Low Contrast / Soft Contrast

Thanks to photographers like Emily Soto, “soft contrast” has become a popular trend in fashion, beauty and portrait photography.  This distinctive style is defined by reduced contrast, shifted color balance and selective blurring.  Like so many other post-processing effects, there are dozens of different ways to achieve similar results.  If you haven’t dabbled with soft contrast yet, this article should have you getting low, low, low (contrast, that is) in no time at all…



To begin, we selected an image that had plenty of color and contrast to muck around with.  Now we’ll use a Quick Mask to define which areas will and will not be blurred later in Step 2.  You can hit the Q key on the keyboard to enter Quick Mask mode.

Select a soft-edged Paint Brush tool with the color set to white, and opacity setting of 20 percent.  If you’re new to Quick Mask mode, painting on the image with this brush will produce red strokes that define selections areas.  Multiple passes will produce darker reds, indicating greater levels of selection.

Accuracy isn’t necessary.  We roughly brushed over our our example model’s body twice, then went back to add more brush strokes to her face, hair and upper body.  This creates a gradual selection that trails off from head to toe.

When you’re finished painting, hit the Q key again to leave Quick Mask mode. You should see something like the screen shot below.

painting quick mask


With the new selection still active, you’ll want to apply a gradual blur using Filter > Blur > Lens Blur.

The only setting in the Lens Blur options we need to change is the Radius value.  Ours was set to 8, but your values will vary depending on your image size and how much blur you prefer. All other settings were left at their default values.

Hit OK to apply the effect.  In the next screen shot the the blur is now obvious in our model’s legs, hands and background while the face and hair remain in focus.

Lens Blur Applied


Next, we’re going to both reduce contrast and alter overall color using Layer > New Fill Layer > Solid Color.

exclusion colorIn the New Layer pop up window, change the Mode value to “Exclusion” and click OK to access the Color Picker window.  As a general rule, darker colors produce less dramatic results with this effect than do lighter colors.  You’ll want to play with different colors in the Color Picker and watch how they effect the image below.

We chose to work with a dark Navy blue for this tutorial.  This not only altered the color balance of the image, but also reduced overall contrast.  (screen shot below).

Every image is different, and you may find that the color you’ve selected (and resulting contrast effect) is too strong, and requires the layer’s Opacity to be lowered.



new layer for grainThis last step is optional, but we felt that adding just a little grain serves to draw the effects together.  Begin by creating a new blank layer (Layer > New > Layer).

In the New Layer pop up window, change the blending mode to Soft Light and be sure to check the box at the bottom that says “Fill With Soft-Light-Neutral Color (50% gray).”

grain settingNow add some grain to the new layer using Filter > Noise > Add Noise.  Once again, your settings will vary depending on your image size and how much grain you would like to apply.  We set our grain amount level at 4%, and with the Gaussian and Monochromatic options selected.

Click OK to apply, and you’re done.

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This entry was posted by Jim Jurica.

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  1. For a more extreme use of the exclusion layer technique I like to use a lighter colour, blue often looks good, then add a layer mask. With a soft, low opacity brush paint out the exclusion layer on the subject, the face body for instance.

    Another low contrast technique is using a curves adjustment layer (or curves in Camera RAW). First raise the black point so the the blacks become dark grey. Then, optionally, add a couple of points to the curve line to shape it into a faint ‘S’ to up the contrast slightly in the rest of the image.