Emultating classic soft focus lenses

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, soft focus lenses were popular for a number of subjects. They were very flattering for portaiture, and a group that called themselves "Pictorialists" used them on a wide range of subject matter. Pictorialists were contemporary to the Impressionist movement, and the soft focus lenses created a similar feeling in photographs. Pictorialists felt they were more "artistic" than lenses used for reportage and scientific use.

While many companies have made and still make soft focus lenses, the Rodenstock Imagon was the classic. It had no iris as such but rather interchangeable disks with a central hole and smaller holes around them. The center aperture produced a very sharp image, but the smaller apertures around it overlaid a soft image. Highlights took on a pearly glow.

In the past while there has been considerable discussion of the Orton technique, which works in the opposite way. Instead of highlights blooming, shadows bloom into adjacent areas. Below is an original image and the same with Orton processing.

The image is lightened in processing, and then duplicated to a new layer. The new layer is blurred, the mode is set to "Multiply" and the layers are merged. The sharpness of the original is retained, but dark values are softened and spread as above.
To create the effect of the classic pictorialist's soft focus lens, the process is done in negative. Instead of making the starting image lighter, highlight and mid-tone values are lowered considerably. The image is then reversed to a negative, and again duplicated as a layer, blurred, set to Multiply and merged. It is then reversed to positive. The highlights bloom rather than the shadows. See samples below.
A favorite model of years ago, Beth Rickards, photographed in studio with a Mamiya RB67 medium format camera and a very sharp lens. With brown toning and soft focus becomes a portrait of the 1880s.
A happy couple at a table next to mine were greatly enjoying the moment. Monochrome and soft-focus caught and express the moment.
One does not need to stick to historic monochrome to apply pictorialist techniques.
Pictorial soft focus applied to a Las Vegas hotel scene brings a touch of romance.
©2008 Larry N.Bolch