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How to Achieve Soft Contrast in Your Images

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Have you noticed that some people's photos have a beautiful, silky quality to them, but still remain perfectly sharp and contrasty? If so, you've probably also noticed that images don't naturally come out of the camera this way. So what is this effect and how do you achieve it? As you may have guessed from the title, it's called soft contrast and I'm going to be looking at how it works and how it's achieved.

Beginners tend to try to replicate soft contrast by overlaying a Gaussian Blur duplicate layer on the original photo. Seems like a logical start, certainly, but in actuality it just results in an image with what is often termed "glamour glow." That is, the awful soft-focus look which came about sometime in the 70s and was popular in the 80s and 90s in low-calibre glamour and wedding photography. Soft contrast is not soft focus!

Softening is not soft contrast!

If that's what it isn't, what actually is it? Well, let's start with the obvious thing first: contrast. When you increase the contrast of an image, it increases the contrast of the entire image evenly, increasing the sharpness and tends to result in areas of detail becoming very busy and ugly. That's where simply boosting the contrast can fall down in producing a stronger image.

So we want to increase the contrast of an image to make it bolder and less washed-out, of course, but we need to do that without increasing the contrast of the detailed areas. Effectively, a low-pass filter for contrast. The technically-minded amongst you may now realise that we will be using Gaussian Blur after all, but in a different way. We'll get to that.

60% Contrast in Silver Efex. Nice, but a little harsh for this particular image.

So, soft contrast increases the contrast of larger areas and ignores the small details, as the transition between tonal areas is softened. This softening does generally result in a lower overall apparent contrast than just using straight contrast would at the same value, but as long as we push the tone curve of the image out towards having proper black and white points, then the contrast is doing its job of giving our eye comfortable black and white points for reference.

The apparent slight reduction is because the smaller the radius between two tonal areas, the less contrast can be applied along the fixed curve over the boundary. Areas of high frequency, also know as detail, tend to recede, while larger areas of light and shadow are emphasized.

60% Soft Contrast, on the other hand, is much smoother and creates a more fantastic/romantic feeling, very suitable for forest fungi photos.

This creates a more painterly effect, working on light and form to result in a more easily and instantaneously readable image. This high-contrast painterly style is most prevalent in concept art, matte paintings and Romantic era oil paintings.

Its lineage from these commercial art genres naturally leads to its frequent use in high-end commercial and fashion photography, and increasingly in the digital age, nature and landscapes. These are all prime subjects for this light-emphasising technique. I will be giving examples from the nature and landscape end of things, but with some experimentation, it's applicable to just about any genre.

Soft contrast landscape? Nowadays it's about four or five hours in Photoshop rather than 200 hours in the darkroom to achieve this effect!

So, you've seen it before, you understand what it is, so how do you do it? There are several methods, I'm going to cover the easier, albeit a little less accurate, end of the spectrum to get you started.

I'll start with black and white methods, since they are used for the color methods, too, but in a different way. The first option is to use a plugin. My favourite plugin is Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. It creates the best black and white images you'll see this side of a roll of 120 in a darkroom.

It's extremely easy to create soft contrast images in Silver Efex, since there's actually a slider which does it for you, handily named "Soft Contrast." This slider can work independently of or in conjunction with the other contrast control sliders.

The incredibly intuitive, yet powerful Silver Efex interface, complete with dedicated Soft Contrast slider.

What if you don't have $200 for a black and white plugin? Well, based on what I wrote in the first section about how soft contrast works, we simply have to work out how to replicate this mechanism manually with Photoshop filtering and blending.

I did some experimentation, and it turns out that it's actually quite a simple process. First, click and drag your Background layer to the New Layer button in the Layers Palette to duplicate it (you can also Alt+click-and-drag it, like when moving layers around, to duplicate it, which is faster).

Layer duplication, click and drag to the New Layer icon.

Click back on your Background layer and add a black and white Adjustment Layer by going into the Adjustment Layer menu at the bottom of the layers palette. You don't necessarily need this layer, but it allows you to fine-tune your black and white conversion later on. Now click on your Background Copy layer, which should be your top layer above the B/W Adjust.

The layer order.

Desaturate it by going to Image->Adjustments->Desaturate, or hit Ctrl+Shift+U. Now go to Filter->Blur->Gaussian Blur, and blur it to the point where no detail is really very visible, but overall it still generally reads the same as the original image, albeit a very soft version. For me that was around 60px radius.

The objects themselves are still visible, but all the fine detail is gone, at 60.8px radius for this 10.1MP image.

Now hit Ctrl+L to bring up a Levels adjustment box, and slide the black and white points in a little way. It's generally not good to bring them all the way to the histogram since this will be an overlay layer, but the contrast can still need boosting a little bit if the image was fairly flat to begin with.

Now set its layer Blending Mode to Hard Light, and adjust its Opacity to suit the image, 70-90% is usually about right. 95-100% tends to be overkill and spills it over lines, brightening parts of the image which shouldn't be.

Bring the sides in a little to boost the contrast. Where you put the midtones is a personal aesthetic choice, since it determines the overall brightness of the image. I dragged it up a little after this to make the image darker like the Silver Efex version.

That's it! The black and white Adjustment Layer can then be used to fine tune the conversion. You may alternatively want to try setting the layer blending to Hard Light before blurring it, so you can see the real-time effect of your blur radius. Either way is fine.

Done. Comparing this to the Silver Efex soft contrast image up top is pretty favourable. For soft contrast, you don't actually need the plugin.

What about for color photos? Can you do something similar for those? Absolutely, and in fact it uses the same technique. To adjust the tonality by such a large factor like we are, but also keep the colors accurate, we're simply going to keep the color and luminance information separate.

For this, we need to create a black and white soft contrast image as described above, whether it's a Siver Efex layer or a Desaturate/Gaussian Blur setup. Since both of these techniques use separate layers to the original background for the black and white conversion and soft contrast effect, we can do the color version all in a single file.

Color version from a color blending layer over black and white conversion.

As with all Photoshop techniques, there are multiple ways of doing this depending on the exact end result you want. If you just want a colour version of the black and white image, just duplicate the background above it and set it to Color blending mode.

The layer setup for the above image.

However, colorized black and white images tend to be a little over-contrasty, so if you want more control, have a flattened black and white layer above your color layer and set its blending mode to Luminance. Of course, it comes out of Silver Efex already flat, and indeed simply setting this layer to Luminance blending would be easier than duplicating the Background and setting that to Color.

Just set the Silver Efex layer to Luminosity at 88% opacity. That was easy.

If you did the conversion manually however, create a flattened copy of those three layers and set that to Luminance.

Duplicate the background again, select these top three layers, and hit Ctrl+E to merge them together. Now you have a single black and white layer to set to Luminosity blending.

That may all sound complex, but in practice it will be quite evident exactly what's going on and which is the best method for you. This should naturally all be done from RAW files imported as 16 bit. Since we're working with blurring contrasty black and white, 16-bit is the only way to stop it from creating nasty banding artifacts.

Click the underlined text at the bottom in the center to bring up your Camera Raw import options.

You may need to clean up the blurring by masking over hard edges, or it may be inclined to produce a glamour glow effect in certain circumstances.

For the proper pro-commercial soft contrast look, the final step is dodging and burning. This is generally a lot rougher than the dodging and burning required for, say, retouching a model's face. The accuracy required for effect is fairly loose compared to that for smoothing out a shape we know extremely well like the human face.

Generally, what I do when I push this far is to duplicate the black and white luminance layer. This is in case the dodging and burning somehow contrives to go very wrong and I want to start again, although it's really quite difficult to mess this part up.

It also provides an original reference, by turning off the duplicate layer, so that I don't get too carried away when dodging and burning. It's very easy to go too far when the changes are individually small as your eyes get used to the image changing.

The idea is to add some variation and definition to the soft graduations between light and dark tones, to boost shading and highlights where necessary to improve contrast. This doesn't need to be too strong, simply taking a soft brush and dropping the midtones in the more shaded areas and boosting them in the lighter areas tends to work well. Not so much that they go very flat or dark, but just to make the geometry pop here.

Observe the actual flow of light and work with it.

Then soften light sources, adding haloing, flare and light-wrapping to solidify the flow of light where aesthetically appropriate. Part of the soft contrast look, especially the commercial style, is to have visceral light; volumetric lighting and shading. This is mostly because it's attention grabbing (think sunbeams on a cloudy day as opposed to just a clear blue sky), but personally I also love the aesthetic.

Note the light-wrapping around the tree and the strengthening of the backlight glow in the leaves.

Generally it helps with this technique to use bracketed HDRs so that you have full access to the whole range of tones as you're manipulating them. I would say that the "HDR look" is not very soft-contrast in and of itself, it's more important to just have access to all the data in the scene. So be very sparing with those tonemapping sliders!

My final point is really more of a reminder. As with all things photography, this look starts with good lighting. Adding soft contrast to a scene with bad lighting will just result in a ridiculous-looking image, not an improved one. So soft light sources, like soft boxes or the sun during magic hour, and directionality for effective shading are the order of the day.

Happy shooting! Comments? Questions? Hit up the comments below!

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