How to Create Dreamy Shallow Depth of Field

Use multiple selections to simulate shallow depth of field, and it will look as if you’d done it in-camera. It couldn’t be easier, says Philip Andrews.

shallow DOF
shallow DOF Dreamy Shallow DOF

Software: Photoshop Elements

Skills learnt: Simulate the effects of shallow depth of field using multiple selections and the Gaussian Blur filter

Time: 30mins



Plug in Help for DOF (Right)
For an easier way to create depth-of-field effects, try the new filter from onOne. Called Focal Point, it installs into Elements or Photoshop and uses a unique FocusBug feature to define and control the defocusing. Download a demo from www.ononesoftware.com

The shallow depth of field effect that is created when you select a small F-stop number, use a long lens, or get in very close to your subject, controls the way that a viewer sees your picture. The eye is naturally drawn to the sharpest part of the image, and shallow depth of field restricts the sharpness in a photograph to often only a single subject. If you haven’t been able to capture this type of image in-camera then the Gaussian Blur filter can be used in a similar way to produce results that help to direct the viewer’s gaze. Areas of an image can be selected and blurred so that our eyes will be redirected to the sharp part of the print. When the potential of the Blur filter is first discovered many enthusiastic digital photographers take to the task of creating shallow DOF pictures from their sharp originals with gusto.

The process they use is simple – select and blur. The results certainly provide a contrast in sharpness, but the pictures lack the sense of realism that is needed for the effect to be truly convincing. To recreate shallow depth of field more effectively there needs to be a gradual decrease in sharpness as you move in front of, or behind, the main point of focus. Making a single selection doesn’t provide the gradual change that is needed. In its place we need to use a series of overlapping selections that gradually move further away from the point of focus. Each selection is feathered to smooth the transition of the effect and then the selected area is blurred using the Gaussian Blur filter. The amount of blur is increased as the selection gets more distant from the point of focus.


To add the dreamy effect, the final defocused layer is copied and converted to monochrome before being tinted sepia. The mono layer is then blended with the original by reducing its opacity, and grain is added to disguise the softening effect of the blurring.

1. Carefully select the part of the picture that is to be your point of focus – the area that will remain sharp. I used the Quick Selection tool to select the girl and the flowers. I then added a rectangle selection of the white area of the train platform that is in the same plane as the girl. Feather (1 or 2 pixels) and then save the selection.



2. Use the Inverse command (Select > Inverse) to select the rest of the picture: that is, everything other than the girl and flowers. Apply a small Gaussian Blur to this initial selection. Here I have used a radius of 1.0 pixels. Inverse the selection again to reselect the girl, flowers and foreground.

 



3. Increase the area that is selected by either picking the Expand command from the Select > Modify menu or, in this case, use the rectangular marquee to select more of the platform area. Inverse the selection again. Feather the new selection by a greater amount. Here I have used 10 pixels. Save the selection.

 



4. Apply a larger Gaussian Blur (2 pixels) to this new section of the picture. Inverse the selection. Create a new larger selection, and keep in mind that you are trying to select more of the background in planes that are parallel to the camera to simulate camera-created depth of field. Inverse the selection. Feather and save the selection.

 



5. Blur the new selection with a higher Gaussian Blur setting. Inverse the selection again. Expand the selection to include the station house and then save the selection. Inverse the selection and then apply the final Gaussian Blur to the selection using a radius of 6 pixels.

 

6. The final step is to add some dreamy old-world style effects. First we duplicate the defocused layer (Layer > Duplicate Layer) and then convert this new layer to mono with the Convert to Black and White feature. The layer is then tinted sepia using the Color Variations feature. Next a little texture is added with the Add Noise filter. This helps disguise the smoothing effect created by the repeated application of the Blur filter. Finally a little dodging and burning is applied.