I have long admired some of the photographs made during the Pictorialist movement, in particular images made by Frederick Evans, Edward Steichen, F. Holland Day, Clarence White and Alvin Langdon Coburn. I bought my first soft focus lens in 2002 and since then have been learning to utilize its unique look in my images. A soft focus lens can create a mood, a feeling or an atmosphere that is quite different from standard lenses. Not every image should be made with a soft focus lens but they are a fun and challenging tool to use, and can add a new dimension to the range of your work.
Traditional Soft Focus Lenses
The traditional soft focus lenses designed for use with a view camera work because of the presence of spherical and/or chromatic aberrations within the lens. The spherical aberrations are the result of the curve of the lens. Parallel light rays focus at different focal points as they pass through the thick and thinner areas of the lens. This results in a blurring of the image. Chromatic aberrations cause the various colors in a beam of white light to be focused at different points, resulting in a margin of colors around the edges of the image.
Lenses went through a great period of development from the 1850’s to the early 20th Century. Most modern lenses were successfully corrected for spherical and chromatic aberrations by the turn of the century. In fact, lenses were capable of such sharp focus that amateurs started looking for ways to get a less literal and more poetic feel into their photographs. As a result, soft focus lenses were designed to incorporate and use these aberrations to give the photographer new capabilities for “softness” in their images.
As the demand for the soft focus lenses grew, a number of different lens designs were produced up until the 1960’s. Due to the specificity of the aberrations, no two lenses of the same design and size will give exactly the same results. This gives each soft focus lens a unique “personality” when using it. View camera soft focus lenses can be obtained through the used market.
In the 1970’s a group of photographers began using the Diana plastic cameras that were given out as cheap Carnival prizes. Diana cameras have a single plastic meniscus lens with both chromatic and spherical aberrations. There are no controls for either focus or shutter speed and they leak light. Each Diana camera produces a singular look and feel to the image. The unpredictability and dreaminess of the image as well as the relative low cost make these a fun and affordable film camera for the photographer wanting a “softer” look to their work. Vintage Dianas can be purchased on eBay and modern Holga and Diana reproductions can be found online and in many art stores.
Digital Soft Focus
With the introduction of the digital camera the world of small and medium format photography changed. Images were focused automatically and resulted in a tack sharp image. However, before long digital photographers were seeking ways to create softer images and behold−the Lensbaby arrived. This is a system of lenses that fuse selective focus with the unpredictability of the plastic camera. In this system you can choose from four lens bodies, seven optics (including an adjustable selective focus, an evenly soft focus optic, a plastic optic and pinhole optic) as well as a number of accessories for special effects.
Large Format Cameras and Lenses — Most soft focus lenses for these cameras use spherical aberrations to create their soft effects. With a view camera you can place the softness in a specific location in the image because of the ability to use rise, fall, swing, tilt and shift of the standards.
Roll Film Cameras — Almost every small and medium format film camera company made a soft focus lens. These were specifically designed to create soft focus effects. Each lens has its own “soft quality” and varies from manufacturer to manufacturer and lens to lens. Fast shutter speeds allow the user to work at fairly large apertures in relatively bright light. Many different films are still made for roll film cameras, both color and black and white.
Plastic Cameras (Diana, Banner, Holga) — Lightweight, cheap and (relatively) easy to use. They usually have a single plastic meniscus lens, with individual degrees of softness depending on the lens itself and camera/ lens alignment. Each camera has its own unique “signature” look.
Use “Holgaroid” back and instant film — You can buy an instant film camera back for the Holga. Images can be scanned for output.
Digital Cameras with Lensbaby — You can see the image you are making instantly. Lensbabys come in a variety of arrangements and the lens has the ability to work much like the swing and tilt on a view camera. You can also use a modified Holga lens adapted for a digital camera.
Availability of digital equipment or specialty software−this includes the use of iPad and iPhone photos, with software such as Photo Fx. The Hipstamatic App for the iPhone is an application that, with the swipe of a finger, you can change your lens, flash or film on your phone camera. Instagram is an App that adds a filter to change the look of your image before you send it to Facebook, Twitter or Flickr. 100 Cameras in One, another App for the iPhone/iPod touch and iPad also has a combination of 100 effects and integration with social networking. Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 software is a dedicated black and white plug-in for use in Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture.
With all film cameras, you have to process film. It’s getting harder to find places that process color film. Black and white film can be processed in a home or school darkroom.
The fastest shutter speed on most soft focus lenses designed for view cameras is 1/50th of a second so working in bright light requires additional filters and very slow film to work at an aperture of f/5.6 or larger. With most of the lenses the softness effect begins to disappear at apertures of f/8 and smaller. Large format film is expensive and color film for large format cameras is getting harder to find, as well as to develop.
Plastic cameras tend to leak light, which can either ruin or enhance images depending on luck or fate and where the light strikes the film. The area of softness is fixed and both unpredictable and uncontrollable.
Digital soft focus effects from iPad and iPhone cameras tend to be lower in resolution so print size is generally limited to 8 x 10 inches and smaller.
When Soft Focus Works
Soft focus isn’t always appropriate in an image. When working a documentary project and you want reality or believ-ability, soft focus doesn’t help make your statement. Images that are about sharpness, texture and detail, like the peeling paint on the side of a house or an image for an architect’s portfolio, aren’t enhanced with a soft focus effect.
Situations where soft focus can be used well include some portraits, using the soft focus to surround and accentuate a specific part of your image and using it to enhance foreground and background relationships in your images. Whatever method you use to create the soft focus effect, you have to evaluate each situation to determine if the objects out of focus add or detract from your image.
Regardless of how you create your soft focus images, the intent is the same: to create a visual world that is less sharp, less defined and, hopefully, more interesting. Just because you are using a soft focus lens or method does not automatically mean you are making better pictures. In fact, the f64 group came about because it was thought that many photographers were using soft focus lenses as a gimmick rather than as a tool for creating art. This holds true today. Good images come from good ideas.
Neither technique nor gimmick make good photographs−photographers make good photographs.
Resources: Lenses & Cameras: Lensbaby – lensbaby.com, Diana & Holga – lomography.com; Holga Mods – holgamods.com; Apps: Instagram – instagr.am, Hipstamatic – hipstamatic.com, 100 Cameras in One – stuckincustoms.com; Software: Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 – niksoftware.com