Emphasize Your Photograph's Subject With a Vignette

Sometimes, all it takes to complete a photo is a simple and subtle tweak. If your background is distracting, for example, you may want to blur it or make it fade away. One of the best ways to do this is with a vignette effect. Traditionally, a vignette is an oval-shaped cutout that frames the subject and obscures the background. But photo editing programs can also apply a graduated vignette to your background that lets it fade gently into obscurity. Most people won't even notice it's there--but it can dramatically enhance your photo.

Choose a Suitable Photo

You'll generally get the best results with portraits or snapshot of people in which your subject is the primary element in the photo. Load a suitable image into your favorite photo editor, in my case Adobe Photoshop Elements. I'll use this portrait of a wolf.

Paint It Black

This is a surprisingly simple trick, and one you can do with almost any photo editor. It relies mainly on creating an additional layer. So with the photo open in Photoshop Elements, choose Layer, New, Layer from the menu and click OK.

You should see a new layer on top of the original image. We want to turn this layer solid black. To do that, check out the foreground color square at the bottom of the toolbar on the left side of the screen--it's the upper left one.

If it's not already black, double-click the square. Next, click in the lower left corner of the color chooser to select pure black. Click OK. You'll see the foreground color square will have turned black.

Click the Paint Bucket tool and click in the photo. Since the new, empty layer is selected, the entire image should turn black. The underlying photo is still there, of course; you can verify that by looking at the layer palette on the right side of the screen.

Frame Your Subject

Next, we need to make an elliptical selection that frames our subject. We can't see the subject anymore, though, so let's fix that. In the layer palette on the right side of the screen, change the opacity of the black layer to about 50 percent, so the bottom layer can poke through.

Choose the Elliptical Marquee tool. It's in the fifth cubby from the top of the toolbar on the left side of the screen. Now draw an ellipse that's a little bigger than the area you want to emphasize in the photo. If it's not quite right, don't worry--just click and drag it to where you'd like it to be.

When you're happy with the result, choose Select, Feather and add a feather effect to the ellipse, which will smooth out the fade-to-black effect we are about to apply. What is the right feathering? It depends upon the resolution of your photo. I'd suggest starting with something between 30 and 50. If you don't like the result, you can always Undo the effect and try a different value. Then press the Delete key to punch an ellipse-shaped hole through the black layer.

The Big Finish

Now we're finally ready to apply our vignette. First, we want to restore the opacity of the top layer, so go back to the layer palette and change it to 100 percent. Then, still in the layer palette, click the Mode dropdown (it's currently set to Normal) and change it to Soft Light. Your photo should darken, with most of the background faded out of prominence, as in mine.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "The Apple of My Eye" by Alistair Cowin, San Francisco, California

Alistair took this photo with a Canon EOS 5D.

This week's runner-up: "Timpani" by Myka Peterson, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Myka says: "I love taking shots with a shallow depth of field and decided to pair it with my love of music. I shot this in aperture priority mode with my Canon PowerShot S90, then desaturated it and cranked up the contrast, highlights, and shadows in Canon Digital Photo Professional."

To see last month's winners, visit the May Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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