View Full Version : Soft focus lenses

Mike Lopez
6-Dec-2004, 09:26
With the arrival of winter, the weather is restricting me somewhat from photographing my usual subject matter. So I'm starting a series of still-lifes (still-lives?) in my living room instead. For this project, I think I would like some soft, diffused effects. I've made a few negatives with my 180mm lens wide open, but I'm interested in what the images might look like with a soft focus lens, as well. Does anybody out there have any links to images shot with modern soft focus designs? Or do you have any images you could post here or even email to me? In particular, I know that Fuji still makes a couple of these lenses, so if anyone has any information or examples of pictures from these lenses, that would be most helpful. Thanks a lot.


Jon Shiu
6-Dec-2004, 09:58
Was wondering what would happen if you take the front lens element off and just shoot with the back one?

steve simmons
6-Dec-2004, 09:59
Cooke has a new soft focus lens.It isconsidered a little pricey but if you want to see an article about it go to

www.viewcamera.com and then to the Free Articles section.

steve simmons

Jim Rhoades
6-Dec-2004, 10:21
From the vast sums of money I've spent on equipment over the years I cannot really be called cheap. But; Vaseline smeared on the cheapest off-brand UV filter you can find works. So does white nylon, black nylon, window screen and anything else you can think of. Given that, why spend $2,900. on a Cooke lens? Or for that matter the rather high asking prices for the older soft lenses going on e-bay now?

If you could find an old Kodak or Wollensak portrait lens going for what they are really worth I could understand. The price on these lenses have skyrocketed since Cooke came out with their lens.

There, now you can call me cheap.

Gem Singer
6-Dec-2004, 11:42
Hi Mike,

I use Tiffen Soft-FX filters and the results are excellent. Unfortunately, I do not own a scanner, so I cannot send any images your way. Tiffen makes this type of filter in five strengths. From mildly soft, to extremely soft. Some sizes and strengths are also available with warming for color film. They are relatively inexpensive. IMHO, they work better than most other diffusing filters or methods of softening images.

Bruce Watson
6-Dec-2004, 12:36

I'm sure that I can't explain it, but from what I've seen, the Cooke lens offers something I've not seen with other techniques. That is, the image is still sharply focused, but somehow rounded and smoothed. I don't know what it is or how it's done, but it looks distinctly different than a diffusion filter of some sort. And that would be why people pay the money I suppose.

6-Dec-2004, 14:20
The simple explanation for the function of most soft-focus lenses is that they are built with intentional spherical aberration. This means that the focal length effectively varies as a function of position from the center of the lens outward to the edge.

When the lens is focused, the center region of the lens forms an image that is sharp over the whole field of coverage; depth-of-field plays the same role that it usually does, depending on f/stop, distance, and so on. But any region that is away from the center of the lens also forms an image that covers the whole field, just defocused to some degree because the lens/film distance is set by the focal length of the lens center.

The actual exposure can be though of as the addition of an infinite number of images, all (except for one!) defocused to an extent that depends on where the light passed through the lens. Stopping down the lens eliminates the contributions from outer areas of the lens, and lets a true soft-focus design (an Imagon, Veritar, or , probably, Cooke) function as a "normal" (if slow) lens. This is why the odd-looking aperture rings with the arrays of holes are used with the Imagon: the same exposure can be made with most of the light coming through the center, or with some of the center contribution replaced by light admitted by the peripheral holes. The more light that comes through the periphery, of course, the softer the image, which in all cases still has a fully sharp component as well.

Diffusing the image by means of gauze, grease, or a scratched filter does not create quite the same effect, probably because of parallax: with a sof-focus lens, the light that formed the sharpest "base" image is on-axis, while the light that is most defocused passed through the lens some distance from the center and represents a slightly different viewpoint and perspective.

With respect to the original subject of this thread: soft-focus lenses can indeed make lovely still-lifes, just as they can make very appealing portraits. You should expect something of a learning curve, since they require adjustments in composition technique, focusing and processing, but in my opinion at least it is worth the effort.

David A. Goldfarb
6-Dec-2004, 14:26
Good soft focus lenses are unlike diffusion screens, vaseline, and the like. The closest thing that I've seen in a lens attachment that resembles a real soft focus lens is a Softar #1.

Modern alternatives would be the Imagon, Cooke, and there was a Fujinon SF lens recently in production, but why limit yourself to modern alternatives? Each soft focus lens has its own distinctive look, and there are many more older ones than new ones. For the price of the Cooke, I'd take a 14-1/2 inch Verito and an 8x10" camera and still have plenty of cash left over for film.

Jim Rhoades
6-Dec-2004, 14:50
I am happy to accept the fact that the Cooke gives the most wonderful soft image in the world. If someone has a deep base of portrait or fine art still-life customers and have the write off, they should own one.

I do see a number of lens snobs of this forum that believe that only a Super Cosmic XLCH is able to make a sharp photograph. They have this Leica mindset that if you don't own the latest cutting edge lens you are a second class citizen and low rent photographer.

I would never claim to be a great or even a good photographer. But I will show you my prints. The guys with $10,000. of lenses in their bag only show their lenses.

Gem Singer
6-Dec-2004, 15:11

If you like the results that the Heliopan Zeiss Softar #1 gives, you would love the Tiffen Soft FX series of softening filters. Not only is their effect very similar to the Softars, but they are available in a wider range of softening effects, and they sell for a fraction of the cost of the Heliopans.

John Kasaian
6-Dec-2004, 15:48
I'll agree with Jim Rhoads.

If what you want is an excuse to buy another lens you should be able to find one at a reasonable price. Theres plenty of old ones out there---some very good and some pretty cr*ppy(from my experience, the good ones seem to be on the heavy & big side ymmv.) FWIW the Wollensak 162mm f/4.5 series II velostigmat is relatively small and undervalued. Look for them wherever old Speed Graphics go to die---you should still be able to get one in a working shutter for under $100.

OTOH, If you just want to experiment, a bit of the Wife's pantyhose stretched over your 180 and held in place with a rubber band works pretty good and is easier to remove than vaseline.

Bruce Watson
6-Dec-2004, 16:14

I'm with you. I don't own a Cooke, or any other soft focus lens. I think they are interesting, but I've never even used one. But... you asked why someone would buy one, and I gave you a possible reason. Me, I can buy a lot of film for the cost of a Cooke....

Dean Lastoria
6-Dec-2004, 16:43
I don't know about the Cooke, but I have 2 Veritos and they are amazing. I tried the smudge, nail-polish on a filter, and mesh -- it's not the same animal at all. One is fuzzy, and the other has an unspecified depth that I couldn't describe. I can't believe how they have changed -- the first one cost $50.00, the next was a deal at $250.00 -- now I'd never afford one. I only contact print the soft negs -- enlargements aren't satisfactory.

In a turn of the century article, one suggestion to mimic a soft-focus lens was to focus on the subject, take a 1/4 exposure wide open, then rack out, another 1/4, rack out another 1/4 then rack out 1/4 -- you get the idea. That way there are 4 points of focus -- not infinite, but not a fuzzy smudge either. I never had the patience or a sturdy enough tri-pod for that many exposures.


Ralph Barker
6-Dec-2004, 18:37
There was a previous discussion here about the Verito lenses, and Will Whitaker provided this link to a page on his site with examples of a Verito at various apertures:

http://wfwhitaker.com/verito.htm (http://wfwhitaker.com/verito.htm)

I did a little experiment a while back using 1/4" bubble wrap as a diffuser on a 150mm APO Symmar, with a hole cut out in the middle. Here's a scan of a 4x5 Polaroid:


Nothing like the images from a Verito, but potentially interesting.

Ernest Purdum
6-Dec-2004, 18:47
Dean, there was a means of automating the lprocedure you describe. In 1867, Claudet supplied a lens with a built-on gadget that madly twiddled an element separation control during the exposure. The amount of twiddling could be pre-set.

Mike's original request was for images he could look at. I know of a book full of them "Professional Portrait Lightings" edited by Abel. It was published just after WWII. In it about 100 studio photographers provide images and discuss their methods. Nearly all list the lens they used, more often soft-focus than not. Unfortunately, few mention the aperture. When they do, it's usually to say wide open. Two were using Darlot lenses that had no aperture control. They were either really ancient lenses from before Waterhouse slots, or, more likely perhaps, projection lenses. Now there's an interesting possibility for low cost experimentation. Projection lenses are still going cheap. They are ordinarily Petzvals.

Since the images in the book are photolithograph prints, they can't fully illustrate the subtleties of the photo images, but I think scanned and emailed images are even worse in this respect. I got my copy via www.abebooks.com at very modest price.

Mark Sawyer
6-Dec-2004, 23:23
Wow, $2,900 for a soft-focus Cooke lens... well, I guess it can make plain women seem beautiful, and an ugly world, romantic. But $2,900 for a lens with the same optical qualities as beer-goggles? Guess it produces the same results...

Brian Ellis
7-Dec-2004, 08:14
I've used the Nikon soft focus attachment with 35mm and it works very well. I also use it under my enlarger (or did when I still worked in the fume room). Under the enlarger it gives the opposite effect from on camera (shadows blend into highlights in one, highlights into shadows the other way or something like that, I can never remember which is which). The nice thing about using it under the enlarger is that you can vary the degree of the soft effect by exposing with and without the filter for varying amounts of time. When you use it on camera you're stuck with whatever the negative shows.

I'm not knowledgeable about the techniques achieved with a soft focus lens vis a vis vaseline et al but my understanding is that vaseline and similar things like nylon stockings just create a blurred image. A soft focus lens, or a soft focus filter such as the Nikon or Softar I would think, have portions in focus and portions out of focus with varying degrees of each. Hard to explain, probably because I don't understand it very well myself. I just know that photographs made with the Nikon attachment look much different than my (too many) overall blurred images.

Jonathan Brewer
7-Dec-2004, 11:30
Wow, $2,900 for a soft-focus Cooke lens... well, I guess it can make plain women seem beautiful, and an ugly world, romantic. But $2,900 for a lens with the same optical qualities as beer-goggles? Guess it produces the same results............................................................This was essentially my reaction after hearing the annoucement of the price of this lens, I just don't think this sums up what I've come to learn about this lens.

Clean and crisp and sometimes w/a indescribable sheen/glow/texture as opposed to fuzzy/mush/greasy/submerged under a dense fog, points you in the direction of what this lens can do. I investigated the performance of this lens by checking out what masters like Alvin Langdon Coburn did with the Pinkham Smiths, that includes portraiture and landscape, seeing the best utilize the father of this lens gave me an idea of what it's capable of in the right hands.

The idea of this lens, or vaseline smeared on a filter, black toule netting, Softars, softnets, the old style tiffen diffusion filters which duplicate the idea of vaseline smeared on a filter, womens stocking, any of this stuff is a small fraction of what goes into softening/muting an image. The lighting ratio used is going to affect the image, distance is also a function of diffusion, diffusion which is too much at one distance is not enough at another, one stop is way too much, one is way too little, also I think diffusion tends to work a lot more effectively with profile lighting/sidelighting/rimlighting as opposed to frontal lighting although this is somewhat of a stretch, playing around with all the variables until you've gotten everything just right creates a 'sweet spot' where everything comes together, with a final effect that was the result of no one particular thing that creates what I saw in what some folks were able to do w/the Pinkham Smith.

I guess what I'm saying is that slapping on a certain filter or lens isn't the whole story, there are several other variables involved,...........................not a lot of work has been done w/the PS 945, my understanding is that there are around 50 that've been purchased, but you can check out plenty of work done w/the Pinkham Smith Visual Quality IV, and I think that's a better indicator of what the lens is all about, the entry price is VERY STEEP, agreed, as it is w/an Ebony, a Linhof, a Leica MP, ....................I like this lens because of the idea of its prestation of texture and patina.

The idea of paying $2,500 for a Leica MP is ridiculous TOO ME, BUT NOT for some other folks, I can understand why they want what they want, same thing w/this lens, it's worth every penny to some folks, and too much money to others.

Checking out some the masterworks done with the Pinham Smith Visual Quality IV will underscore the fact that the effect of the lens can be very different than smearing vaseline on a filter to achieve soft focus, ironically this isn't just a soft focus lens, it's more of a portrait lens that can transmit imagery through a distinct veil of 'smoothness', check out some of the work done w/the Pinkham Smiths.

Ole Tjugen
7-Dec-2004, 14:57
The classic Voigtlander Universal Heliar is one of those lenses with adjustable softness through a movable lens group - in that case the central element AFAIK. Even a "normal" Heliar is ultra-smooth - I can only imagine what a Universal would be like.