The Art of Creative Blur

By Steve Dreyer Back to

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As a photographer you strive to get it “right” at the time of image capture, so that you have little or even no work to do in post-processing. But there are times when it’s just not possible to technically achieve your vision in the field.

Let’s say you want to draw the viewer’s eye to a person, objects or areas in the image by using depth of field techniques. You can create the field of focus by using aperture priority and a large (low number) f-stop with sharp focus on the object you want to stand out. Focus on the object, shoot at f/1.8, f/2.8 or f/4 and you are good to go, right? But this can be difficult or even impossible if you don’t have a lens with you that can give you those large openings (or if you use a lens extender, which makes it even harder). And what if you want more than one sharp or blurred area in the same image?

Photoshop to the Rescue
You can use just about any recent version of Photoshop and many excellent plug-ins to create blurred areas in your images. In Photoshop CS5 for example, use the Gaussian Blur filter with one or more layer masks, then some brushing on the masks–well you know the drill. It’s achievable, but depending on the image, it can take some time and patience to be really accurate.

With Photoshop CS6, Adobe has given photographers some new and great ways to accomplish creative blur effects–both quickly and selectively.

Quick Steps to Creative Blur
Step 1:
Open a photo in CS6 and make a copy of the background layer (cmd/control-J). See Figure 1 for the original image.

steve dreyer, photo tech mag
Figure 1

Step 2: Click on the Filter menu and mouse down to the Blur filter. You will see a fly-out menu with selections for Field, Iris and Tilt-Shift Blur (Figure 2).

Here’s a short description of the three new filters. I like them all for their unique capabilities based on what I want to achieve.

Field Blur: I use this to blur large parts of an image while retaining sharpness in small areas. While time consuming, it is effective for selective blurring.

Figure 2

Iris Blur: This filter provides a lot of control. It’s great for making blur adjustments based on spheres of influence in different areas of a photograph.

Tilt-Shift Blur: Use this to create perspective control. In my opinion it is best used on scenic images with greater distances between the sharp foreground and gradually blurred background (for example, down a long street or from a mountaintop).

Figure 3

Use one or a combination of these filters. If you do use more than one I suggest creating separate layers. This is important because as of this writing, these filters are not available on layers converted to smart objects. And of course with separate layers you still have masking available to you.

Step 3: For this Quick Technique we’ll use the Iris Blur filter.

When you select Iris Blur a sphere of influence is placed on the photo. Filter sliders appear on the right side panel. You will also see drop-downs in the panel for the other blur filters. Figure 3 shows the application of the filter. The round dial inside the circle (a pin) gives you control over the location of the sphere of influence and the amount of blur outside of it. You can scroll the dial with your mouse/tablet pen or control the blur with the slider in the right panel.

Between the center pin and the closest set of dots is the area of sharpness. Sharpness is easily adjusted: click on a dot and move the area in or out. You’ll notice that all dots move together to create the area of sharpness. If you want to adjust the dots individually for finer control, press the alt/option key on a dot and move it. Between the dots and the outer circle is the blur transition/feather. Outside the outer circle is the greatest amount of blur based on the blur amount you’ve chosen. You can turn, expand, contract and change the shape of the outer circle by clicking and dragging a dot. Click “OK” at the top of the screen when you have the blur effect that you want.

Step 4: You can easily create additional spheres of influence by clicking and placing pins on other areas in the photo.

Finish the image with one more Iris Blur placement. I found it’s best to apply additional pins before saving the blurs you’ve already applied. Just plan your strategy beforehand (although since you are on a separate layer, you can always cancel the blur and redo it).

Figure 4

Click and place a second pin in the area shown (Figure 4). When you place another pin in a previously blurred area that area of influence becomes sharp inside the dots and you can control the blur effect in that area. Take some care in placing and sizing—blur points may have an effect on each other. As you can see from these very quick steps, you have good creative control over the look, feel and composition of your images.

Bring Back Those Older Images
I have tried these filters and other new CS6 features on some of my older images—and I am very pleased with the results. I’d suggest trying CS6 and the blur filters out on some of yours—you might be pleasantly surprised at what you can create in very little time!


About the Author

Steve Dreyer
SDreyer
Steve Dreyer is a New York-based photographer, educator and writer specializing in fine art color and black & white images. His work, which includes landscapes, street photography and portraits, has appeared in numerous art exhibits. Steve also delivers workshops and creates eBooks on a variety of photography topics, including composition, digital workflow and post-processing software. For more information, visit his web site at stevedreyer.com and his blog at stevedreyerphoto.com