Soft focus photography, brought to you by Lensbaby, has become very popular. Soft focus lends an artsy flair to all matter of subjects from flowers to portraits and even landscapes. Because Lensbaby lenses are manually operated and don’t communicate with your camera for exposure data, they are sometimes intimidating for new users. But with a few easy techniques, you can quickly become comfortable using these lenses and you just might fall in love with soft focus, as I have.
Learning to use manual lenses is easier if you let the camera do some of the work. While I usually shoot in manual, I find that letting the camera help out allows me to concentrate on getting sharp focus and creating impact with my photography composition. Here are three techniques that I use to help my students learn how to get the most out of their Lensbaby.
#1: Learn to love Auto ISO
The soft focus effect of the Lensbaby lenses varies as you change the aperture. At the widest aperture, most, if not all, of the image is soft. This is not usually the effect I like. I prefer to have at least part of my subject in focus.
To be sure that I get exactly the effect I want, I often like to take multiple shots with differing apertures. To make this easier, use manual mode, set your shutter speed for hand-holding (perhaps 1/125), and select Auto ISO setting. Then, as you change from wide open to smaller apertures, your camera adjusts the ISO setting to make sure that your exposure stays the same. In post-processing, you can choose the amount of softness that you like to tell the story of your subject. Letting the camera help maintain equal exposure while changing aperture frees you to enjoy using these lenses with less worry about settings.
For the landscape photo above I took multiple shots with different apertures with auto ISO setting enabled on my camera. I then selected the effect I liked in post-processing.
#2: Rocking to get Sharp Focus
I often find myself photographing underwater while diving where it is incredibly difficult to get sharp focus on a small subject. I learned this valuable focusing technique for macro photography when the subject and the photographer are both moving:
- Put your camera in high speed shooting mode so that you can take multiple images while holding down the shutter button.
- Using the manual focus ring of your Lensbaby, focus on the part of your subject that is the closest to the camera.
- Begin taking shots in a high-speed burst mode and move your body slowly closer and closer to the subject.
As you move forward, the plane of focus shifts from the front of the subject towards the back.
And because you are shooting in high-speed burst mode, creates multiple images with different areas in focus.
- Choose your favorite during post-processing.
This technique requires a bit of practice because the tendency is to move too quickly. Try to hold the camera steady against your face, keep your back straight, and slowly and smoothly rock forward from the waist while holding down the shutter. You can also try this with different apertures as in the first technique to be sure you have a winning shot when you get home.
#3: Aperture Stacking for Creative Photography
I love the look of the bokeh with a wide open Lensbaby lens, but often the subject is just a bit too soft for the image I had in mind. Because I am a big fan of focus stacking, I decided to try using the same concept but apply it to aperture instead of focus. I was hooked!
To use this technique, determine a proper exposure in manual and then switch to auto ISO setting (as in technique #1 above). This technique changes the aperture through a series of images, so let the camera do the heavy lifting for you with regards to exposure. This aperture stacking technique is best done with your camera on a tripod and with windless conditions. You will be stacking these images in post-processing, so the less movement the better. Set up your composition and take the first image with a wide open aperture. Then just keep taking shots, adjusting the aperture one click at a time until you reach the max aperture.
When you get home and open the images in Photoshop, you can use a layered approach to blending the images and getting the softness and sharpness exactly where you want them. Once I open all the images as layers in PS, I start with the widest aperture image on the bottom and use that for my background. I then use masks and paint in sharpness to varying degrees with a soft-edged, low opacity brush. By using this technique, I create a wonderfully creamy background that blends nicely into a soft flower that blends to a sharper center.
Here are few more images on Visual Wilderness captured using the same technique:
I hope you give these techniques a try as you discover the wonderful world of soft focus! I feel a renewed sense of creativity since discovering Lensbaby and I am enjoying sharing that enthusiasm with my students. I’ve used these methods to introduce students to Lensbaby lenses and they are having almost immediate success. Lowering the learning curve and decreasing apprehension for new users frees them to discover the creative joy of using Lensbaby lenses.