Softening Digital Images

soften-photos1The nature of photographic media has changed. That is the obvious part; but what can surprise you is that the lens filters that worked so well with your film cameras don’t always achieve the same results in the digital realm. Photographers who’ve discovered this are either abandoning their old filters and using nothing or using whatever software comes standard with their Photoshop or similar program. If you’re interested in getting the same quality for your portrait photography that you used to get with film and filters, you need to know that it can be done!

Like many people who’ve made the switch from film cameras to digital, I’ve discovered that the lens tools I once used so effectively on my cameras to soften, diffuse and vignette my images for quality “finished” professional results won’t do for digital what they did for film.

I’m sure it’s arguable by some that their diffusers still work fine, and I too have discovered that some tools still work okay under some circumstances but as I’ve learned, not all circumstances; my Ziess Softar #1 seemed to offer decent results when photographing a single subject in the studio but not without substantial cost to image contrast. I also knew that the black netting diffuser that I used so effectively with my Lindahl Bell-o-Shade and medium format camera no longer worked on the new digital zoom lens without showing lines in the image. I also knew that my other softeners made the images look too out of focus. Not a risk I was willing to take professionally so I just stopped using the Lindahl shade and drop-down filters. Intimidated, I stopped using any filters.

Then it happened. A savvy carriage trade-minded customer brought in a wall portrait that she had purchased several years ago by a photographer obviously using medium format lens tools like I was used to using in the past with my film camera. She wanted her new wall portraits to have that same “softened” look. So I arrived at the portrait session armed with my digital camera equipped with the very mild Softar Filter that worked okay in the studio on single subjects.

Understand that I knew any diffusion used on an entire family group portrait would be more exaggerated by their relative head sizes but I had explained that to her and she assured me she liked her portrait images “very soft”.

While the images looked good on the small camera monitor, once I opened them up in Photoshop and printed them out as proofs I knew they were too soft. I called a colleague who is a digital expert and explained to him what I had done. He told me that you simply cannot use on-lens filters anymore for professional softening and diffusion without creating mush on 35mm type digital camera images. This leaves the special effects job now to the computer and not the camera. I told him I’d tried using Photoshop CS in the past for their diffusion tools and what I got didn’t look like real photography, at best it degraded my images or made them look grainy and out of focus. He agreed that Photoshop’s filters weren’t the right tools either to mimic the professional photography filters of the past but told me that there is a company that has a software program that is a plug-in for my Photoshop and has filter tools to recreate believable results for various levels of softening and diffusion.

The software is called “PhotoKit” and is available from Pixel Genius for only $49.95. I bought the Mac version and it is wonderful. I have played around with it now and have found that you can get varying degrees of whatever you want that looks similar to what you used to be able to do with your old lens filters and drop-down tools. Even more possibilities are now available to you. One of my favorites is the ability to lasso areas and “clear” the results of diffusion keeping eyes and teeth sparkly and sharp.

Now that you are no longer needing actual lens filters you may make the same mistake I did originally and not have your lens hood or bellows shade on the digital camera. This is a mistake especially with digital; you still need to shade your lens from any ambient light even more than you did when you used film as the exposure latitude is not as great as it was with film and milky images are even more devastating with digital capture. You will get vignetting from the shading device at wider angles but just do what you did before you had access to zoom lenses and take the hood off when using wide angles. (Most pros using medium format film cameras did not have zoom lenses.) You shouldn’t use anything below a normal lens for portraits anyway. (The 35mm lens setting with digital cameras).

If there is a downside to doing your diffusion in the computer now it’s that the customer can’t really see the results on the proof, so they have to “trust” your artistic license. But it was like this with retouching too so there will be a short new education curve for your clientele to learn, or to save yourself from disaster you might offer a second proof appointment to show the customer a proof of their selected images with the added softening or diffusion. It’s going to take more time and you’ll end up with having to rework some things more than you want so I’d only recommend this for customers like mine who’s initial concern was the diffusion issue. You may also consider adding fees for “enhancement” to your price list just like you did for retouching and put such things as vignetting, softening and retouching all under the heading of “enhancement”. You can even charge a proofing fee for those who want to proof how the finished results will look, or else they “sign-off” that they accept any modifications sight-unseen.

In summary, softening and diffusion can be done effectively and professionally but it’s not as easy as it used to be when you’d just pick the filter you wanted and pop it over the lens. Your old on-camera lens filters will often turn your digital images to “mush” or images of weak contrast that may or may not be salvageable.

About the Author

-Tom Ray is a Certified Professional Photographer through the Professional Photographers of America. If you are interested in his full story please go to:

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