on the New Layer icon in the Layers palette.

Step 2
Select the Blur tool. (It shares a fly-out menu with the Sharpen and Smudge tools.)

Step 3
Set the brush options. If you need a precise edge between the blurred and sharp areas, select a hard brush. If you want the blur to fade at the edges of your strokes, use a softer brush. (The options bar doesn’t offer you a precise hardness control for the Blur tool, but you can press shift-] [right bracket] to raise the hardness by 25 percent, or press shift-[ [left bracket] to reduce the hardness by 25 percent.)

Step 4
Set the Mode option to Normal, and set the Strength value to 30 percent. The Strength value determines how much change you produce with each click or drag. Start low—you can always apply the tool multiple times to the same pixels if necessary.

Step 5
Select the Use All Layers option. It enables the Blur tool to see through your new layer, which will hold the blur information, and access pixels on underlying layers.

Step 6
Return to your image and click on or drag over the pixels you want to blur. It’s a good idea to zoom in when you’re working on the borders of the areas you want to blur. As you work, adjust the Strength value as needed to create more or less blurring with each swipe of the tool. To reduce the blur effect throughout the entire image, reduce the opacity of the blurred layer.

The leafy background distracts from the statue in the original photo.To create a gradual blur from the top of an image, set the Gradient tool as shown. Then click and drag with the Gradient tool.To increase the strength of the blur in the areas farther from the focusing point, I used a fading selection outline.
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