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.