Archive for January, 2019

Vintage Soft Focus

Have you ever thought about these “soft focus” lenses that are out there? Ever wondered why anyone would want them in this modern age of digital post processing? Do you need one? Well, the answers may surprise you.

First let’s travel back to the 1930s and 40s when America was at the height of Hollywood Glamour. Back in those days one of the tools for making that soft and glowing glamour look was to use Vaseline on a clear glass filter. The Photographer could manipulate the layer to be thick on the perimeter and less so or even none on the face. This was done in an era where film had to be processed and printed largely by hand and took time. Getting it right with a technique that was at best only somewhat consistent required someone who was rather adept at the skill of prepping the lens for the glam shots.

As time marched on the filter companies began producing soft effect filters such as a ‘diffuser’, ‘softener’, ‘duto’, ‘centerspot’ and many more. These and others developed a following and many a page was written about the differences in the various types and why one is better than the other. There are notable differences in the way the various filters achieve a soft effect. The one key problem was having the effect isolated to specific areas. For example having tack sharp eyes and lips but a soft look everywhere else.

In the modern age of Photoshop, we can do some nice dreamy effects and can even imitate some of the style used over the years. But doing it right means taking a fair amount of time in post to pull it off. So enter the soft focus lens. I have two of them, the Canon FD 85mm f/2.8 Soft Focus and the slighter newer Canon EF 135mm f/2.8 Soft Focus. The former is an ideal portrait length for full frame waist up or even head and shoulders. A tight head shot might require getting uncomfortably close to the model. The latter gives a step or two more room when doing head shots. My personal feelings on this type of shot are that they are ideally suited for the glamour “close-up” shot. In that case the EF 135mm has an edge.

There are many lenses featuring a soft focus effect. I would avoid a cheap one because the title of this post is very serious. Soft focus is NOT ‘out of focus’. The key to a good soft focus shot is to start with a very sharp image. This is where filters can struggle. The soft focus lenses I have seen including the two Canon models mentioned above, the Tamron 70-150 SF, Pentax 85/2.2 SF, and yet others still, are all based on a mechanism that deliberately introduces spherical aberration to create a soft glow around out of focus portions of the image and an overall dreamy look. Spherical aberrations are something that all modern lenses do a great job of correcting. The two Canon lenses each have a “0” setting in which no soft focus effect is applied. In that position the lens shoots like a typical 85mm or 135mm lens. Both lenses are reasonably sharp although I feel like the 85 FD version is sharper. When adjusting the lens into one of the soft focus ranges, the FD 85 has three and the EF 135 has two, spherical aberration is introduced through a mechanical shift in the optics internally. I have found that both Canon lenses will require a refocus after shifting the soft effect to get the best result. You never want your soft focus effect to be ruined by an out of focus picture. If it was that easy no one would buy filters or lenses they would just mis-focus. The idea of a well designed soft focus lens is to maintain sharpness at the plane of focus but all of the out of focus bits become overwhelmed with spherical aberration.

The cheap SIMA soft focus lens kits from the 1980s were not very sharp at all and so the spherical aberration tended to overwhelm the whole image giving it a bit of a cheap look. The Canon FD lens has three soft focus setting 1,2, and 3. The lens barrel at the front of the lens moves in and out like a zoom lens but each position 0 through 3 has a detent. Pulling the lens towards you moves further into the soft effect. The EF lens is an autofocus lens and it works fine in AF at the “0” setting but in the soft mode I have to use manual as the AF consistently back focuses. This lens has two soft focus settings 1 and 2 each with a detent but both lenses allow in-between settings. The EF model has a separate twist ring for the soft effect and can be locked into the “0” setting. I prefer the soft focus system in the EF lens with the ring rather than the push pull zoom style. These Canon lenses both get real strong on the effect when shooting wide open at the max setting, many will find the highest setting to feel like overkill. But if you stop the lens down the effect is diminished so the stronger settings can be reserved for shots where you are stopping down to f/4 or f/5.6. The advantage to these lenses is that razor-sharp elements are still rendered sharp even in the soft focus setting. The spherical aberration may create a soft glow that partially diffuses the contrast but it is evident the image is “sharp.” It is very difficult and/or time consuming to get a true soft focus effect post and it is equally difficult and/or time consuming to try it with filters. So in answer to the question, “do you need one?” Yes, yes you do.

I like the effect and when used as a standard lens both are rather sharp even wide open. The Pentax lens mentioned above uses a different system. That lens is designed to induce spherical aberration and has no “settings” for soft focus. Instead the lens is designed to let the stopping down reduce the effect. Wide open yields the largest effect and stopped down to 5.6 reduces it to a minimum. That lens is always soft focus however, there is no setting the yields zero effect. The Tamron lens is rather rare and has the advantage of having a zoom feature that runs through the entire portrait range of 70-150mm. It is a 2.8 lens as well and features a system similar to the Canon EF lens with a ring dial to set the level of soft effect.

Below I have four pictures made with the FD 85/2.8 Soft Focus one at each setting. Again the lens will allow shooting between the settings. Please note that each shot is taken from the exact same spot but the focus was adjusted after each soft focus setting change. You will see that the subject is actually a camera and the point of focus is the lens of that camera. The lettering around the lens bezel is crisp and easy to read even at the max effect and wide open. When stopping down the lens to f/5.6 the number three setting looks more like the number 1 setting does at f/2.8. The FD lens is a premium build much like the higher end Canon FD lenses of the 1980s. It isn’t quite at the “L” level, but features a nice 9 blade aperture diaphragm and a nice build quality. Take a look at the four shots below then after that I have a bit about the EF 135/2.8 with Soft Focus. Click on the photos to enlarge.


Canon EOS R with Canon FD 85/2.8 Soft Focus at setting “0” @f/2.8

Canon EOS R with Canon FD 85/2.8 Soft Focus at setting “1” @f/2.8

Canon EOS R with Canon FD 85/2.8 Soft Focus set to “2” @f/2.8

Canon EOS R with Canon FD 85/2.8 Soft Focus set to “3” @f/2.8

The EF lens was introduced in the late 1980s and uses that rather dinky and cheap feeling build of the early consumer grade EF lenses. There is no sugar-coating it, the EF lens is cheap looking and feels cheap too. This lens however was one of Canon’s longest running EF lenses. They made this thing from 1987 the first year of EOS, all the way till 2014! The problem is simply this, they never updated it. To make it for nearly 30 years and not update it was sacrilegious! This lens would be PERFECT if it have been given a face lift around say 2000. They could have introduced the USM to offer full-time manual focus, a real need with this lens due to the need to tweak focus using the soft feature and the Canon consumer grade lenses from the late 1990s through the mid 2000’s was much better than that original consumer build. That said the 135mm is a great lens. With only two soft focus levels versus the three on the FD 85 this lens does not have the overkill setting. Although that is fine for wide open shots when stopped down that non-existent 3 position could be missed.

Canon EOS R with Canon EF 135/2.8 Soft Focus setting 0, @f/2.8

Canon EOS R with Canon EF 135/2.8 Soft Focus setting 1, @f/2.8

Canon EOS R with Canon EF 135/2.8 Soft Focus setting 2, @f/2.8

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