Digital Focus: Another Way to Spice Up Portraits

Feature: Vignette Your Digital Portraits

Some photo effects are pretty common not just because they're easy to do, but also because they have withstood the test of time. Take the classic vignette effect, for instance. When you vignette a photo, you smoothly blend the image into a plain colored background. Photographers have created photo vignettes for over a century now, and the effect is as beautiful today as it was in 1905. You might also be happy to know that it's a snap to do.

You can vignette any photo, but the best subjects are usually portraits. Let's use a portrait of my cat, Molniya. Save the file to your computer and then open it in your image editing program. I'll use Corel's Paint Shop Pro 9, but you can get the same results with almost any popular image editor.

Select the Subject

Creating a vignette involves little more than selecting the subject and eliminating the background. Click the Selection tool, which lives in the fifth cubby from the top of the toolbar. It's rare that we use this particular tool, since it selects broad regions of the picture using simple geometric shapes--but that's exactly what we need this time.

If the Tool Options palette isn't already open at the top of the screen, toggle it on by choosing View, Palettes, Tool Options from the menu. Then select Rounded Rectangle from the Selection type drop-down menu. You can pick any sort of shape you like, but I think you'll find that ovals and rectangles usually work best. If you were vignetting a more traditional portrait of a person, the Ellipse option would probably be the right choice, since it would give the photo a classic oval appearance.

Next, set the feather level. This is what blends the picture smoothly into the background. Since feathering is measured in pixels, the amount of feather you need will depend upon the resolution of the picture you are starting with. For this image, which measures a small 800 by 600 pixels, pick a feather of 40 pixels. If you were creating a vignette from a much larger, 6-megapixel image, you might try a feather level of about 100 or 125 pixels.

Now that the feather level is selected, click and drag in the picture to create a rectangular outline around the subject. Create the rectangle a comfortable distance around the cat--not so close that it feels claustrophobic. This is a matter of taste, and you might need to experiment a little. Keep in mind that as soon as you release the mouse, the selection will appear to get bigger. This effect is normal--it includes an extra 40 pixels of feathering all the way around the selected area.

Punch Out the Background

Since we want to delete the background, now it's time to reverse the selection. Choose Selections, Invert. You'll see two selection lines in the image: one that goes all the way around the edge of the entire photo and another that outlines the subject. In other words, you've made a digital photo donut. Don't worry that your next action looks like it will delete part of the kitty's image. Just follow along: You're likely to be pleasantly surprised by the results. Press Delete. Most of the picture will fall away, leaving just your subject with a gently fading background.

That's pretty much it. At this point, you might want to use the crop tool to remove some of the background and perhaps fit the image to a standard frame size. Click the Crop tool (in the third cubby from the top of the toolbar) and choose a print size, like "8x10 in horizontal," from the Presets menu in the Tool Options palette (the "in" stands for "inches"). Resize the crop box by dragging at the edge, then center it properly by grabbing inside the box and moving it where you want it. Finally, click the check mark in Tool Options to make the change. You'll end up with something like this.

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