Shooting Soft Focus Portraits in Camera

by | Aug 1, 2018

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

The easiest way to deal with any kind of minor visual flaws in a portrait subject is to use make-up. Having a make-up artist available during a shoot also makes female subjects feel special and she’ll go into the session with a different attitude than otherwise. Having the best possible make-up will also make her confident and that confidence transfers into how she interacts with you during the portrait session.

Another way to minimize retouching is to slightly overexpose the portrait making it just a little lighter and brighter than your flash meter or in-camera meter says is correct.

Next, you might consider adding a touch of soft focus which can either be done in post production or in-camera. There are two ways of accomplishing this in-camera: First is by using a soft focus filter.

The classic and best soft focus filter is the Zeiss Softar that’s currently available in Bayonet 60 and 70mm sizes for Hassleblad. B+W offered their version of the filter in two strengths: I (mild) and II (stronger) and the degree of softening was not affected by the aperture selected.

The Softar uses tiny lens-shaped structures to produce the soft focus effect. Despite softening the highlights, the basic focus remains sharp to the edges, an advantage that makes focusing easier. And you’re going to have to focus manually through this filter because AF will probably go crazy. The B+W filters are no longer available new but look for used ones in all the usual places.

One filter that is available in different sizes is Tiffen’s Black Pro-Mist. It’s available in various strengths too: The 1/4 Filter reduce highlights while lowering the overall contrast to smooth and soften facial wrinkles and other blemishes. Unlike traditional diffusion or soft focus filters, Pro-Mist filters provide little loss of detail in the image. The 1/4 density filter ($39 in 52mm) provides more contrast and highlight reduction than the 1/8, but less than the 1/2, while still allowing for a soft, pastel quality of light.

The second method for Canon shooters is to use a soft focus lens such as the EF 135mm f/2.8 SF that is, alas been, discontinued. As I write this, KEH Camera has several of these lenses available at prices from $218- $268. The lens has several advantages over filters including the ability to produce razor-sharp images as well as soft focus shots that don’t look blurry. In addition to the zero setting (no soft focus) you have a choice of two softness settings and each one is affected by the selected aperture so a minimum but still noticeable effect will be achieved at the “1” setting when using a small aperture. Even for maximum soft focus shots at the “2” setting, focusing with your camera’s AF is quick and accurate. As long as I have Canon DSLRs, I’m never selling this lens.

How I made the above image: The above available light portrait of Shea was shot on location in Phoenix, Arizona using a Canon EOS 60D with EF 135mm f/2.8 SF lens (at the #1 setting) and an exposure of 1/160 sec at f/2.8—for maximum softness— and ISO 200.


If you’re interested in learning how I shoot  available light glamour and boudoir portraits, please pick up a copy of Available Light Glamour Photography which is available new from for $24.53 or used for the giveaway price of $18.98, as I write this. The Kindle version is $23.30 for those preferring a digital format.