Blurred Lines: More Creative Projects For the “Involuntary” Homebound

Same image with Gaussian blur combined with Motion blur filter.
Gaussian blur combined with Motion blur filter.

Story & photos by F.M. Kearney

At the time of this writing, most of the country is tentatively beginning to open up. Although more and more people are slowly starting to venture out, things are nowhere near normal. Millions, however, are still living under “stay-at-home” restrictions, and only venturing out for essentials – which does not often include outdoor nature photography. It makes for very long days that seem to blur together. That gave me another idea on how to alter existing images. My past couple of articles have dealt with creative ways to pass the time if you’re unable (or unwilling) to spend too much time outside. Last month, I discussed ways to use texture to enhance your images. In this article, I’ll illustrate how the various blur filters in Photoshop can dramatically alter an image (including texture, as well).

The method I use to apply all the filters I’m about to describe are the same. Since their effects are universal, applying them directly to your image will simply result in a blurry image. In order to control the effect, I copy the background layer and apply the filter to that layer. I then add a layer mask and select the brush tool with a black foreground color. This allows me to “paint away” the effect in select areas and reveal the sharp, background layer below. If I remove too much, I can return it by switching the foreground color to white. Hitting “X” on the keyboard is a quick and easy way to toggle between the two. By changing the brush sizes and carefully adjusting the opacity levels, I can completely customize the effect to my liking.

Unaltered chrysanthemum photo on the left and with radial blur filter (zoom method) applied on the right.
Unaltered chrysanthemum on the left and with radial blur filter (zoom method) applied on the right.

One of my favorite filters to play around with is the Radial blur: Filter>Blur>Radial Blur. It offers two different types of blur methods: “zoom” and “spin.” The backlit chrysanthemum (above) is an example of how the zoom method can mimic the effect of zooming a lens during an exposure.

Unaltered photo of Viridflora tulips on the left and radial blur filter (spin method) applied on the right.

The spin method creates a swirling effect. Personally, I don’t find it quite as useful as the zoom method, but it can produce some interesting effects in certain subjects depending on their shape and/or surroundings. In the case of the two Viridiflora tulips (above), their natural “embrace” was accentuated by this effect.

Unaltered photo of triumph tulips at left and motion blur filter applied on the right.
Unaltered triumph tulips at left and motion blur filter applied on the right.

Another fun filter is the Motion blur: Filter>Blur>Motion blur. Usually applied to a large stand of trees to emphasize their vertical lines, I used it here to convey a similar effect to the stems of the triumph tulips above.

Back in the days of film, I used to routinely shoot soft focus images in-camera. My method of choice was a double exposure technique, whereby, one exposure was shot in focus and the other was out of focus. The resulting image exhibited a soft, halo-like glow.

Photo of roses using in-camera double exposure blur
In-camera double exposure blur.

The photo above is a typical example of this technique. Since it was shot on film, I don’t have a record of the exact camera settings. However, I would usually shoot the sharp version at f/16 or f/11, then, slightly de-focus the lens and open up all the way for the second image in order to create the soft “glow.”

Gaussian blur filter
Gaussian blur filter

The digital age has made things a lot easier. No matter what I did in-camera, I was never able to obtain the softness you see in the image above. This effect is achieved by my favorite (and most versatile) filter, the Gaussian blur: Filter>Blur>Gaussian blur. The difference between the two methods is striking. The filter imparts a much “dreamier” rendition of the scene. Also, since the effect is customizable, it’s an infinitely better technique than the in-camera method.

Another limitation of the in-camera technique are the long focal lengths and large apertures needed to achieve the soft-focus appearance. I shot the roses at 200mm with an extension tube. That works fine for floral close-ups, but what if you’re shooting a landscape with a wide-angle lens and using a small aperture? Simply de-focusing the lens will merely produce a ghost image – appearing as though you accidentally bumped the camera during the exposure. Once again, it’s the Gaussian blur filter that comes to the rescue. The photos below are a before and after view of how this filter can add a soft, ethereal glow to a landscape image.

Original image  of a pond in the woods during fall was shot at f/16 at 24mm on the left and with  Gaussian blur filter applied on the right.
Original image (f/16 at 24mm) on the left and with Gaussian blur filter applied on the right.

Using the Gaussian blur filter in this application is a bit more involved. As usual, I copied the background layer, but instead of going straight to the Gaussian blur filter, I added a Levels layer and lightened the copy layer. I then highlighted the background layer and applied the Gaussian blur at a modest radius amount of about 20 pixels. After ensuring my opacity was at 100%, I selected “Multiply” as my blending mode. This considerably saturated and darkened the image. I then went back to the Levels layer and adjusted the slider to a proper exposure. Lastly, I fine-tuned the color using a variety of editing tools.

Sometimes, multiple filter effects can be applied to a single image. Below is the same forest scene with the Gaussian blur and Motion blur filters applied.

Gaussian blur combined with Motion blur filter.

Combining different filters is one thing, but if you really want to up the creativity level, try combining different effects. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned how the blur filters can also alter texture effects. Adding texture is a great way to add a creative touch to any photo. I added a texture effect to the yellow shrub rose below (left). I liked it, but I felt the look was a little “rough-looking.” I’ve always felt that gritty types of textures were better suited to urban scenes. To enhance the delicacy of flowers, I prefer something a bit softer. Having tried a number of effects without much success, I returned, once again, to the Gaussian blur. It transformed the grainy texture into a colorful, misty fog. Of course, this all comes down to personal preference. There’s nothing wrong a gritty look with flowers. The filter simply gives you more options to explore.

Texture effect applied to a shrub rose (left) and texture effect altered by Gaussian blur filter on the right.
Texture effect applied to a shrub rose (left) and texture effect altered by Gaussian blur filter on the right.

There are a number of other blur filters within Photoshop, but these are the ones I find to be the most useful. Don’t worry if you’re not too familiar using the brush tool and manipulating its opacity levels. You really can’t make any mistakes because it’s all based on your own creative vision and every action can be easily undone. It’s not good when your days begin to blur together, but adding a creative blur to your images can be a fun way to brighten these dark times.

Stay safe!

F. M. Kearney began his photography career as a photojournalist for New York City newspapers. His focus soon shifted to capturing the beauty of the natural world. As an award-winning nature photographer, Kearney’s images have been widely published. A slight  departure from photography, his recently published horror novel, “They Only Come Out at Night,” about supernatural happenings in the New York City subway (partially inspired by his travels as a photojournalist), is available on Amazon. To see more of Kearney’s work, visit http://www.starlitecollection.com.