Here's a technique to improve your portrait photographs using the Selection tools and blurring options in your image editing program. Words & Pictures Peter Bargh
The photograph on the left is the original shot on a digital camera. using window light from the left and a mirror to reflect light back in to the face on the right.
The exposure for the face has reulted in the hair being over exposed and lacking detail, but that's just what we want to create a lovely soft focus effect using the image editing blur option.
The first stage is to make sure the right area is selected
I want to make all the photograph, apart from the face and centre part of the hair soft. Choose the Oval Marquee tool from the tool bar and click top left then drag down to the bottom right where you want the oval to extend to.
If you applied the blur now it would be the face that changes so we need to invert the selection. In Photoshop this is found in the Select Menu. Select>Inverse. Now the selection changes so that all the unselected area is selected (indicated by the marching ant - dotted lines going all around the fram as well as the middle oval that we originally had.
If we now apply the blur the correct area will be affected but the edge where the oval is will be apparent. To avoid this we need to feather the new selection Select>Feather. My photo is a 17Mb file so I needed a large feather for it to have any affect. I went for the maximum 250 pixels which will give a very gradual effect and blend subtly into the facial areas.
Now for the blur. There are several options but the one that gives the most control is the Gaussian Blur filter. (Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur in Photoshop).
The panel has a Radius control which varies the strength of the blur. By sliding this you can see a quick visual in the preview window. If you click on the Preview check box it will effect the main photograph too. Adjust this until you get result that looks good and click okay. If you don't like the effect when you've clicked okay.
Digital photographs are often soft and need a small amount of sharpening to improve them. With portraits it's not vital for maximum sharpness as the slight softness keeps skin blemishes from being to noticeable, but it's always good to have sharpness of the eyes. Again make a selection, this time using the Lasso tool and feather like we did above but with a rate of around 30. Now go to Filter>Sharpen>Unsharp mask. Set threshold to a low setting Radius to between 2 and 5 and adjust the Amount so the sharpeness looks better, but not overly sharp. 132%, shown here, has gone too far and the picture is starting to look digital. I settled on 117%. Click okay
Finally the digital pictures often need Auto levels to be applied to boost contrast. I didn't do that with this photo from the start but would now like to boost just the facial area. Make a selection around the face using the Lasso.Then feather by about 80 pixels. This has changed the accurate shape that went around the hairline and cheek into an oval, but the effect will still reach areas not inside the selection at reduced strength.
Now go to Curves Image>Edit>Curves and pull the line on the graph up slightly in the middle right and down slightly in the middle left. This makes white areas slightly brighter and black areas slightly darker and overal gives more contrast.
As a final touch the reflections from the mirror have caused a harsh highlight on the lips and down the nose. I used Photoshop 7s new speedy Patch tool for this, but you could use the Clone tool too, taking info from nearby parts of the photo to replace the light areas. See articles on cloning to learn how to use this.
The end result. Notice how some of the hair in the centre is still sharp. I did this by ensuring the oval selection was across the hair too so it gives a more natural depth of blur.