Here is a tip for a quick, cheap soft focus filter that also recycles stockings. The next time someone in your life goes to throw out a pair of nylon stockings or pantyhose, grab them and put them to a second life in your photography.
No, I am not talking about anything weird. I am talking about using a small piece of nylon stretched over the front of the camera lens as a softening filter. Cut out a small 10 to 12 cm square ( about 5×5 inches) of the nylon material and stretch it over the opening of your lens, fixing it in place with a rubber band. Make sure the nylon is flat and smoothed.
The effect is to reduce the overall sharpness of the image, but the colour used can also influence the quality of the highlights or shadows. Black nylons will smudge the shadows while white nylons will smudge the highlights. Different coloured nylons, like brown, will add a colour cast to the image as well.
I asked my wife if she had any old nylon stockings that she was going to throw out. After she was finished giving me a strange look, I explained what I wanted them for and she gave me some, thus saving me the embarrassment of running to the department store to buy new ones.
My wife gave me a pair of black nylon pantyhose and white ones (there is a sentence I NEVER thought I would find myself writing). I promptly cut them up and affixed one of the squares of white nylon to the front of my camera lens and began experimenting.
Being a nurse, the white stockings supplied by my wife were thick support hose. While I could see (barely) through the lens using them, focussing was difficult and the image was very milky looking; not the effect I was going for. Don’t use nursey support hose for this. Go for shear, sexy stuff. (Another sentence that I never thought would be in this blog)
The second pair of black, evening stockings supplied by my wife were much more shear and delicate and easier to see through (I can see why they might be the choice of bank robbers for masks). Focusing was easy and the images were pleasantly softened.
In this first test image I have lit the only volunteer I could locate, this decorative thingy in my office, with a strip light, and exposed it using TTL with +1ev on the flash. ISO was 200, and the camera was set on Manual, 1/250 s, f 6.7 with Auto White Balance. I selected this subject in order to produce an image with some distinct shadow development and abrupt contrasts. The strip light is not a particularly flattering light for a portrait by itself, but it serves the purpose for our little experiment.
Next I pulled the shear, black nylon over the front of my camera lens and secured it with a rubber band. All of the camera settings remained the same while I made the second photograph. Note how much softer the shadows are and how creamy looking the shadows on the sticks coming out of the top of the thingy are (anyone know what the hell to call this thing?). The only processing done to either of these images was basic RAW conversion in Aperture 3.2.2. The nylon filtered version had fewer white highlights, so I pulled the high exposure slider in to the left a small amount.
I really like the effect and intend to use it in future portrait sessions, particularly when I am forced to use a smaller light source than I would normally like. I suppose this same effect is achievable in post processing, but I think it is cool to be able to do it so quickly, cheaply and effectively in the camera.
Now if you will excuse me, I have to go buy some replacement stockings for my wife.