Portraits: Defocus the Background
Rating: 9 / 10Here is a quick Photoshop trick that will improve portraits with distracting backgrounds.
In keeping with the theme of Portraits from my most recent tip posted on Take Great Pictures along with a previous one from last month, I want to share a quick Photoshop trick that will improve most any portrait whose background is distracting. In a perfect world, every portrait you capture would have a gorgeous out of focus background that allows the subject to pop off the page. No distractions would appear, the subject would be tack sharp, and the entire photo would display the look of perfection - now back to reality. If the background can’t be controlled at the time of capture, use Photoshop to mimic the look of an f2.8 capture.
An ideal portrait session would go something like this: the background would be far enough away from the subject so it becomes a wash of color. The subject would hold still, the light would be even, and the captured moment would evoke emotion. In the image I made of my son a number of years ago while he was holding a caterpillar, all the pieces came together. Here’s what to do if they don’t.
© Russ Burden
SCENARIO #1: Often, the subject is in a location where the background can’t be controlled to the desired degree. In the BEFORE portrait of the young lady, I used as wide an aperture as my lens allowed. Based on the placement of the subject, it netted a somewhat out of focus background, but I still wanted to draw more attention to her big smile. Photoshop to the rescue:
a) make a selection of the background using the Quick Selection tool housed with the Magic Wand (keyboard shortcut W). If any part of the selection spills over to unwanted pixels, hold down the Option key on a Mac or the Alt key on a PC and the PLUS sign turns into a MINUS sign. Remove the unwanted areas.
b) Use the Refine Edge command in the Options bar at the top of the screen and adjust the SMOOTH slider until the selection edge softens just a bit. The amount will be determined by the size of the file. Hit OK.
c) Go to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur and adjust the Radius until you achieve the look you desire. The amount will bedetermined by the size of the file.
The AFTER photo allows the subject to stand out more prominently from the background.
© Russ Burden
SCENARIO #2: Often, the lens you have is too wide to control the background to the degree you desire. Wide angle lenses, especially on a smaller sensor point and shoot, provide so much depth of field, it’s next to impossible to purposely throw the background out of focus. Photoshop to the rescue:
a) perform the same steps in a and b above to select the area you want out of focus.
b) Go to Filter>Blur>Lens Blur and adjust the Radius slider until you achieve the look you desire. The amount will be determined by the size of the file. The reason I share this tool with you and the reason I use it more often than Gaussian Blur is it provides more options to fine tune the out of focus look.
Note the significant difference in the background in the BEFORE and AFTER image of the man against the rock wall.
© Russ Burden
For more control with either scenario, perform the steps on a background copy layer and add a layer mask so you have the ability to paint in and erase the effect exactly where you want it. Paint with Black as your foreground color to reveal the areas you want sharp. If you accidently go too far with the brush, change the foreground color to white to bring the out of focus portion back.
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