Digital Focus: Fake a Soft Background

Feature: Faking a Soft Background

The great thing about digital photography is that it allows you to fake all the techniques that are hard to do the old-fashioned way with film. Don't have any piano-playing sea lions handy? No problem--fake it digitally.

You can also use digital techniques for more down-to-earth photo tricks. Take depth of field, for instance. Portraits look best when the subject is in sharp focus and the background is blurry. But you have to plan that ahead of time by setting your camera to a large aperture setting before you take the picture. And many digital cameras tend to have a generous depth of field, which makes it hard to blur the background. Thankfully, it's easy to fake a blurry background afterwards on the PC. Take this image, for instance (really, take it and save it to your hard drive): back-cat1.jpg.

We're going to load it into Jasc Paint Shop Pro and blur the background. This adds more impact to the foreground, which should be the focus of attention.

Selecting Your Subject

The first order of business is a familiar one if you've been reading Digital Focus for a while. We need to isolate the subject by selecting it with a selection tool. My weapon of choice for this sort of picture is the Freehand Selection Tool in Edge Seeker mode. Select the Freehand tool from the fifth cubby in the toolbar on the left side of the screen. It's one of three tools that lives in that spot; so if it's not in evidence, click the down arrow to the right of the cubby and pick it from the list. Then choose the Edge Seeker Selection type from the Tool Options palette at the top of the screen. (If the Tool Options toolbar is hidden, tap F4 to call it up.)

After all that, you're ready to select the subject. Click on an edge, starting perhaps on his shoulder. Then continue clicking in short segments, working your way all around his body and the cat. When you get back to where you started, double-click to select the entire subject.

Layer Magic

When you're done you should see a "halo" of selection dashes around the subject. Now let's duplicate the entire picture and make a second layer. That way, we'll be able to edit one layer without affecting the other. To do that, choose Layers, Duplicate from the menu. If the Layer Palette is open on the right side of your screen, you'll see that we just added a new layer. It's called, rather poetically, Copy of Background. (If you don't see the Layer Palette, choose View, Palettes, Layers from the menu.) You may want to double-click the Copy of Background layer in the palette and rename it to something more logical, like "Subject layer" and click OK to close the dialog box.

Now we're in business. Our next step is to eliminate the background from the top layer, leaving only the subject. Click the Subject layer in the Layer Palette to select it. Then choose Selections, Invert. Finally, press the Delete key. It's gone! How can you tell? Hover the mouse pointer over the Subject layer in the Layer Palette and you'll see a thumbnail image of the layer.

Blur It Up

Now we're ready for the last step. Click the Background layer in the Layer Palette to switch to the bottom layer--the one that still has a background--and start blurring. Choose Adjust, Blur, Gaussian Blur and set the radius to 3.0, then click OK. Is it blurry enough for you? If not, apply it again. Notice that the subject stays razor sharp, since it's in the top layer, unaffected by the blur in the bottom. When you like what you see, save your picture. Here's how mine came out: back-cat2.jpg.

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