Magazine Article


A Lesson From Oz
How to realistically replicate optical lens blur

Step 1
Images by Vincent Versace

Skylight layer created
Images by Vincent Versace

Step 2 Gaussian blur
Images by Vincent Versace

Finished image
Images by Vincent Versace

The following lesson on creating optical lens blur is an excerpt from my new book, Welcome to Oz: A Cinematic Approach to Digital Still Photography with Photoshop. We'll be using two Nik Software plug-in filters—Skylight and Contrast Only—with either a Wacom Intuos tablet or a Wacom 21UX Cintiq.

A Cintiq is a 21-inch color-manageable LCD you can draw on with pen. From Myanmar to Altoona, I don't leave home without one. The Nik Skylight filter removes blue cast from sunlight, which is inherently blue. I'm an available-light photographer. The Contrast Only filter does a better job than Photoshop's contrast filter, letting me control saturation and protect shadows and highlights.

Layer masks are a powerful Photoshop tool and an important way to control the aesthetics of an image. A layer mask works by allowing you to hide or reveal—completely or partially—filter effects, adjustment layer corrections, or anything you want to selectively control.

The best way to remember how to work on a layer mask is by remembering the simple mnemonic "Black conceals and white reveals." This means that black will block the visibility of the effect you are creating, and white will allow the effect to be visible.

Creating Believability

To create believability, we make sure our choices mimic reality as captured with a glass lens, where effects are created optically, not digitally. One of these effects is that as blur increases, there is a tendency for contrast to diminish. This step will illustrate how to realistically replicate optical lens blur.

You'll work with two aspects of controlling the unconscious eye—focus to blur, and high contrast to low contrast—because you want the eye to move from the face, down the body (below left). Specifically, you want the model's face to be the central point of focus, then the front part of the model's body, then the bear's face, then the upper background, which is mostly out of focus. Blur and contrast go hand in hand for this image. Sharpness will be used selectively.

  1. Select Skylight Filter from the Nik Color Efex Pro 2.0: traditional filters menu. Leave the default setting at 25% and click OK to run the filter. Name this layer SKYLIGHT (below right). Duplicate the SKYLIGHT layer and name the new layer BLUR. Duplicate the BLUR layer and name it CONTRAST. Turn off the CONTRAST layer and make the BLUR layer active.
  2. Choose Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur, and use a radius of 8.8 pixels. The amount of blur you apply to an image depends on the size of the file. The bigger the file, the higher the radius number or amount of blur. For this image, blur it to the point where you can still see major image structure detail, but minor detail is smoothed out.
  3. For the BLUR layer, create a layer mask filled with black.
  4. Select a brush with 75% opacity and paint with white over the background of the upper part of the image. This reveals the blurred effect, which suggests shallow depth of field.
  5. Change the opacity to 50% and brush the area from behind the model's knees, all the way to the bear's arm. With 25% opacity, paint the area just beneath the head of the bear, back into the area that you just brushed at 50%. Lower the layer opacity to 75%.
  6. Make the CONTRAST layer the active one. Select the Contrast Only filter from the Nik Color Efex Pro 2.0: traditional filters menu. The settings I picked were Saturation 52, Brightness 54, and Contrast 62. Click OK. I didn't protect the shadows or highlights because the image didn't need it.

7. Select Ctrl/Cmd-click on the BLUR layer's layer mask and invert it (Shift-Ctrl-I/Shift-Cmd-I). Create a layer mask on the CONTRAST layer and lower the layer opacity to 75%.

Vincent Versace (, owner, Versace Natural Light Studio, Los Angeles and San Francisco, received the Computerworld Smithsonian Award in Media Arts & Entertainment and Shellenberg fine art award, and hosts the Epson Print Academy. He is a beta tester for Epson, Lexar, Adobe, Nik Software, Microsoft, Apple, Dyna-Lite, Kodak, Lowepro, etc., and teaches at Photoshopworld, the Sante Fe Photographic and Palm Beach Photographic workshops, and the Digital Landscape Workshop Series.