Welcome to the first instalment of Jen teaches what she just learnt…on Google. In other words, a tutorial from someone who doesn’t know what the hell she is doing. Yay! I looked it up on Google and then did it and then lived to upload it and write about it! Previous to that experience, I didn’t make much experience with masks. The good thing about masks is that you can disable them and (sort of) move them around but I don’t know a ton about them.

Disclaimer: the writer of the author does not really know what is she is doing and is doing this for the first time after looking it up on Google and using a range of techniques found on various websites (although she didn’t actually look up painting the masks…that just came to her in an obvious way). Seriously.  Also, there may be an easier and/or better way to do this but the writer just doesn’t know it.

This will work in Photoshop Elements (9+), Photoshop (any…I think. ), probably GIMP or anything that supports layer masking. But I don’t use GIMP since it seems to take me forever to do anything in it!

We will turn this

into this

How to do it:

  1. Open your photo in Photoshop. (You should save it as a .psd or whatever your program’s format at some point….soon).
  2. Duplicate photo layer.
  3. Add layer mask  or “vector mask” (I’m not sure if there is a difference) on the layer duplicate.
  4. I started with the gradient on the mask (make sure it is black to white). This will give it a gradual blur so you can blur into the distance. Make sure you select the mask when you put your gradient on it.  (It should be kind of obvious if you didn’t). Some photos may not need need this…but if it has the ground then it probably does…but it will let you see the mask and the blur at least.
  5. Make sure you have your photo selected (same layer as the mask) and blur that layer (not the vector layer) as you wish. Use Gaussian blur or lens blur (unless you have better). If you have a reasonably powerful computer (Lens blur is really slow on my computer), like a lot of sliders and are picky – use lens blur. If you just want some blur and don’t have a powerful computer or patience (or don’t have lens blur) and lots of sliders overwhelm you…use Gaussian blur.
  6. Play around with the gradient some more if you like.
  7. Paint the mask (press to view the red over-layer …painting over any areas you want clear or clearer (make sure the mask) If there is just a bit of solid mask between your subject (say a leg) and the background, there will be an odd sliver of clearness in the blur…which is….awkward and fake looking. So it has to be pretty close to perfect! If it doesn’t have to be that sharp between the focused area and blur, a largish soft brush can help disguise your less than perfect painting skills otherwise use a small hard brush zoom in and get to work on the edges (you can increase your brush size for speed outside the edges). I decreased my opacity as I went further back so the horse sorts blends into the background

Edit: apparently layer (raster) and vector masks are not the same but I’m not quite sure how different they are in practice.

You can use a quick mask in regular Photoshop but I prefer this as if you screw something up….it’s more fixable.

There are also several ways to screw it up

  • Painting on the wrong layer – happens all the time.
  • Painting solid lines that are a bit off between the lines of the subject and background which shows a sliver or patch of clear area when everything else around that area is blurred
  • Too blurry/not blurry enough etc
  • and many other ways, I am sure!

Need to fix your mask? Use any tool – white/eraser, healing brush, clone bush or whatever.
Need to fix your photo or re-blur it? Unlink your photo/mask, copy/paste the original image into photo part of your masked layer (mask sure the layer and not the mask is selected), press Shift +A and choose “paste into”. In you are in Photoshop (CS3 at least) you may need to drag your mask over to the new layer (there’s other ways to do it in full Photoshop though). You may need to fight with it a bit. When it is all in order – relink. Do whatever you need to fix your blur or image…

You can also get specialized plugins to do this (none free as for as I know) but I don’t have access to that right now…probably better just to get a decent lens though.

There are more ways to do this…you can also use the pen tool in regular Photoshop but I find that pen bizarre (although if you work a lot in vector, you may be familiar with it).

Here is a screenshot showing the masking. Everything in red (black) is clear (assuming the layer underneath is clear!) and not in red (white) will be blurry and anything in between (light red etc) will be….in between. Black shows the under layer and white shows the current (blurred) layer.


This is from Photoshop Elements 9. It will probably be a bit easier in regular Photoshop. Maybe (or not). Nah, not really…just more ways of dong it. I did use a pen tablet (Wacom Bamboo) for this but you can also use your mouse and play with the opacity settings…I guess.

(You can also see what I was up too in this screenshot. I was working on my website.  I was also sort of editing a essay proposal and had my potential sources on Zotero.  And yeah…).

As for making it black and white, there are a ton of ways to do it – none of which will be covered here.

Now why would one want to do this?

Well, blurred backgrounds are somehow so much better (dreamier, sexier, just better).
And because some people are just crappy photographers but have okay artistic visions. (I’m not a very good at photography but I seem to be better at editing….thus far).

Also I googled cameras with shallow depth of field and good bokeh….and basically it told me to get a good fast lens (which are very expensive) with a wide aperture.  Well…thanks but I don’t even have a camera that can use a expensive lens anyway. (Actually it can be done to varying degrees of greatness with most large aperture lenses or so they say but that still doesn’t help…as I don’t have a camera for the lens!),
And oh you need a camera with a large image sensor….either a DSLR or at least a Mirrorless/Compact System Camera (with interchangeable lens). So basically, get expensive equipment…. Well….I don’t think that’s happening anytime soon so….forget that.

I guess I need to fake this sucker.

Now for video….unless the subject is not moving that much, forget it – that’s too much work! It is possible but just too much work for one person’s pet project! It might be okay for like interviews or something…but I never shoot that kind of stuff nor do I want to. I think I’ll have to wait for a nice camera before you see any cinematic bokeh there.

Why does everything turn into an angry rant!!?!?! Well, anyway..that is how you fake a blurred background and make yourself look like a better photographer than you actually are with a better camera than you actually have. I’ll admit that I’m not that good of a photography but I have a good idea of what is….good. I guess….maybe….

You can see the photos here in full size (along with links to the colour version and original). http://www.flickr.com/photos/jennego/8497460261/