Using Vaseline to Get a Soft Focus Photography Look
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When I was a kid, I direly wanted a lens filter kit (and a puppy, obviously). They used to be advertised every now and again in National Geographic magazines and since I loved everything in National Geographic, I wanted a filter kit. There were 2 problems. One, my allowance of $5 never added up fast enough, especially with all the trips to the mall and movie theater. Two, my dad wouldn't even let me touch his Nikon back then so I'm not sure what I would have done with a filter kit even if I had been able to get my hands on one.
Anyway, I love when photos are edited to look as if a filter was used. Recently, I realized that I'm now an adult with a photography business and that I can write off filter kits as a business purchase! It's incredible how childhood wants and dreams can range from the smallest things such as buying a filter kit or having chocolate cake for dinner to the most bizarrely huge things like venturing down to Antartica.
Earlier this year, when I picked up my 24-70mm, I also grabbed a polarizer filter. I figured it would be useful on sunny days. It was another piece of equipment I pulled out occasionally but rarely thought about.
Soft Focus Photography
Recently, I had a few days of downtime. I recalled a friend mentioning that in the 70s photographers would sometimes dab a bit of vaseline between 2 filters and smash it down to get unexpected smears in their photos and a soft focus photography look to their images. I hunted around for examples but couldn't find many. My hunt for additional information led me to a Digital Photography School tutorial that was interesting but the results were too abstract. So I grabbed my filter and set off on some trial and error experimentation.
Eli wasn't thrilled to see me meandering around with camera and vaseline in hand. He encouraged me to first give this experiment a go with saran wrap, which I did and promptly did not enjoy. I wanted the soft focus to look like an angel kiss, not a ghost fart. Those are absurd descriptions but you know what I mean. I hope. Below is a sample of the vaseline on saran wrap effect.
If you google Vaseline Photography, one of the first examples that pops up is Jacob Sutton's Ghost in the Machine series. Why I wondered, did my vaseline photography look like a mess while his looked like angels floating? Soft focus photography should look like angels floating around! When I hunted down the source of the images on Jacob's site, I quickly understood why my images looked so different. There's a video in the series (you'll have to click to the 4th slide to watch it) and you'll realize that this isn't vaseline photography! The women were photographed underwater not through a vaseline filter, so don't compare your vaseline photos to it.
Either way, I wasn't delighted by the vaseline and saran wrap combo so I ditched the saran wrap and dabbed a bit of vaseline directly onto my filter. This got me much closer to what I was hoping for. From a few rounds of trial and error, I realized that less is more with the vaseline. If you dab a lot of vaseline onto the filter and then wipe it, you'll get directional smears. If that sounds appealing, great! It's not my favorite look. I found that I most preferred the final look when I gently tapped little bits of vaseline onto the filter around the edges. To watch how I layer the vaseline, you can watch the vaseline highlight on my Instagram.
Once I figured out the no saran wrap and light layer deal, I was all set. I found the effect most appealing when there was something to highlight in the frame. In some ways, it reminded me a bit of tilt-shift photography. The other circumstance I found best for the vaseline soft focus was when I wanted to loose something in the shadows. Below, on the left, I enjoy how the vaseline exaggerates the bokeh in the shadows. It looks very soft but since it’s in shadows, it doesn’t feel off. Conversely, on the right, I love how the bug is noticeable because it's one of the few things in focus.
Going forward, I'm itching to try this with some portrait photography. I ran through this trial and error experiment before photographing a wedding and I had some hopes of giving this a try on some of the portraits during the wedding. Unfortunately, this is a tiny bit messy. It's not terrible but you do end up with slightly greasy hands. Also, it's a little unpredictable. When I was actually working I didn't feel like I had enough time to experiment to get the right soft focus photography look so I'm not sure this is something I'd ever use outside of a personal project. It is fun and quite easy. Just remember to put the vaseline on a filter and not directly on your lens and to wipe it off before putting your lens cap on.