They’re Just A Breath Away
The ethereal, romantic quality of diffused photographs has long been a favored effect of protrait, wedding, and fashion photographers. With a variety of soft-focus and diffusion effects, the photographer can produce a dreamike aura in the photo that evokes an emotional response in the viewer.
There are many ways to produce a diffused image. Soft-focus lenses and filters, diffusion and fog filters, and a grand assortment of homemade devices such as Vaseline-smeared filters and black mesh mounted in front of the lens have been used by photographers for decades to produce soft images. I’ve experimented with a lot of these devices and techniques over the years but here’s one that you may never have read about. Before I let the cat out of the bag, let me say that it’s variable–you can get a mild or dramatic effect–and it’s beautiful –admirers will think you just sunk 400 or so big ones into a new soft-focus lens. This soft-focus device, however, is free: all you have to do is breathe on your lens.
BUT FIRST . . .
Before you breathe on your expensive lens, make sure you have a glass filter–a normal UV, skylight, or haze filter–on the lens. This will protect it’s delicate multi-coating and prevent moisture from accumulating inside the lens.
The first thing you need to do is practice the technique and become familiar with the effects. If you’re indoors and the temperature is 76|F or less, then you should have no trouble getting your filter to fog up by breathing on it. If it’s above 76|F then you need to cool the filter down as it is close to the temperature of your warm breath. You can cool the filter by placing it over something cold–ice cubes wrapped in aluminum foil, or one of the portable coolants campers often use, like Blue Ice. A can of cold beer will do, but it might distract you from the issue at hand.
Once the filter ring is cold to the touch, re-attach it to the lens and breathe on it. It should then fog up nicely.
When you first start to use this technique, you may find it easier to mount your camera on a tripod. Focus on your subject, breathe on the filter (or have someone do it for you), and then watch through the camera viewfinder. At first, your vision will be obscured, but within a few seconds, you’ll see a beautiful soft-focus image emerge as the moisture on the filter begins to evaporate.
The beauty of this technique is that you can vary the amount of image diffusion by simply waiting for the right moment to trip the shutter. The longer you wait, the less diffusion you will get. The earlier you shoot, the more diffusion you will get.
Unlike some other soft-focus and diffusion effects, this one is not aperture-dependent. You get the same amount of diffusion regardless of whether you’re stopped down to f/ 11, or opened up to f/2.8. This is significant because with many soft-focus and diffusion effects, the smaller the taking aperture, the less noticeable the effect. A byproduct of this technique is that you can control depth of field more completely than with other soft focus and diffusion techniques.
After you’ve used this technique for a while, you’ll discover that you have to anticipate the exact moment to trip the shutter. If you wait until you see the degree of diffusion you want, and then fire, it may be too late, particularly in the last stages of evaporation. Like an action photographer, be ready to trip the shutter a moment before the diffusion reaches the stage you want.
Any time you breathe on the filter over your lens, you create a layer of condensation that scatters much of the image forming light, reducing the level reaching the film plane. If you apply a really heavy layer of condensation, it will cut the light down by as much as two full f-stops. You must compensate for this light loss if you want to prevent underexposed images. But how much do you compensate, when the condensation is rapidly evaporating, and more and more light is reaching the film plane? The best way to compensate is to leave your camera on automatic and let the camera’s metering system compensate for the gradually changing light level.
If you are using a camera that has no automatic mode, or if you have to use the camera in manual mode for some other reason, use this handy rule of thumb. For the heaviest condensation open up two full stops. For average condensation, open up one stop, and for the last stages of condensation, compensate by opening up 1/2 stop. These recommendations should put you in the ballpark every time.
AH, THE BEAUTY
The diffusion effects you can achieve with this technique are stunning. Continuous tone scenes become studies in pastels as hard colors fade and become muted, and highlights meit into shadows. Practice and experiment with the technique until you master it–after all, it’s just a breath away.
Photo: Fog your filter to get beautiful diffusion effects. Here, the colors are desaturated, the contrast is reduced, and there is a gentle glow around model Linda Moulgrave that gives the photographs a dreamlike feel.
Photo: 1. Diffusion is so intense in this high-key portrait that model Gray Harris seems to be emerging from a dream. There are no hard edges–the outline of her hair and body has been erased by the diffusion.
Photo: 2. There is less diffusion here than in the high-key portrait above. Notice how the diffusion gives a halation to the necklace and earnings and a soft glow to Linda Moulgrave’s skin.
Photo: 3-5. You can control the diffusion in the final shot by observing the effect through the viewfinder and carefully timing your exposure. The sooner you shoot after having fogged the filter, the more pronounced the effect, as in photo No. 3 above. Exposures of model Paulette Groff were made about two seconds apart. In photo No. 4, we see a moderate but pleasing level of diffusion, and in No. 5, the fog has all but totally evaporated. Note that when making a sequence such as this (if, for example, you are unsure of exactly what effect you want in the final result), you may want to keep your camera on automatic to compensate for the change in the amount of moisture on the lens. The more fogged the lens is, the less light reaches the film.