Soft Focus Does NOT Mean Out-of-Focus

My interest in soft focus photography may seem incongruent with my earlier view camera work, which has been more in the style of the f/64 group. For almost thirty years of working with large format cameras I have worked hard to create images of fine focus and detail. However, I have always had a soft spot for the Pictorialist photographers who created and worked with lenses that added an Impressionistic quality to their images. Aside from the obvious softness in the image, when the best features of a soft focus lens are used, a luminescence occurs in the image that I haven’t been able to create with my other lenses. It is this burst of light that creates, for me, the tension and excitement in these soft focus photographs.

Working with a soft focus lens is very different from working with the anastigmatic, rectilinear and apochromatic lenses found on most cameras today. To begin with, most soft focus lenses are either of a normal or slightly long focal length for any given format. In addition, there is no specific point of focus with a soft focus lens but more of a zone of focus. The effects of soft focus lenses work because of the spherical and chromatic aberrations. (The earliest manufactured soft focus lenses used both spherical and chromatic aberrations but later lenses were corrected for chromatic aberrations.) Although soft focus lenses can give a sharp image within their prescribed field of coverage when the apertures are completely stopped down, most do not have the resolving power of anastigmatic lenses, contributing more to the softening effect. Furthermore, outside the field of focus the image degrades rapidly to the edge of the negative.

The earliest designed soft focus lens, the Dallmeyer Patent Portrait, was made for portrait work in the 1860s. Though some believe soft focus lenses were made in direct response to the Impressionistic movement in paintings, records from Royal Photographic Society meetings of the 1850s show that photographers had already begun looking for lenses that gave a less literal rendering of a subject and more poetic one. By the late 19th century amateur photographers became a bigger market in photography and their artistic interests, rather than commercial needs, resulted in the development of lenses designed specifically to give a softer effect.

Regardless of their history, soft focus lenses work differently than other lenses in how they record subjects on the ground glass and on film. Each lens requires patience and experimentation to master, owing to a variety of traits, which make them distinct from each other and all other camera lenses. Even two lenses manufactured at the same time will have different personalities due to the differences in their naturally occurring aberrations. When you learn the “character” of your individual lenses you can begin to have more control in the use of these lenses. What is important to remember is this: a soft focus image produced using soft focus lenses is NOT the same as an image produced with a fixed focal length pinhole or plastic camera or other manipulation (physical or digitally created) causing an overall out-of-focus or “fuzzy” effect. These are completely different processes and should be examined and evaluated on their individual merits and not clumped together as “soft focus.”

Tillman Crane