Strong Focus for Killer Portraits

Learn how to use Photoshop to fix portrait photos with a distracting background. This effect is easy enough for the beginner but works exceptionally well. Many professional stock photographers use this technique to enhance their portrait photos and increase their sales. Find out how you can make your portrait photos look better with this fast Photoshop tutorial.

Sample PSD (Photoshop Document)

One of the most important element of good portrait photography is the background. The background is also the most common mistake with portrait photography. Good lighting, pose, and focus can contribute to good portrait photography, but a distracting background can ruin it all. Chances are that if you shoot portraits, you’ll have several photos with this problem laying around. Follow this Photoshop tutorial to learn how to rescue those photos and make them look amazing.

The distracting background

What a beautiful model, uniform, and pose. But there’s something wrong with it. Looking at the image below, you were probably trying to figure out what the background is. The photo looks like it was taken at some parking lot outside an apartment. How does that have anything to do with the uniform? Actually, this photo was taken at an old barrack.


Step 1

Begin by duplicating the layer. This will create two layers – one for the blurry background and one for the subject. To duplicate a layer, choose Layer > Duplicate. Make sure that you have the new layer, Layer 1, selected.


Step 2

Now we’ll use the Extract filter. This filter makes it easy to cutout something from a photo – in our case, it will be to cutout the model. Choose Filter > Extract to open the Extract tool. To extract, draw a line on the edge of the model. But before we do that, checkmark the Smart Highlighting option. This will snap the brush to the
edge making the process faster and easier.


Outline the model with the brush. You will need to be very precise; if not, the results will be jagged edges.

  • Zoom in about 500% to make sure that you can see the tiny pixels.
  • Use the smallest brush size to make the extraction process more accurate.
  • When you reach the end of the window, hold down the spacebar and your cursor should change to a hand. Click and drag on the picture to move it to another section to continue brushing.

When you’re done, you should have a green online around the model.


Select the fill tool and click inside the green outline to fill. If the entire image turns blue, there’s something wrong with the outline. If it is just the model, then everything is fine.


If your entire image turns blue when you fill, press Ctrl+Z to undo and zoom in on the outline to find the hole. Usually the hole will be where you started or ended the outline. Once you find the hole, switch back to the brush tool and fill in that hole.


Click the preview button and you should get a preview of the extraction.


We’re almost done, but we’ll need to cleanup the edges. Zoom into the edge and switch to the cleanup tool.


Brush around the edges and you should start to see the edges get smoother.


Phew, that was tedious! Well we’re finally done and I promise that you won’t have to do anymore extracting. Everything after this is easy. We’re going to blur the background now. First, select back the background layer. Then, choose Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Adjust the radius to make the background blur. I had to use a very strong blur to make the background unrecognizable.


Now we’re going to increase the focus by adding a vignette. Vignettes are usually frown upon as a flaw with lens, but they can be helpful with enhancing the focus in a photo. To add a vignette, we’ll use the Lens Correction tool. Choose Filter > Distort > Lens Correction. In the Vignette setting, set the amount to -100.


Here’s the before and after of the vignette. Notice how your eye moves around less when looking at the photo with the vignette?


Final outcome and conclusion



Here’s the before and after comparison. The original image had a confusing background and is lacking focus. By adding a strong blur to the background, the image is now a lot easier to focus.

However, this effect should only be used if necessary. That is because this effect doesn’t look real – no camera can create this effect. This effect will look great in a set of photos (ex. wedding package), but only once or twice. Just like photos shot with lensbabies lens, they look interesting the first or second time, but when done for the third time, they’ll look bad.

42 thoughts on “Strong Focus for Killer Portraits”

  1. Great idea. But it’s possible other easy way with select tool, all over the body and then invert the selection to work with backgraund. Then use blur from menu. That is on short. 🙂

  2. Thank you very much for this! In my image I used about a 13% Gaussian Blur. That along with the vignette, made the image look like I actually used a fancy camera =)

    Your instructions were very easy to follow and the results were wonderful.

    Thanks again!

  3. This has all the essentials of a good tutorial: specific, simple, successful and easily modified to suit my own goals. Well done! The “critics” who don’t like the image or the result are missing the point.

  4. Hi, would it be possible for a tutorial to be posted on how to get a background on the photo using the image that has been extracted?

    Im not entirely sure if it is possible but i would love to learn how if it is possible! Im a beginer if you cannot tell!


  5. I find all the coments quite sucky, when there is a good tutorial nobody gives the man a props, but when the tutorial sucks or is bad, you hear people scream like the world is going to it’s last days. I allready saw that 1 person said that it was to blurry, i don’t think its really helpfull if 20 ppl will say it. Bad of the blur, after all a good tutorial i guess!

  6. Dude,

    Nice TUT. I think its great that you are willing to share for the purpose of educating. I will use this .psd and learn from it. Keep up the good work.

  7. You blurred that background way too mutch. Im stilling wondering what that background is just for information.

    50% less blur would been good, just a guess.

  8. No offense, but that psd is a joke since it’s so small. It’s not full res and it’s actually smaller than some of the images in the tutorial html. If you want to give a psd for people to learn from you need to make everything as undo-able as possible IMO. In this case using a layer mask to hide instead of just deleteing the background would be preferable… you can use the extract filter and then use it as a layer mask on another layer. The original background layer should always be left untouched too if you’re going to be using the psd file to teach others.

    1. Thanks for the tips asdf. You are correct that using a layer mask is the proper way to do it.

      I tried to make this tutorial simple because I read a lot of comments on other sites about people complaining how long and complicated the tutorials are. That is why I chose not to use the non-destructive way to write this tutorial. I’ll make my next tutorials non-destructive.

      Regarding the PSD, I cannot make it any bigger because it is a stock photo.

  9. I totally agree, the background is so blurred that you have made the shot look wrong. There is no depth perception and in doing have removed the light source making the woman look blatently cut out and pasted.

    1. Hi avangelist,

      I also prefer the image if it was less-blurred. I thought people like more abstract results because that is what I see on many photography forums. People are always asking how to create effects that do not look natural. I will try to keep the future Photoshop tutorials more natural looking.

  10. You should go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise on the bottom layer. Otherwise, the noise on the background blur and portrait will not match.

    1. Hi Megan,

      Sorry, I cannot post a high-res PSD because it is a stock photo that I do not have permission to distribute in a larger medium.

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