Tuesday, December 1, 2009

How to blur a background with the lens blur filter

Over the holiday weekend my studio went portable and I shot this image and many others for the Liechty family. In total they were 10 adults and 7 kids. Groups this big can fit in my studio, but often times with the number of young kids is close to exceeding the number of adults it's best to bring the studio to my clients. I would say 90% of all kids under the age of 5 photograph better in a familiar location (thus the reason I'm always pushing for parents to do location portraits). Whether it's a favorite park, your backyard or in this instance, Grandma's house, any location will do!
For this session we used some of my most portable studio backgrounds- white and black fabric. The white tends to be the most prone to wrinkling so prior to shooting I spent 2 hours (no joke) ironing it. I would have done the black too if I had time. So when I set up the black background it was of course a giant pile or wrinkles. There are two ways to get around this. 1. Shoot with a wide open aperture so the background naturally blurs in the camera or use photoshop to retouch out the wrinkles. Since the entire group was to be photographed on the black I had no choice but to shoot at maximum depth of field. For those images the exposure was 1/250 @F22. And you guessed it, every wrinkle on the background was visible. After a bunch of large group photos we did the parents/grandparents of this entire group and again even with less depth of field, still a messy background. Here is what the image above looked like before any editing.

I find the background very distracting. Below are the steps I took to isolate and blur the background.

  • Make a duplicate layer and then use the lens blur filter (photoshop CS3 and higher) to blur the duplicate layer until the wrinkles pretty much disappear from the black background. For me these settings were as follows: 
Shape: Octagon
Radius: 61
Blade Curve: 41
Rotation: 63
All other settings at default
  • Mask out the background from the people. I added a layer mask to the duplicate layer and using the paint brush I made my selection. You can also do this with the quick mask, or magic lasso, pen tool, etc. There are a hundred and one ones to mask in Photoshop. I chose the quick and dirty method since you don't have to be exact in this process just close. Basically I ran the paint brush along the shape of their bodies and then filled in the rest once the basic outline was done. It took about 3 minutes to do.
  • You'll notice that the lens blur filter has a small outline where the background and people blur together. (see enlarged photo) You'll want to select the image on your duplicate layer (not the mask) and using the clone tool and healing brush I removed this. Since the background and subjects are each now visible from different layers thanks to the mask I made, I can get right up the edge of their hair and bodies without damaging the visible layer and distorting the couple.

  • The next step is to add use the add noise filter to make the two different layers match in grain.You can see below how the added noise makes the two layers blend together better.

  •  Finally I merged the two layers and used the healing brush to touch up any last spots that didn't look smooth. The final result is a wrinkle free backgrounds, a look of a more shallow depth of field on the subjects and a suede-like quality to the fabric. Much better!
Here is the final product again.

Now I must say something here about how important it is to try to do things right in camera so you don't spend hours fixing little mistakes in Photoshop. In my opinion, Photoshop is best used as a creative tool to enhance already creative and interesting images. It is not a substitute for correctly applied knowledge, the right equipment or an answer for lazying shooting habits. I spent 4 hours editing a dozen images with this black background. It would have taken me half the time to just iron the black fabric if circumstances allowed. As great as Photoshop can be, it's not the answer to ever photographic problem and I feel a good photographer shoots smart and does everything possible they can to create the best image when the shutter clicks and not hours of mouse clicks later. That being said, tomorrow: More photoshop tutorials!

If you would like to see more images from this session please visit my facebook page. Don't forget to become a fan!

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