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Improve a Lackluster Photo by Selectively Softening the Background

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When you’re shooting portraits, the soft background look keeps distracting backgrounds from ruining a shot. If you’ve not shot correctly, here’s a quick, simple tip to pop out your foreground and keep the most important parts the most visible.

Softening Backgrounds Using Photoshop (GIMP Friendly How-To)

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Sometimes you get a shot that doesn’t work as well as you would like. When this example shot was taken, the subject came out great (if you don’t understand why, you know even less than your author about Star Trek), but the background didn’t add anything to the shot, and it was too late to go back and retake the image with a telephoto lens to get a nice, soft background. So we’ll take the sharpness out of some parts of that background and mute it with some simple Photoshop. If you’re a fan of the GIMP, feel free to follow along. All of the tools used here have GIMP counterparts.

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Begin editing your photograph by making a duplicate of your background layer. To do this, simply right click on the Background layer and select “Duplicate layer.”

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Then navigate to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur with that duplicate layer selected. In our example, we used a setting of 7.4 pixels, although you’ll have to fiddle around with the setting and find out what works for your image. Too much will look very fake. Too little will not do enough to change the image. The proper amount of blur will soften the background, make the foreground pop out more, and keep the image from looking too photoshopped. Or “Gimped,” if you use free software.

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Create a mask on this blurred background layer copy by clicking on the mask icon at the bottom of the layers panel.

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Make sure you’re working in the layer mask, and start painting with a soft brush (shortcut key B) and black in your foreground color. Use this brush to block out the foreground from the now Gaussian Blurred duplicate layer.

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A rough painting makes our Scotty pop off the background quite well.

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But the devil is in the details, so we zoom in to white out the parts of our mask around the edges that don’t look very good on close inspection.

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You can keep edges crisp or soften them a little with the brush. It depends on the look you’re going for and what looks best.

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The foreground now appears more prominent when compared to the background. We can take this a step further and mute the background.

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Select the image part of the Background layer where you had been working with the layer mask.

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With the image (not the mask) selected, a quick ctrl U will bring up the Hue/Saturation tool. In our example, we used it to reduce the Lightness and Saturation of the background, leaving Scotty in full saturated color.

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The result looks natural and makes ol’ Scotty a far better focal point.

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Here’s a step by step GIF of the process. The quality is a little bad because it’s a GIF, but the shift from sharper image to soft background to muted soft background is quite obvious.


Enjoying our photography tips? Have any thoughts on our method? Have a better method or some questions about how we did it? Tell us about them in the comments, or simply email your questions to ericgoodnight@howtogeek.com, and they may be featured in an upcoming graphics article on How-To Geek.

Image Credit: Image of Cosplayer (Scotty), the author available under Creative Commons Attribution License, no Commercial use, please.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 05/21/12

Comments (3)

  1. bart

    can you do this in paint.net?

  2. Casand

    Awesome article

  3. smoss

    The new GIMP has me at a standstill. I have used the program for 10 years, but the new form is unintuitive.

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