Create a realistic portrait with depth of field (DOF) and a classic portrait look


Estimated time: 30 minutes

In this tutorial, you’ll learn to assess and crop a group photo down to a portrait, adjust lighting (color and emphasis), add a pleasing bokeh and reduce scene noise. Along the way, you’ll see how I experiment with, and discard, alternative ways to attain the look that best serves the image.
My goal was to produce a very realistic, almost “classic” portrait that overcomes one of the shortcomings of point-and-click cameras like the iPhone – the lack of true depth of field. I also wanted it to have the rich tone that a portrait studio might give its work and isn’t as uncompromising as real-world light. The original picture was shot in a local Southern California Starbucks last weekend. A young couple and their two children were sitting across from me. We began talking and I explained a bit about my background – and a bit later asked if I take a photograph or two of their daughter as she jumped from chair to chair. I told them I’d email a copy to them, and they agreed.
The young girl had a natural beauty about her that was captivating, but the surroundings were very distracting and she moved constantly. After taking a number of shots, I settled on one that I felt had the most promise, but it still had too many elements in it. So I set about properly cropping it and minimizing the clutter of the background. The Japanese have a great word for this technique of eliminating the background (easily created using professional cameras) – bokeh, or pleasing blur. Most people don’t consciously think about it, but an image that makes good use of this technique can look very professional, draw the eye to the subject, and more powerfully convey its message than one that allows all elements in an image to be equally in focus.
Creating a piece you’re happy with is as much about what you choose not to do as what you actually do. Some images that I very deliberately shoot I think have promise, but I can never make them “work” – so even though I may spend several hours on them, I never show them to anyone. Others, sometimes more spontaneously taken, seem to come together using a particular style and approach that works organically with the subject. So, the reality is, I discard far more images than I use, and generally there are three or four versions of the final image that never see the light of day. Hardly anyone creates great images every time. The really great photographers (and painters, for that matter) create that impression by only showing those images they are proud of – and implying that the others don’t exist. For photographers, another important goal is to crop “until it hurts” – in other words, crop the image to the least necessary area of attention, while still maintaining proper balance to the image.
To accomplish my vision for the image, I used Photogene2 (for cropping, minor color correction and light vignetting), DXP (for compositing background layers and various versions of the image) and BlurFX (to create the pleasingly blurred background). I also used FlickStackr to locate and download a texture (that I ultimately decided not to use) and PhotoWizard to give it a Gaussian blur (to hide the jpeg noise in the original). I also experimented with different lighting and color schemes using Pixlromatic and with classic photographic lighting approaches using PhotoCopier. Finally, I used NoiseMaster to remove jpeg noise that was in the original image and added during the editing process.
Here is the original full-frame image as captured by the iPhone camera app. As you can see, there are a jumble of elements in the scene, and the eye doesn’t really know where to go – not to mention my feet obscure part of the scene:


Step 1 – Crop image, adjust dynamic range and add vignette

I love Photogene2 as my primary editor for several reasons. Its file manager/finder has bigger images than the stock version so that you can see details, and it also saves a very of the initial copy of the image that you worked with in your first session so that you can undo your original decisions. Don’t be alarmed that your original image is overwritten – the icon for it just show the last edits you made, with “undo” buttons prominently displayed. Your original image is fine if you view your film roll from the iPhone interface.

The other reason I like it is that the tools are similar to and presented in much the same way as Photoshop, which I know pretty well. If you’re familiar with Photoshop Elements, you’ll appreciate the approach that Photogene2 takes.
Using Photogene2, I cropped the image, warmed the tone using one of the presets:

adjusted curves (the balance of light and shadow) and lighting using the histogram:


 Step 2 – Create a smooth and pleasing background to draw the eye to the subject

Using BlurFX, I blurred the entire picture using a mid-range blur setting, then carefully “painted” the girl back into focus. Using two fingers to move or zoom in on the image, you can then use a single finger to either refocus or selectively defocus areas of the image as needed:



As I worked closely on her face to make sure the line of focus between the background and her cheek was as close to perfect as I could make it, I realized that there was a fair amount of jpeg noise (the alternating and occasionally out of place dots on her chin) that needed to be eliminated.

Step 3 – Remove as much noise from the image as possible

All noise removal programs blur the image somewhat (except for the most sophisticated third party Photoshop plug-ins). Programs on the iPhone are no exception, but instead of using the noise reduction controls in Photogene2 or PhotoWizard, I use a standalone program called NoiseMaster, because it allows you to interactively remove noise and adjust the setting – and that’s all it does:

Step 4 – Using various programs and settings, determine what looks works the best

This is highly subjective step, and to give you an idea of how much gets thrown away during this process, here are several creative directions I explored and then abandoned as too contrived, overly grunged or just plain silly:
One of my favorite programs to experiment with lighting and color schemes is Pixlromatic. Here are some studies using that program:


And another using VintageScene:


I even tried blurring a background texture and using DXP to layer them using different blend modes – none of these seemed satisfactory:



My final choice was really pretty straightforward – the original image, with only the initial warming treatment, worked best in my view:


Thanks for following along! If you’re interested in seeing more of my work, you can visit my Flickr photostream




— Bob


Bob Weil

Bob is the co-author of The Art of iPhone Photography (with Nicki Fitz-Gerald), published by Rocky Nook photography books and supports Nicki in managing iPhoneography Central and the associated Flickr group.